I’ve been a Kansas City Chiefs fan since I was twelve years old. The year the 49ers traded Joe Montana to KC, I switched my allegiance to stay with my idol and I never looked back. Despite my love for the Bay Area and the success that followed with Steve Young, my relationship to Kansas City has been strengthened over the years by so many things, ranging from my love of KC barbecue to my work at the National WWI Museum, and from my appreciation for the jazz scene to the vibrant running culture in that community. But it may well be the Chiefs, and my nearly three-decades of being a fan, that bind it all together for me. Montana, Allen, Thomas, Okoye, Smith, Gonzales, and others have made them fun to watch over the years, but maybe more so than any player, Coach Dick Vermeil impacted my love of the team in a huge way.
Coach Vermeil came to Kansas City in 2001, my sophomore year of college. In very recent memory, Vermeil had led the St. Louis Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV, and the optimism of the fan base was ubiquitous. Under Coach Vermeil, who retired again in 2005, we had decent seasons, good seasons, and a great season, but what happened for me as a fan and also as a coach during that period of time far exceeded wins and losses. I watched Coach Vermeil intently as he represented the Chiefs with dignity day in and day out, and I watched his press conferences in which he was known for becoming emotional. His passion, his fire, wasn’t born simply out of being competitive and wanting to win. He cared deeply for the players around him and it showed in every way. As a middle school basketball coach, I began wearing a suit jacket to games, and I spent more time talking to players on the bench, sometimes with my back to the game, so that they knew how important they were to me in that moment — something that stayed part of my approach to coaching for the next seventeen years. Also, probably because of Coach Vermeil, I let my emotions show more, and I never shied away from hugging a hurting player.
When Coach Vermeil retired from the KC Chiefs in 2005, my friends and I were sad to see him go. He was a much-loved part of the organization, and we had faith that he could make the team better. Still, it was his choice to make, of course. If you’re not a fan, I’ll tell you that the years that followed were difficult to say the least, and the games were often hard to watch. It wasn’t until we hired Coach Andy Reid, who shared being a former Eagles coach with Vermeil, that things started to look up.
Somewhere in that interim, of course, I got married. This wine blog, in fact, was born on Sonja and my honeymoon spent in Napa and Sonoma. In the years that followed, we often returned to wine country on anniversaries and more, having fallen in love with the place, the people, and the wine. On one of those return trips, we were walking in downtown Napa when I looked up and saw a sign: “Vermeil Wines” it read. I had only ever known of one person with that name, and the small football in front of it was more than clue enough. Eagerly, I grabbed Sonja’s hand and ushered her in the door.
Once inside, I learned quickly that my coaching hero had close ties to my favorite vacation destination. Born in Calistoga, which is far northern Napa Valley, so much of Vermeil’s life was connected to this place. He played at San Jose State, coached at Napa Junior College and UCLA (where I nearly went to college) among other places, and was a deeply-entrenched member of of the Napa Valley community. I had not expected football and wine, to very separate passions, to merge in such a way. Sonja and I sat down in the tasting room and tasted through every last wine on the list, loving them all, before selecting some to take home with us.
Last night, I got to watch my Chiefs play in the Super Bowl for the first time in my lifetime. To say that it was special would be an understatement. In preparation for the game, I reached out to Vermeil and got my hands on some of his amazing wine to share with those I invited over for the game. I have no rituals for when my team makes the Super Bowl because, of course, it hasn’t happened in five decades. With that in mind, I decided to pair one wine with one course for every quarter of the game. As the day progressed, Sonja and I cooked and cooked and my heart rate began to increase. The anticipation was far too much, but somehow I managed to get through the morning and early afternoon by going for a run and entertaining my kids. Finally, just after five, guests started to show up.
The First Quarter
To watch the Chiefs, a high powered offense by all accounts, masterminded by a man whose game script has never been the issue, go three-and-out on the first drive of the Super Bowl cued that ominous cello music begin playing faintly in my mind. The 49ers struck first, but we stopped their impressive drive short and forced a field goal, a moral victory. After our drive and touchdown, we ended the first quarter up 7-3, and I was able to keep the cello music turned way down. Still, when you’re all-in on a hand the way you are in a championship game, the flop is going to matter.
For the first quarter and the first course, we had Vermeil Chardonnay paired with Sonja’s queso dip, which is famous around the neighborhood. I had begged her to find bright red corn chips that would, combined with the yellow dip, be a show of our fandom, and after much searing she did in fact achieve this minor miracle. I did a lot of nervous eating. Queso dip is good for that.
Vermeil’s 2017 Chardonnay is ridiculously good. Sourced from two blocks in the famous Dutton Ranch vineyards in Sonoma, the wine is aged for fourteen months on 40% new French oak, and is sur lie (aged on the lees, or on dead yeast) which gives it an organic creamy nature that offsets the acidity and provides impeccable balance. Hints of vanilla on the nose lead to a palate that enjoys some real complexity, ranging from mild baked apple, hints of pear, and plentiful citrus. Limited to 315 cases, this is a Chardonnay that I highly recommend.
The Second Quarter
In the second quarter, we traded positions with the 49ers. Our out-of-this-world kicker, Harrison Butker, chipped in his field goal, which he can be counted on to do, but the 49ers scored a touchdown on a nice pass over the middle to that guy from Harvard with a whole lot of consonants in his last name. Going into halftime, we were tied 10-10, which was… fine, but only fine. I needed to do some more nervous eating.
For our second course, and the second quarter, we had chili. In the Gudgel house, chili has no beans in it on penalty of death, not because we don’t like beans, but because of our ranching heritage and carnivorous nature. The chili was excellent, and the wine pairing was even better.
