When Dick Vermeil was just an infant in the 1930s, teenager Jeanne Frediani would babysit him at the Vermeil home on Washington Street in Calistoga. Frediani lived just outside of town at the family ranch on Silverado Trail.
Vermeil would grow up to become a legendary football coach, winning the Super Bowl in 1999 and a slew of other championships and coaching awards. Despite his fame and life on the national stage, Vermeil maintained a connection with his Napa Valley roots and, in particular, a lifelong bond with his childhood babysitter.
It’s no wonder, then, that in 2007 Vermeil, Frediani and three other members of her family worked to produce wines specifically from the Upvalley region, selling them mainly through a standalone tasting room in downtown Calistoga. The group has expanded its Napa Valley presence by opening a stylish new tasting location in downtown Napa at 1018 First St.
Vermeil, who lives with his wife, Carol, in Chester County, Pa., said the Vermeil wine label started as a personal project in 1999. He teamed with winemaker and family friend Paul Smith to produce 150 cases of cabernet at Smith’s OnThEdge winery on Spring Mountain. Vermeil labeled the wine Jean Louis Vermeil cabernet sauvignon after his great-grandfather.
Vermeil said the wine was also a tribute to his other great-grandfather, Garibaldi Iaccheri, who introduced the Vermeils to Calistoga and the Napa Valley.
“It was just a hobby,” Vermeil said of the early batches of wine. “It was just for fun. In 2007, we decided to turn that hobby into a business. So we went from making 150 cases of wine for fun to making between 3,500 and 5,000 cases a year for work.”
Smith, a well-known Napa Valley wine figure who has worked at Robert Mondavi, Opus 1 and other wineries, operated an OnThEdge tasting room on Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga where he sold the first Vermeil “hobby” wines.
In 2007, Smith and his wife, Mary Sue (Jeanne Frediani’s daughter), joined Vermeil and Frediani to form the Vermeil Wine Group. The new partnership acquired the OnThEdge winery and took over the Calistoga tasting room.
For Vermeil, the winemaking partnership with Frediani and the Smiths is a link to his past. Born in 1936 in the same Calistoga house that was owned by his grandfather, Vermeil played football as a quarterback in high school, advancing to Napa Community College and then San Jose State. After college he began his career, coaching four years at the high school level and then two seasons back at Napa Community College.
After four years coaching at Stanford, Vermeil became a special teams coach with the Los Angeles Rams. He was then tapped by UCLA for its head coaching position. In 1975 Vermeil led UCLA to a conference championship and a Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State.
Vermeil’s NFL head-coaching career started the following year with the Philadelphia Eagles, and during the next 29 years he was a well-known fixture in the NFL. During that time, between coaching jobs, Vermeil also worked for CBS and ABC as a sports broadcaster.
In addition to his time with the Eagles, Vermeil’s storied career included head coaching stints with the St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, culminating in 1999 when he guided the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. That victory is referenced in one of the current offerings from Vermeil Wines.
“We have one bottle that is a blend that we call Proprietary Red 34,” Vermeil said. “It’s a roman numeral 34 for Super Bowl XXXIV. That’s the only (Super Bowl) identification that the NFL could not stop us from using.”
Vermeil is familiar with the strict control wielded by the NFL. He was once reprimanded for what he said was an innocent act of wine-related motivation near the end of a hotly contested game.
“We had a three-second field goal kick — about a 40-yard kick — and Morten Andersen, the Hall-of-Fame kicker, seemed a little nervous,” Vermeil said. “I also knew he’s a big-time wine guy so I pulled him to the side and said ‘Morten, you make this thing and I’ll give you a bottle of Bryant Family Vineyard (Napa Valley cabernet).’ He said ‘No kiddin’, coach?’ I said it’s yours. He went out and popped it through. The next day I got a call from the NFL saying we couldn’t do that because it was a violation of the salary cap.”
A few weeks later, Vermeil continued, Michael Mondavi sent him a case of cabernet. “He said ‘Vermeil, Bryant Family isn’t the only one making good wine.”
Vermeil’s Calistoga roots and his long association with the Frediani family are reflected in the various wines sporting his namesake label. Smith sources fruit primarily from Jeanne Frediani’s 170-acre vineyard near Calistoga. The group also makes a single vineyard zinfandel from grapes grown by Vermeil’s childhood friend Don Luvisi’s family. Two higher-end Vermeil cabernets are sourced from revered vineyards on Calistoga’s Picket Road off Silverado Trail. Vermeil wines range from $20 up to $125, have been well received by critics and consistently earn scores above 90 points.
“We’re getting good grades,” Vermeil said, “but basically our philosophy is if the wine tastes good to you, it’s good wine. We’re not wine snobs. We don’t tell people our wine is any better than anybody else’s, though last year we won three of four different blind tastings.”
Vermeil hopes the new Napa tasting room will bring greater exposure to Vermeil Wines. The new space also includes a VIP room for groups to enjoy private tastings and gatherings. Although the new space includes plenty of Vermeil memorabilia and television screens that may occasionally display football games, Vermeil said the tasting room emphasizes wine over sports.
“It’s not a sports bar,” Vermeil said. “Our new place is more of a wine-tasting lounge. There’s a lot of sports memorabilia, pictures of my family and career … the whole theme (in the Napa tasting room) is a little bit different than in Calistoga.”
While his last name is well known among longtime football fans, Vermeil said that some wine enthusiasts are surprised to learn of the association. Once they enter either Vermeil tasting room, however, his story becomes clear.
“They get inside and see the pictures and maybe a highlight film on the TV screen,” he said, “and say ‘my God, this is Coach Vermeil.’ I also have a replica Lombardi trophy in both tasting rooms so if anyone has never seen one or held one — it’s not the real one, believe me — they can do it.”
Vermeil said the Napa location will be open daily and Thursday through Saturday will stay open until 11 p.m., adding another venue option for downtown’s weekend nightlife crowd.
“You get a group of people together and go out to dinner and come in for a couple glasses of wine afterward,” Vermeil said. “Or you can put a reservation in for the VIP room to entertain a group.”
While the Napa tasting room opened in mid-July, its official grand opening is scheduled Sept. 26. The legendary coach, who will attend the grand opening, said his trip was delayed due to an injury that sidelined a critical member of Team Vermeil.
“My wife broke her leg a couple of weeks ago,” he said, “so traveling is a little difficult right now.”
The spelling of the Frediani family name has been corrected since first posting.