Towards the end of his 14-year career in the NFL, Drew Bledsoe decided that he wanted to return home to Walla Walla, Washington to make wine. And while other athletes have dabbled in winemaking after they hung it up, he could not have imagined how expansive and successful his second-half career was going to be. Considering the fact that the former quarterback for the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, and Dallas Cowboys played in four Pro Bowls, is in the Patriots Hall of Fame, and was in the top 10 overall for a number of quarterback statistics at the time of his retirement in 2007, it is no surprise to learn that once Bledsoe traded the gridiron for the vineyard he was guaranteed to score a touchdown.
The first move Drew and his wife Maura made was to plant the McQueen Vineyard in Walla Walla, which in 2007 was becoming widely known for top quality Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2008, they launched Doubleback, an estate-focused winery specializing in that variety. The name is a nod to Bledsoe’s return to his hometown. “I was a small-town kid who got to live out my childhood dream and then ‘doubled back’ to my roots to start our wine endeavor,” Bledsoe tells Robb Report. “We started with a piece of bare ground and planted what is now McQueen Vineyard. We make all our decisions with wine quality as the number one goal. Everything else flows from those decisions.”
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While the first eight vintages were made by Bledsoe’s friend Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellars, Bledsoe hired Figgins’ assistant winemaker, Josh McDaniels, in 2016, when McDaniels was just 26 years old, and made him a partner as well as the winemaker. McDaniels is the CEO and director of winemaking for Bledsoe Wine Estates, which includes Doubleback, Bledsoe Family Winery, which focuses on a wider range of varieties and styles at more affordable price points, and Bledsoe McDaniels, a newer label that produces Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Syrah from Walla Walla. Bledsoe’s wife Maura and McDaniel’s wife Kim are also partners in the endeavor. “My wife Maura and I function essentially as the board of directors,” Bledsoe says. “I am in contact with Josh almost every day, but he runs the business for us.”
Bledsoe’s vineyard holdings have grown considerably since that first planting in 2007. One year ago, the group purchased the 20-acre àMaurice Vineyard and 2,000 square foot winery Walla Walla’s Upper Mill Creek area, which is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. “All great wines start in the vineyard,” Bledsoe says. “We have established that owning and controlling our own land allows us to maintain the highest standards in quality and also to be a standard bearer in responsible, sustainable agriculture. Our portfolio of vineyards also gives us excellent diversity in wine styles so we can blend for the very best in each changing vintage.”
The year prior, in the fall of 2021, Bledsoe and McDaniels procured 80 acres, of which 29 are planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Founded in 2019 with a focus on Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills is a subregion), Bledsoe McDaniels was previously sourcing fruit from a variety of vineyards. “We have been been fans of Oregon Pinot Noir for many years,” Bledsoe says. “We had an opportunity to acquire one of the very best vineyards in the Willamette Valley and we jumped at the chance. Josh and the team have executed with the same diligence and attention to detail with the new wines and crafted wines that I believe stand among the best in Oregon.”
McDaniels embraces the idea of crossing the state border and working with different varieties.“ Washington is hot and dry, and Oregon is cooler and gets more precipitation,” he says. “One of the challenges that I have enjoyed in Oregon, specifically Willamette, is the is the high amount of vintage variation in the region. It can be extremely challenging but also very gratifying. Sometimes, unfortunately, it takes great pain to truly enjoy an exceptional vintage.” Although he has worked with Pinot Noir for more than 10 years, McDaniels, like many winemakers, still considers it a difficult grape. He explains, “The variety shows off everything, good and bad, and forces you to be really precise. It is a beautiful challenge.”
Yet Walla Walla and Willamette have more in common than most people realize, McDaniels argues. “At a foundational level, the same lava flows that covered the Walla Walla Valley, formed much of the Willamette Valley,” he says. “Similarly, when the Missoula Floods hit the Wallula Gap and settled back up into the Walla Walla Valley, the water also went down the Columbia Gorge and settled down into the Willamette Valley. It is really unique to have the AVA’s tied together at the foundational level like this.”
Bledsoe explains that he and Maura comprise 50 percent of what he describes as “the blending committee,” which also includes McDaniels and assistant winemaker Joe Woolsey. He reveals, “Maura always gets the deciding vote if we can’t reach a unanimous decision,” and adds, “She has an excellent palate.”
In addition to purchasing more vineyards, crossing state lines and increasing the range of offerings, Bledsoe has just added to his hospitality holdings. Bledsoe McDaniels added two new tasting rooms this year, one in Washington and one in Oregon. The Bledsoe McDaniels tasting room on the Schafer Estate in the Walla Walla Valley opened its doors in April, while the Coulee Estate tasting room in Willamette Valley began welcoming guests in May. Both require a reservation, with priority afforded to members of the brand’s allocation list. Both offer exclusive opportunities to taste through limited production wines while enjoying inspiring views of estate vineyards.
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