Years ago, when you leafed through the PGA Tour media guide, you'd invariably see hunting or fishing listed as recreational pursuits enjoyed by professional golfers. You still see some of that, but today you're also likely to find wine appreciation tucked somewhere in there.
I guess it's no surprise that more of us are getting involved. One of the perks of golf's global reach is that Tour pros now travel the world and experience cultural splendors that we might otherwise have missed, including many great local cuisines. With that comes the prospect of sampling wines from some of the best viticulture regions in the world. My travels have taken me to some amazing vineyards in South Africa, Spain, France, Canada, California and, of course, my native Australia.
For some players, the appreciation has grown beyond that of consumer. Jeff Sluman and Duffy Waldorf are known for their extensive collections. Ernie Els parlayed his knowledge into his own line of successful wines. David Frost and his brother own a vineyard in a beautiful wine region in Paarl, South Africa. And not surprisingly, some of us are just as competitive in the vineyard as we are inside the ropes.
I liken the wine business to another one of my passions, golf course design. In design, there are those who have a dedicated, hands-on approach, who invest considerable time and effort and have their own staffs. And then there are those who simply serve as consultants. The wine business has many parallels. Some players are very involved in the process, while others are more like endorsers, just adding their names to labels. And, like golf, wine making takes incredible focus, as well as years of practice, experience and wisdom. I'm a relative newcomer to the process, but it's something that I care deeply about and have applied myself to, and I hope this shows in my wines.
My journey into the world of wine really started during my first trip to the United States, in the fall of 1976, when I was chosen to represent my country in the World Cup of Golf in Palm Springs, California. I didn't even own a passport at the time because I had never been outside of Australia. I remember when I entered my hotel room; it was the most palatial setup I had ever seen, a far cry from the tiny motel rooms I had shared on the Australian Tour just a few weeks earlier. I was given a courtesy car to use that week, and it was the first time I drove on the "other" side of the road. The transition was not accomplished without several hair-raising moments, but I managed to get to and from the course without denting the vehicle.
My introduction to the American golf scene left a strong impression on me. Instead of returning to Australia for Christmas, as I had originally planned, I stayed in California for nearly six weeks as the guest of George Kelly, an American professional I'd met in Australia earlier in the year. I spent Christmas with George and his family, and we played many of the classic courses on the Monterey Peninsula. I stuck around long enough to see my first Super Bowl and returned to Australia a couple days later. That holiday helped broaden my outlook in many ways. We made it a point to dine in some of California's boutique restaurants. They had some very impressive wine lists, and it was then that I was introduced to several of the state's finer chardonnays. Three in particular still come immediately to mind: Stags' Leap, Kistler Vineyards and Trefethen. George and I also traveled to San Francisco to play Olympic Club and made a point to visit several Napa Valley vineyards while in the area.
My palate expanded several years later when Laura—my wife-to-be at the time—and I dined in a Parisian cellar restaurant on Île Saint-Louis. It really helped connect us, because the two of us didn't realize at the time that we each had an affinity for wine. From that point, our appreciation and interest grew in earnest.
Less than a year later, I remember being truly awestruck on my first visit to Augusta National. It was the second week of April, 1981—my first major championship on U.S. soil—and the magnitude of the event, the beauty of the course, the history and the pageantry all were impressive. But I was equally enthralled by a visit to the Augusta National wine cellar. I was expecting opulence and extravagance, but what I found was quite the opposite. In the back of the trophy room is a small staircase that leads to an unpretentious yet marvelous display. In my opinion, it's the embodiment of a great wine cellar, with the focus on content and substance rather than aesthetics. It contains a fascinating selection of wine from all over the world solely for members. Part of the mystique is that prominent people have bequeathed bottles to the club with the understanding that they be restricted to the members and that the prices remain affordable.
A few years later, I visited the home winery of Penfolds Grange, one of Australia's most famous red wines. There, I asked a wine maker about foods best suited to a certain vintage, expecting him to suggest beef or lamb. Instead, he said that a pizza would best bring out the wine's true nature. I kid you not. The pizza flavors accelerate and react with the tannins in the wine, he explained, enhancing the overall taste.
Interestingly, Penfolds Grange has a unique story of its own. At its inception in 1951, "Hermitage" was part of the name—Hermitage being one of the most famous of all Rhône Valley, France, appellations. Penfolds Grange, however, was produced in southern Australia. Much like "champagne" became an accepted colloquial descriptor for sparkling wine, "Hermitage" had accompanied Penfolds Grange for four decades. But eventually trademark regulation forced the removal of "Hermitage" from the label of Australia's most successful winery. Nonetheless, Grange remains an Australian icon. In fact, in 1995 Wine Spectator named the 1990 vintage the number-one wine in the world.
These days, when Laura and I are home together, we make it a point to sample a bottle almost every night. We have twenty-five to forty different varietals in our cellar. I don't have a real preference, red or white, but like most people we tend to match our wines with our meals. We enjoy trying new and different wines, and after many years of experimenting I have come to understand the characteristics that I most enjoy. I'm especially fond of California chardonnays, but nearest to my heart and palate are the wines of Australia.