When Will Blackmon played cornerback and free safety for the Washington’s NFL team in 2015 and 2016, he was already thinking of life after pro football. He had earned a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants in the 2011 season and played for Jacksonville and Green Bay over a decade-long career. So when he could get away from the team’s practice facility in Ashburn, Va., Blackmon went to nearby Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg to help in the vineyards.
“I wanted to start my own wine label, like everyone else,” Blackmon told me in a recent interview over Zoom from his home near Los Angeles. Doug Fabbioli, the owner and winemaker at Fabbioli Cellars, remembers Blackmon as “a smart guy who had a good vision for his future. I have mentored a number of wine folks over the years, but never a football player.” Fabbioli had some advice for his protege.
“Doug and others impressed on me that you can have the best grapes, the best vineyards and be a terrific winemaker, but at the end of the day, can you move it?” Blackmon says. “So I turned my attention to retail.” He spent time at Ashburn Wine Shop and later at Wine Exchange in Orange County, Calif., hanging around for hours and observing how the stores were run, how the wine was sold to consumers.
Blackmon started marketing himself to other pro football players, certainly an affluent client base. “I have a pretty cool network of football players, so why not just be the guy people go to for wine?” he said. He stocked wine cellars for several National Football League stars, including Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and former New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush. “Then I wanted to do more, so I decided to make this a full-on MVP wine concierge service.”
So in late 2019, Blackmon branded himself as the Wine MVP. His timing was good. The wine industry was desperately trying to appeal to his millennial generation. And the coronavirus pandemic was about to disrupt our lifestyles, including how we buy and enjoy wine.
But first, a little backstory: Blackmon already liked wine when he was drafted by Green Bay in 2006. The Packers had just signed defensive great Charles Woodson, who became Blackmon’s mentor on and off the field. Woodson was very into wine — and now makes a line called Intercept Wines — and he showed Blackmon that it could be enjoyed despite the stereotypes and prejudices that made it intimidating.
“Wine is culturally very Caucasian, but here was someone who looked like me and played the same game and position I did, talking about the joys and pleasures of wine,” Blackmon says. “Now I don’t feel like I’m being judged all the time. Football players tend to drink beer, and when they see you drinking wine, they say ‘boo-jee,’ ” as in pretentious bourgeois.
Woodson stripped away the intimidation and cultural baggage and left Blackmon free to enjoy wine on its own merits. Now, Blackmon is doing the same as the Wine MVP. Along with private cellar services, he offers a monthly wine club of two premium bottles shipped directly to consumers from Wine Exchange, his partner retailer in California. Early offerings included Chanin pinot noir from Santa Barbara, Catena Alta cabernet sauvignon from Argentina, and Spottswoode sauvignon blanc from Napa. Blackmon says he has been able to include some wines in his club that were exclusive to restaurants until that market dried up with pandemic-related shutdowns.
At 36, Blackmon feels he can relate wine to his fellow millennials. “They like seltzers and craft beers, and certain wines at certain price points are popular, while premium wines are struggling to reach this demographic,” he says. “Millennials are spending money on luxury items because they equate them with success. These wines are luxury, too. I give them the luxury feel without intimidating people. How can I bring people to wine without scaring the hell out of them?
“I just take away the ego,” he says. “My kids are 9 and 5 years old. They asked me why people drink wine with their pinkies up. I have never drunk wine with my pinkie up. They got that from somewhere.” (For the record, I watched a few videos of Blackmon tasting and discussing his monthly club offerings on his website, and he kept his pinkie securely curled around the stem of his wine glass. He does wear his Super Bowl ring, but I don’t fault him for that.)
Don’t get me wrong — Blackmon doesn’t take wine casually. Like a good athlete studying a playbook, he completed Level 3 of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust certification program and Level 1 in the Court of Master Sommeliers. He revels in terroir, climate, history, winemaking and even point scores. But he finds them fascinating, not intimidating.
This Super Bowl champ just might make wine geekery cool again.