Will Blackmon lost count of how many glasses of wine he consumed that November night in Minneapolis long ago, but he remembers that the name of the restaurant, a steakhouse downtown, was Seven.
It was 2008, his third season in the NFL, and Blackmon, then a cornerback and return man with the Packers, was in town to play the Minnesota Vikings. Kickoff was slated for noon the next day, so the Saturday evening activities commenced with dinner among his fellow defensive backs. Charles Woodson, Nick Collins and Tramon Williams were all in attendance around the table. One glass led to another, and dinner led to a walk upstairs to a club, where wine continued to flow.
By the time the quartet retired to the team’s hotel, Blackmon’s eyes were glassy but he felt coherent. He awoke the next morning “feeling like garbage,” and considered his rejuvenation options, like an IV, Red Bull or pre-game workout.
But at the stadium, his partners in wine looked no worse for the wear. First, Woodson picked off a pass. Then, Williams poached one. Collins took back an interception 59 yards for a touchdown. Finally, Blackmon returned a punt 65 yards for a score.
“It’s the craziest thing,” he says. “All four of us played super well that day. Since that day, I didn’t get wasted, but I would have a glass or two while studying my game plan, watch the Saturday night games before bed.”
Blackmon, 35, went on to win a Super Bowl with the Giants in 2012, and now, after a dozen seasons split among six teams, he is a certified sommelier. An entrepreneur in transition, he brands himself as The Wine MVP, keeps a tasting journal and explores all angles of winemaking, from soil to sales, amid the coronavirus lockdowns. His business is twofold. One end is as a private concierge, which involves him curating wines for clients, and the other is a subscription service that includes him picking two wines from known brands and shipping them to customers for $79.99 per month. His client and collaboration lists reach back to the sports world, ranging from Reggie Bush to Dwyane Wade, and his bona fides include academic study at Sonoma State University’s wine business program, as well as a Level 1 certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. To branch out beyond the vine, Blackmon, a partner in J3 Jet, is exploring opportunities in private aviation as well. He is currently awaiting word on a bid to build a second fixed-base operation at Napa County Airport.
“I just want to be one of the main guys in the world that people can look to for wine,” he says. “It has been wild, man. I’m so immersed, so obsessed.”
He identifies neither a collector nor an investor. He buys to try, and whatever wine he gains access to he will drink it that year. He does not have a cellar, but space is becoming short in his Southern California house, where he lives with his wife, Shauna, and two children, Ryder and Jade. Recently, he took measure of his operation and spoke with a company that builds storage units.
“So we might figure something out,” he says. “Might build a wine wall that will hold 300 bottles.”
Blackmon learned to appreciate vintage while growing up in Cranston, R.I. His father, Wayne, a corrections officer, slid VHS tapes of NFL Films into the family’s VCR, and Will focused on Barry Sanders, the Detroit Lions tailback. Slow-motion footage, John Facenda’s narration and Sam Spence’s score captured his imagination, and Blackmon set out to mimic the elusive Lion’s start-and-stop style. Speed was never an issue. At Bishop Hendricken High, where he was a U.S. Army All-American, Blackmon won the state title in the 100-meter sprint in 10.87 seconds. At Boston College, he was a dynamic blend as he returned one kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, picked off seven passes as a cornerback and totaled 763 receiving yards at wideout his senior year. His roommate was Mathias Kiwanuka, a hybrid defender who kept a six-bottle wine rack in their Gabelli Hall suite. When the Packers selected the 6’1”, 198-pound Blackmon in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Kurt Schottenheimer, then the Packers’ secondary coach, noted the team was looking for a “big, strong and athletic” defender in Woodson’s mold.
“Will fits that bill,” Schottenheimer said.
It was a serendipitous pairing. During eight seasons as a Raider, Woodson developed an affinity for wine during training camps in Napa Valley. The connection between wine and people intrigued him, and in 2008 Woodson introduced TwentyFour by Charles Woodson, a Napa wine label. In addition to studying Woodson’s backpedal, Blackmon observed the veteran’s business acumen.
