Let’s get this out of the way: The title was intended to be provocative. And while I’m about to make the case, at least sort of, that the Eagles are the team we should all support tonight, you can cheer for anyone you want and I obviously have no right to determine who gets to be a “true” lover of wine anyway. I’m a Chiefs fan for God’s sake. I clearly don’t know anything at all. Please spare me your hate mail. All that being said…
This season started out looking so promising for me; my Chiefs went into Foxborough, where the Patriots play, and beat them by two scores in the NFL season opener. Five weeks later we were the only undefeated team left in the NFL while the Patriots and other teams seemed to be struggling to find their identity. Cue ominous cello music. Five weeks after that, we were on a 1-4 skid, having lost to the Giants and other lackluster teams. Shortly thereafter, we appeared to recover briefly. But five weeks after that, we blew an 18-point second half lead to lose to the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The friends gathered at my home patted me on the back and helped carry empty chili bowls and wineglasses upstairs while I, dejected, started praying to the football Gods that we would keep our Pro Bowl QB Alex Smith. Five weeks after that, Alex Smith got traded to Washington for a cornerback and a few draft picks. Like I said, this season started out looking so promising. It ended in a series of nightmares.
The Chiefs season is long over. It usually is by this time of year. The NFL ends tonight. But for days, I’ve felt like a hypocrite, and that’s something I’ll wrestle with below. An uncomfortable thought has lodged itself in my brain, and now it sits there, like a sliver in my paw that won’t be worked out, aggravating the heck out of me. The thought is, in essence: “Why do I shun greatness?”
I’m talking about the Patriots, of course. The New England Patriots, defending a title they earned while maneuvering the greatest comeback in sports history last year, are competing tonight for a sixth Super Bowl championships. One needn’t be a fan of football or even sports at all to be aware that they have dominated the NFL in unprecedented fashion, 1990’s Jordan’s Bulls-style.
Sure, point out that Jordan has more rings than Brady. Or point out, rightly, that Phil Jackson has more than twice as many rings as Bill “cut off sweatshirt” Belichick. That’s basketball. I love basketball, but I also coached it for seventeen years, and the difference isn’t subtle. It’s easier to be dominant in basketball because one superstar player can take over a game. That’s not true in football. While Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and others have single-handedly won games, arguably even championships, that doesn’t happen in football. In football, there are 33 players getting time between offense, defense, and special teams, even before their backups see the field. While the most dominant basketball player can play a full 48 minutes, the most dominant football player still has to sit out for at least half of most games. As a basketball coach I will concede that it is far more difficult to dominate football, and yet the Patriots have certainly done it.
Here’s the hypocritical part, and also how, patient reader, this relates loosely to wine. When Helen Turley or Bob Levy or Heidi Barrett or Thomas Brown add another notch to their 100-point belts, I don’t begrudge them that one bit. On the contrary, I marvel at their consistency and craftsmanship and achievements and, while you can say what you want about the rating scale, it would be extremely difficult to deny that these are excellent wines these folk are making, year after year after year. So why, then, does the same mind that causes me to marvel at and appreciate greatness in one area of passion, wine and viticulture, not allow me to behave similarly as a football fan?
Perhaps it is because I am a fan? While there will, vintage to vintage, be as many 100 point scores as the demigods among us mere mortals determine with their golden tongues are warranted, there is only one Super Bowl each year. Perhaps if I owned a winery and was competing for these scores, and yet coming up short like the Chiefs each and every vintage, I might begin to begrudge the success of others. I hope I wouldn’t be so petty, but I can’t say for sure. And yet, the more I think about it, I think that it is more than that which causes me to view the Patriots unfavorably, cloaked in all of their successes and accomplishment.
Let’s return to basketball for a moment, and here is where I may lose support from some of my friends in the Bay area. I’ll use an example from the opposite end of the country just to be safe. When LeBron and Chris Bosh joined Dwayne Wade in Miami, only to reach the finals for four straight years and win two championships, I did not marvel at their greatness, but instead, I shunned them as the basketball equivalent of the Yankees (the major difference being that they were winning). “Super teams” could easily ruin sports. I’m not impressed by people who figure out how to beat the salary cap systems (or in the case of the Yankees, simply ignore money altogether) and come out on top. Of course you’re going to win if you have an all star roster. But that sort of cheapens your victories, does it not?
