Charles Woodson isn’t new to the wine game. The NFL great and only defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy has been a presence in California wine country since he made his first barrel of wine in 2001. Over the past two decades, Woodson has founded two labels: TwentyFour and Intercept.
Woodson recently spoke with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec on “Straight Talk with Wine Spectator,” an Instagram Live series, to discuss his days as an Oakland Raider living near wine country, his efforts to create an affordable Cabernet brand, and how he’s used lessons learned on the field when he’s in the vineyard.
Woodson came to national attention while playing for the University of Michigan, where he won the Heisman in 1997 and helped the Wolverines earn a share of the national title that year.
His passion for wine came a year later, when he was drafted in the first round by Oakland. The Raiders held their training camp in Napa Valley. He calls his wine journey a “natural progression,” which began when he was exposed to the restaurant scene. “I [watched how people] interacted with wine and I felt like wine was always served during a laidback setting and it was included in conversation with family and friends,” says Woodson. “I was fascinated by the whole thing and I wanted to be part of that culture.”
After his first few years in the league and some initial experiences blending wine, Woodson launched TwentyFour (named for his jersey number), a Cabernet Sauvignon label out of Calistoga, in 2005. The 2010 vintage earned a spot among Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2014.
There was a marketing challenge, however. After Woodson gave his first interview at the wine’s release party in his home state of Michigan, the NFL commissioner’s office informed his representatives that he was not permitted to promote the wine. The NFL had a rule against players promoting alcoholic beverages (even though the league had sponsorship agreements with a beer giant). Despite that, word of the quality of his wine spread and it gained a cult following.
But TwentyFour, with a $110 price tag, was out of reach for many of Woodson’s fans. “The biggest challenge was realizing people don’t always drink wine the way you drink wine,” Woodson says of his expensive taste. “A lot of fans would support me, but they said, ‘We need something a little more affordable, but with the same quality.’”
That was the idea for Intercept Wines, an affordable brand for everyone in the stands, made from California Central Coast grapes. Last year, Woodson launched his new $20 label at his alma mater University of Michigan. He produced the brand with the help of an all-star roster that includes industry veteran Jeff O’Neill of O’Neill Vintners.
As a team player on the field, Woodson understood that his wine label was no different from his days in Oakland and Green Bay, and made sure every player knew their role.
“In order for a team to be the best, you have to have many different parts, but all moving toward the same goal,” Woodson says. “Everyone has to understand their role and what they’re expected to do.”
In October, Woodson and O’Neill announced a project they hope will introduce new talents to the wine industry. The Charles Woodson & O’Neill Family Wine Scholarship is a new series of scholarships with California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo and Sonoma State University. The scholarships aim to recruit and retain high-achieving Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) interested in pursuing a career in the wine industry.
The scholarships will be available to students accepted at the two universities for the upcoming Fall 2021 semester. They will cover 100% of tuition and room and board for recipients over their entire college career. O’Neill Vintners & Distillers will provide internships and mentors to offer hands-on learning opportunities for scholarship recipients to enhance their college experience in the wine industry.
Intercept’s logo contains a lion, Woodson’s favorite animal. He even has a tattoo on his arm of the noble hunter and the phrase, “A Lion Isn’t Supposed to Be Tamed.” “People will try to put you in a box because of your career, and wine for me is stepping out of that box that people put you in,” Woodson says.
Woodson’s favorite part about making wine is seeing the work pay off. The NFL star recently saw a couple order his wine at a restaurant, and he told the waiter to put the bottle on his tab. “That’s the most rewarding part of it,” Woodson said. “To be somewhere and have someone order your wine.”
ON THE GRIDIRON: Football Highlights
1995 Big Ten Freshman of the Year
1997 Heisman Trophy winner
Won Super Bowl XLV with the Packers
Nine-time Pro Bowl selection
IN THE WINERY: VIntner Highlights
2001 Made a barrel of Merlot with the help of winemaker friends
2005 Launched his Cabernet Sauvignon brand, TwentyFour
2019 Debuted Intercept, a line of wines made with Central Coast grapes
92 | TWENTYFOUR Cabernet Sauvignon Calistoga 2012 | $110
93 | TWENTYFOUR Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010 | $112
89 | INTERCEPT Chardonnay Paso Robles 2018 | $20
88 | INTERCEPT Pinot Noir Monterey County 2017 | $20