With the chili we paired Vermeil’s XXXIV, 2017 vintage, a single-vineyard red blend that is named for the Super Bowl, twenty-years ago this year, that Vermeil and his St. Louis Rams won. I watched that game, not realizing then that the man I saw grinning from ear to ear as the confetti rained down would one day be my coach. XXXIV is a blend of 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Petite Sirah, and 28% Cabernet Franc. It is exceedingly smooth with an elegant structure, and redefines complexity with notes of black fruit, cocoa, plum, graphite, pepper, and earthy flavors. I gave it a quick, twenty-minute decant before serving. A beautiful wine with some comfort food, it was just what we needed to get us to half time. Shortly after the halftime show, I kissed the kids goodnight and Sonja put them to bed.
The Third Quarter
In the third quarter, the game got depressingly out of control. Well scripted and well executed by the disciplined Bay Area team that I cheered for in my youth, the 49ers capitalized on an uncharacteristic pair of interceptions by Patrick Mahomes and found themselves up 20-10, a lead they held well into the fourth quarter. Things felt ominous. I reminded myself, and was shortly thereafter reminded by the commentators who had clearly cued up footage and graphics in case the Chiefs fell behind, that we have spent this entire playoff series playing from behind, catching up, then winning. We had not, however, played anyone with a defense like the 49ers in that stretch however. I was oddly calm for a while, but I didn’t feel great about being down ten late in the game.
At halftime, I pulled out my KC-style ribs (find the recipe here: https://itheewine.com/2020/02/01/the-neanderchef-kc-style-bbq-ribs/) and added a bit more barbecue sauce. I chose Gates for today because I read an interview with Travis Kelce, the tight end for KC, in which he professed to that being his favorite. I love KC-style barbecue, and ribs are my all-time favorite. I often pair barbecue with Zinfandel, and Vermeil’s has always been one of my favorite Zins, so it’s a great fit.
Eighteen months on 25% new French oak, this Zin ways in at 15.2%, which is fairly standard for Californian Zinfandel. That ABV would make it tough to pair food with, but ideal for the right dish (like saucy barbecue). Black fruit, black pepper, hints of leather and pipe tobacco offer a complexity that is impossible not to appreciate and which Vermeil’s wines are known for. The Zinfandel vines in the Luvisi Vineyard are more than a hundred years old, redefining “old vine” in a serious way. Single-vineyard, 100% varietal, and limited to just over 200 cases in production, this is truly a special wine and one I can’t recommend strongly enough.
The Fourth Quarter
The fourth quarter rolled around and it was time for dessert. On our visit to Vermeil, Sonja and I had purchased several wines, but the last remaining bottle from our trip was a 2013 “Compassion” fortified dessert wine. 19.1% ABV and sweet with gorgeous hints of clove, dark chocolate, and raspberry, it paired beautifully with the brownies Sonja made and the smorgasbord of beautiful deserts that people brought over. Despite the tough start to the quarter, the sweet taste of victory was about to be the perfect pairing.
And then, it happened, yet again. One shining Mahoment, take four of this year’s playoffs. Down 20-10 with under ten minutes left in the game, the Chiefs rallied yet again. On third and long, Mahomes connected with his receiver for forty-plus. Kelce gets denied at the goal line, then sneaks to the back of the end zone for a touchdown from Mahomes on the very next play. 20-17. We stop the 49ers, our overhauled yet much-maligned defense stepping up huge in the final quarter. Damian Williams, who looked for much of the season like he could be the backup running back, eeks in from the edge, nearly stepping out of bounds as he holds the pigskin over the pylon. Instant replay confirms. 20-24, and I’m sprawled out on the floor in front of the television thanking God. We stop them again, but need a first down to seal the deal. I’ve been standing most of the game, but by this time it’s more like running in place. Williams breaks coverage on the sideline, stays in bounds, and scores again. 20-31. Confetti. Gatorade baths. Trophies. Tears. I was unsure if I would ever see this day. It feels amazing, and I’m grateful to my wife and neighbors who are there to share it with me.
I wasn’t entirely sure of what to do for a while. We popped a cork on some bubbly and sat around talking. I was basking, half-listening to the interviews, half-planning where in my man-cave to hang up Kelce and Mahommes jerseys. The congratulatory texts started to pour in. I just sat there loving every minute of it.
As I think back over the past two-and-a-half decades of my being a Chiefs fan, the fateful trade that sealed the deal for me at age twelve, I remember some of the teams and the frustrations that came with them. But I also remember the excitement of big games, how close we came a number of times. I think a lot about Dick Vermeil. His five seasons with the Chiefs, which included the AFC West title in 2003, were extremely meaningful to me, and probably did more than anything to cement my fandom for those years after when it was at times quite difficult to be a Chiefs fan. He impacted the culture of the team, inspired a heightened level of integrity that has been a part of what the Chiefs are all about for the past fifteen years since he left. And though I doubt very many people will give Dick Vermeil much credit for what happened last night, I honestly do. Culture takes time and effort to build, and Coach Vermeil did some of the heavy lifting that helped make something special possible yesterday. Thank you, Coach.
I’d like to head down to KC for the parade Wednesday, take my kids, perch up high near Liberty Memorial and watch the festivities, but of course I have to be at work. All the same, I look forward to the days and weeks to come, and I asked a friend in KC to grab me a copy of the Star today. Maybe I’ll frame that next to the jerseys. Last night was a special night, a trifecta of great food and wine, people I love, and an event I wasn’t sure would ever happen. I’m grateful to everyone, from Patrick Mahomes and his teammates to my family and friends to Coach Vermeil, who played a part in it. One last time: Go Chiefs!