Are the Patriots such a super team? It’s hard to make that case. While the Eagles, their opponents tonight, spent $614 million in salary since 2013, according to CBS Sports, making them first in the league in spending, the Patriots spent a 30th place $500 million. And while the Eagles rarely make the playoffs, the Patriots, well, you know. But there’s something else that sits poorly with me about the Patriots, even if they aren’t a super team. Yes, the Patriots undeniably deflated footballs knowingly, and have been accused of stealing play calls as well. I’m over that, even if you are not. It’s not the alleged cheating or the success that bothers me about the Patriots.
I had a great conversation with a fellow wine industry chap yesterday, and what was evident in that conversation that instantly made me like him was his appreciation for winemakers as human beings. He loves Napa as I do, loves the land and the people who farm it, the artists who turn the labor of those farmers into wine, and the people who support the entire industry with their passionate patronage. But what we all know deep down, of course, is that all wine is not created equally.
Once upon a time, the late Robert Mondavi was a pioneer and a visionary. Today, however, his land, winery, and dream belong to a New York-based conglomerate that exists for one sole purpose: to make money. They do it well, but they do it also with utter disregard for the Smiths, the Eiseles, the Meadowcrofts, the Ledsons, and countless others whose small wineries are part passion project, part means of staying alive. They also do it with some degree of disregard for their own people, none of whom I can name despite their marked success in the industry. They are but parts of a greater entity. There is no humanity to be found in the wines that belong to massive corporations like Constellation and Bronco, no meaningful story to tell, no memory worthy of the title. Those things, those human elements, are reserved strictly for the producers who, like their customers, remain human, doing their job with one of Napa’s richly diverse soil types deep underneath their nails, sweat on their brow, and a splash of something special in a glass they’ll gladly share with you. What I love about wine is what I so dislike about the Patriots, and herein lies my true complaint with the New England team: they seem no longer to be human. They have become a machine.
Two years ago, a running back you’ve never heard of named Jonas Gray, playing for the Patriots, rushed for over 200 yards and four touchdowns, the equivalent of two if not three good games for most NFL running backs. The following week, Gray reportedly was late to a team meeting. He never played a meaningful snap at Foxborough again, and was subsequently traded to another team, cut, and presumably now works as a bank teller or a doorman somewhere. On the one hand, you can marvel at a system in which players are interchangeable, cogs that can be subbed in for one another as needed without any disruption to the efficiency of the machine. On the other, Gray is a human being. He made a human mistake, no question, but he was afforded no second chance, and it apparently cost him his career. And why? For no other reason than he was a part of a machine, not a part of a team.
I’ll concede that I respect the fact that I can’t name more than a handful of Patriots players, that they really only have one rockstar player on their team, and that their coach is the sort of “mad scientist” of sports lore who seems always to be two steps ahead of whatever poor dope is facing him down from across the field. So, too, I respect Tom Brady, one of the few NFL players who is my senior, and his relentless pursuit of perfection, his precise training and dietary regiment, his preparedness, his poise. There’s a lot to like, or short of liking, a lot to be respected. I’ll admit that, and on some level I do respect it, but I cannot like it. The Patriots remain akin to Bronco, to Constellation, with a bottom line-driven mentality that is easily embraced in our rabidly capitalist society, yet runs against the grain of our very humanity. The next successful Mondavi winemaker to upset the wrong suit in New York will no doubt be the next Jonas Gray. For my part, I will always cheer on the underdogs.
Of course, rather than cheering against the Patriots, as I shall tonight, one could easily make a case for cheering for the Eagles. Let us not forget that former Eagles and Chiefs coach, Dick Vermeil, is not only one of the greatest human beings ever to walk an NFL sideline, but also has strong ties to California wine country, and tasting rooms for his excellent wines in both Calistoga and Napa. For any wine lover who got this deep into my sports ramblings, perhaps therein lies your reason for cheering on the Eagles. And for the football fans among us, the story of backup quarterback Nick Foles who now leads the Eagles is inspiring without question. One needn’t cheer against the Patriots to cheer in favor of the Eagles.
Tonight, those same friends who helped me through yet another devastating Chiefs playoff loss will again gather in my home. Everyone will bring some food, my wife planning to make her famous cheese dip. At some point today, I’ll decide between the cellar and the fridge, my inclination often during football games being to defer to Coke Zero or light beer in place of wine. We’ll just see how I feel. My guess is that I’m going to need to find something that pairs well with disappointment. Or greatness. Depending on your perspective.