“I didn’t think there were guys like us, professional athletes, African American guys, all of the above, that were in business like that,” he says. “And he was somebody that I looked up to for a long time, even his days at Michigan.”
Blackmon excelled at identifying paths forward and pouncing on opportunities. In one 2007 game, he returned a punt for a touchdown and recovered a muffed punt in the end zone. He took the field in all 16 contests the next season, returned two punts for scores, led the squad in special teams tackles and impressed at nickel corner.
But his progression was repeatedly disrupted by injuries. As a Packer, he suffered a broken right foot (twice), a cracked rib, a fractured thumb and a bruised quad. On a Monday night in Week 4 of the 2009 season, he was carted off the field in Minnesota after his left leg planted awkwardly in the Metrodome turf. It was a torn ACL. He rehabilitated, but was released by the Packers and given an injury settlement before the 2010 season opener. Signed by the Giants that October, he managed to play five games before landing on the injured reserve list with knee issues, only to return to the team in November 2011 when the secondary was depleted by injuries. Three months later, he collected a Super Bowl ring when the Giants beat the Patriots in Indianapolis.
It was a peripatetic existence thereon. He did not play in the NFL the next season, and then signed with the Arizona Rattlers in the Arena League. He never suited up for them because the Seahawks brought him back to the NFL. Twice he signed with the Seahawks, but never played a regular-season game for them. Still, he kept in shape and made an impact when on the field. In 2013, the Jaguars were 0–8 but led 22–20 with 3:13 left in regulation in a game against the Titans. Blackmon blitzed off the left edge, stripped the ball from Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown to secure the Jaguars’ first win. When Washington signed Blackmon, in Week 2 of 2015, coach Jay Gruden considered Blackmon “a quality person” and “a jack of all trades.” His value was his versatility, and he shifted to safety in 2016 after posting career bests in starts (10), tackles (49), forced fumbles (3), interceptions (2) and fumble recoveries (2). He also rounded out his career injury list with a fractured thumb and his first documented concussion.
To unwind, he watched “Somm,” a 2012 documentary that chronicled four candidates’ efforts to pass the Master Sommelier examination. Intrigued by the process, he asked around about local winemakers and cold-called Doug Fabbioli, the proprietor of Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg, Va. Known as the godfather of Loudoun County wine, Fabbioli welcomed Blackmon to see firsthand what went into winemaking. Three or four afternoons, following offseason training activities, Blackmon slipped off his cleats and pulled on boots before reporting to Fabbioli’s farm, where he sorted vines and worked in the barrel room. To gain exposure to retail, Blackmon made regular stops at Ashburn Wine Shop, where he spent hours talking about wine with Sergio Mendes, the owner.
“I would give him a nugget and he would come back with well thought-out questions that showed me he knew what the hell he was doing,” Fabbioli says. “Nothing says we can’t be experts in a few different fields. I always go back to Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. Yeah, they were farmers … and everything else, as well, generals and statesmen. Will and I would talk about what his spot might be in the industry.”
Two years ago, after playing one game with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL, during which he collected four tackles and forced a fumble, Blackmon retired. He worked in broadcasting with the NFL Network and Fox Sports, trained prospects for the draft and considered working in either a front office or on the sideline as a coach. But just as he had fallen for football’s history as a youth, he found himself studying grape varieties and regional maps, widening his palate as his football options narrowed. He was taken with tales of war and how wine flowed through history. Under the instruction of master sommeliers Michael Jordan and Josh Orr, he earned his Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 2 certification.
