When he retired from the NFL in 2007 at age 35, quarterback Drew Bledsoe knew he wasn’t going to be one of those guys who sits at home, twiddling his thumbs or playing golf.
He’s not even that good at golf, he says.
Instead, he decided to go home and go big. He returned to Walla Walla, where he grew up, and started his own winery, Doubleback, which turned out a cabernet sauvignon that landed on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in its very first year.
“It’s a great privilege to come back home after having a lot of success in another profession,” the former Washington State University standout said Thursday while in town to speak to the Downtown Yakima Rotary, whose ranks swelled with a few dozen guests for the occasion.
While he was off playing for the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, Walla Walla’s wine industry exploded: “It’s a lot cooler than it was when I was growing up, and all we had were onions and a penitentiary and a funny name.”
Doubleback is so named, he said, because he grew up in Walla Walla, went off to play football, then doubled back and came home.
His father, Mac Bledsoe, who moved to Yakima to teach school and coach football after his son graduated from high school, helped introduce him at the Rotary launch, becoming emotional when he recalled Drew’s commitment to help his parents start their line of books and teaching materials, “Parenting with Dignity.” In his first season with the New England Patriots, Drew gave his parents $1 million to kickstart the company.
“It would have been absolutely meaningless for us to talk to people about raising fine kids if this guy’d been a jerk,” Mac said of his son.
Speaking to the Rotarians, the younger Bledsoe said he felt he really ought to be sitting and listening to the members gathered there instead, learning from their business experience.
He regaled the audience with a few locker-room stories from his NFL days, including the time when, upon overhearing him discussing the NFL’s 401(k) options, a teammate came up and said, “Man, I don’t care what they pay me; I ain’t running no 401(k).”
But most of his talk was focused on the lessons learned as a quarterback that now apply to running his business. In football, he said, he encountered men from wildly different backgrounds, and had to find the right way to motivate each of them.
“Leading that diverse group was quite a challenge sometimes, but it did teach me to understand as a business owner and board member ... There are different things different people need from a leader,” he said.
Extensive planning over the course of a year and the ability to think on his feet and adapt to unexpected changes are other skills he considers invaluable in his current venture, he said.
His winery is “laser-focused” on producing one wine each year — the cabernet sauvignon goes for about $90 a bottle — though for members of his winery’s club, he’ll have a few more options available this year. He enjoys the closeness he gets to have with his customers because of the size of Doubleback.
“We’re small enough that ... well over half the people that buy our wine, I’ve actually met personally,” he said. “It’s a competitive industry, and any advantage you can have, you’ve got to take it.”