The market for former athletes involved with the wine industry was concentrated already. It wasn’t just Woodson who made fermented grape juice his post-retirement pursuit. Former quarterback Drew Bledsoe lived on a vineyard in Walla Walla, Wash., Wayne Gretzky boasted a variety of wines in his No. 99 collection, and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon owned a cellar. Initially, Blackmon thought about starting his own label, but he moved that goal to the back burner. He started to mix wine comments with football analysis in his posts on Twitter, but fans pushed back. To pivot, he created a separate handle, @NFLWineGuy, and quickly accrued more than a thousand followers. He also started visiting The Wine Exchange, a shop in Santa Ana, Calif., and after collaborative talks with co-owners Tristen Beamon and Kyle Meyer, Blackmon leaned into the counselor role he had developed among athletes. They envisioned Blackmon becoming the athlete version of Christian Navarro, a wine concierge to celebrities. Interested in all the niceties of wine, his niche could be in educating others and making wine accessible.
If he wanted to keep the NFL Wine Guy title, though, he learned there would likely to be licensing issues with the league down the road. He changed to The Wine MVP, and that is now the name of his subscription business. Each month, he picks two wines from known brands, sources them from The Wine Shop, boxes them and ships them to paying subscribers. Over the summer, Wade reached out about including the new cabernet and rosé from his company, D Wade Cellars, in Blackmon’s boxes, and they were part of the September box.
Blackmon, who was recently named to Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 list, planned to visit vineyards and wineries around the world in 2020, but all of that is on hold due to the coronavirus. To sate his thirst, he brought his family to Daou Vineyards in Paso Robles, Calif. They spent time with Daniel Daou, one of the brothers who own the estate. Blackmon favored the 2017 Soul of the Lion, a Bordeaux blend.
Of late, he has helped locked-down athletes take stock of their cellars. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan used to throw passes to Blackmon in college, but now the two talk wine. Blackmon considers Ryan, a former NFL MVP who has a large collection, “pretty seasoned.” Ryan explained that while he had plenty of Old World wine from Europe, he wanted to supplement it with some New World vintages from South America and the United States.
Some customers do not care about the vintage.
“Reggie Bush, he’s just like, ‘Here’s my budget, and just give me some cool stuff,’” Blackmon says. “It all depends on the person.”
On a recent Tuesday, Blackmon hosted a virtual tasting from his home office in Southern California. His guests were Jean-Sebastien Philippe, the director of international sales at Chateau Lafite, a Bordeaux winery that has been around for more than a century, and Louis Caillard, the vineyard manager. They ambled through a hillside section on their side of the split screen while Blackmon drank first from a mug of coffee, then a bottle of water and finally a glass of Lafite’s 2001 vintage. All three raised a glass to their cameras.
“This is my breakfast, by the way,” Blackmon said.
“What time is it by you?” Caillard said.
“It’s 8 a.m.,” Blackmon said.
It was 5 p.m. in Bordeaux.
“That’s a good breakfast,” Caillard said.
“What a breakfast for you!” Philippe said.
Blackmon wore black thick-frame glasses and a white T-shirt emblazoned with the image of President John F. Kennedy in dark shades and smoking a cigar. His background featured 19 game balls from his professional career, as well as a Super Bowl championship hat from his Giants tenure. They discussed the 2020 harvest, which had just concluded, and Caillard caught Blackmon up on what to expect.
“We did the harvest pretty much without rain so that is a really good sign of a beautiful year,” Caillard said. “The mellow is looking amazing.”
Blackmon asked how the warm and dry summer affected the process.
“The vine likes to suffer,” Caillard said. “It needs to suffer, concentrate the berries. The maturation was quite nice and it started very early.”
“The wine has to earn its structure by being stressed out, right?” Blackmon said. “You have to earn beauty!”
“Exactly,” Caillard said.
Before the 30-minute conversation concluded, Blackmon told Philippe to share his phone number with Caillard. He expressed interest in visiting with his family and others when coronavirus restrictions were lifted. After the Frenchmen departed the call, Blackmon believed he had found another branding opportunity.
“Bordeaux for breakfast,” he said. “That should be my new thing.”