A FEW MOMENTS WITH…WILL BLACKMON (The Wine MVP)
Will Blackmon has a unique and accomplished background. Growing up on the East Coast, Will entered Boston College in 2002 where he set numerous school records before making his way to the NFL. There he was a defensive back for Green Bay, the New York Giants, Jacksonville and finally Washington, throughout his 12 year football career. It was during his playing days, that Will began accumulating knowledge and an appreciation of wines, and the idea of a second career began to take shape. After retiring to Southern California, Will put his wine knowledge to work when he created the wine concierge service, The Wine MVP. A rapidly growing enterprise that is taking the wine industry by storm. I sat down recently with Will to discuss the past, the present and the future.
BP: Hey Will. glad we were finally able to hook up and chat
WB: Yea, sorry for the craziness, but I’m glad we synced up
BP: Absolutely…well, why don’t we start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about how and where you grew up and how that molded you into the man you became
WB: Sure. Well, I grew up in Providence (Rhode Island). I lost my mother when I was around 6 to Crohn’s disease and my father raised me, my older sister and my older brother. My dad worked really hard. He was a corrections officer at a prison, working 3 shifts. I had a real good childhood, never really realizing we were in a rough situation, because my dad was always there. I signed up for football the first time when I was around 6 years old, which was flag football. Then started tackle at 7. I loved football. I played in high school and then got several offers and scholarships to play college football. Probably over 30 or 40. I ended up picking Boston College which was only an hour or so from home, so that worked out real well
BP: So right after BC you moved on to the NFL?
WB: Yea, The Green Bay Packers drafted me in 2006. Which was pretty funny, because I had no idea I would end up there. You have being drafted as a goal, but it maybe doesn’t seem realistic. But I had always pushed myself to see what I was capable of, which is why I think I was able to play 12 years. I was always a grinder, always willing to go through it
BP: What teams did you play for besides Green Bay?
WB: I played 4 years in Green Bay, 2 years with the New York Giants and won a Super Bowl with them. Played 2 year in Jacksonville and then finished up in Washington, with the then Redskins. Even with 9 surgeries I still managed play 12 years, which goes back to the resilience, which was instilled in me when I was younger. To see my dad (Wayne Blackmon) go through a lot but still put 2 kids through college and see another running their own business, that was super inspiring
BP: That’s awesome. So when did you interest in wine begin?
WB: Briefly in my senior year in college, through my roommate Mathias Kiwanuka, who was a first round pick of the Giants. But really it was my rookie year. The Packers signed Charles Woodson the same year that they drafted me. Woodson already had his own wines out by that time, 24 Wines, so he knew wine. Since I was a db like him, every away game Charles would take our position group out to dinner. We would go to a really nice place and he would order some really cool wines. I had no idea what the hell they were.
BP: So your formal introduction to wine was through high end ones?
WB: No, not exactly. When I first started drinking wine, it was sweet white wines and fruity red ones. But when he started bringing out these nicer wines, I became curious. Just like I was with football, I have always been a huge historian, wanting to know the back stories. I like to go back and learn about football in the 20’s or watch games from the 30’s. I love that kind of information. It’s the same thing with wine. I love the history, the stories, the geography. Wine has changed the world. I started talking to people about wine and learning whatever I could. When I was on the Packers, I was invited to these corporate functions in Milwaukee and I would see and hear people share both good and bad information. Some thought legs in a wine meant it was good. I didn’t know a lot, but I’m like “dude, syrup has legs”
BP: So did you run across anybody with any real knowledge at these gatherings?
WB: Yea, there was this one guy, a real estate mogul who was telling me about Burgundy. At that point, I didn’t even know what that was. I thought it was a brand or something. He was swirling his glass and really going on about how much he loved his Burgundy. I tried it and thought, yea it’s good. But I didn’t really get it. Then a few months later I was at a restaurant by myself and thought, I need to find this Burgundy this guy was raving about. So I grab the wine list and there’s a shitload of Burgundy on it. So my first thought is. “This company makes a lot of wines”, still not knowing that it’s not a brand. So I just picked one and the sommelier said “sure thing Mr. Blackmon” and he brings back the bottle and I said, “This isn’t Burgundy”, and he says “yes it is”. And we’re going back and forth til I said “But it’s white!” And that’s when he schooled me up on the region and gave me the facts. Things like this got me even more curious and wanting to learn more.
BP: So your wine education got a kick start?
WB: Absolutely, I started going through magazines, different websites…anywhere I could go to get more knowledge. I found though, that learning wine on my own was very difficult, and because I had a full time football career, it was a slow process.
BP: Was Charles still sharing the wealth?
WB: (laughing) Yea, I remember in 2008, Charles had taken us to dinner in Minneapolis at a restaurant called Seven. This is on a Saturday mind you, the day before a game. Charles is ordering bottle after bottle and then we find out there’s a private lounge upstairs, so we head up and drink even more wine. After awhile I’m like, “I feel like crap” So we get back to the hotel for team meetings and I’m dyin.
BP: Were you able to play the next day?
WB: Yea, you had to. So I head over and get an IV and I’m drinking Pedialyte, anything. The game starts and right away, Charles has an interception. I’m thinking, well, that’s just Charles. Then Tramon Williams gets one, then Nick Collins gets a pick six. Then a little later in the game, I return a punt for a touchdown. So all four of us that went out the night before, had way too much to drink, but ended up having a really good game.
BP: How were you feeling during the game?
WB: Don’t even remember. The adrenaline kicks in and you just play. That’s the way it is. It’s like playing with an injury. You just go for it. After that I started having a glass of wine the night before every game.
BP: So when did you find time to learn?
WB: Well, I kept looking and reading and then I saw the movie Somm and was like “They evaluate wine like that? How do you find something like that where you can learn” So during the next off season I was out here in California and I enrolled in WSET Level 2 and wound up passing that with a merit. And that immediately changed everything I thought about wine. From that point, I got more and more curious and became a total wine nerd. A few years later, when I was on Washington…nobody knows this, but I would pull on my boots and drive down to Leesburg, Virginia and work the vineyard at Fabbioli Cellars, just to improve my knowledge and be around wine
BP: That’s immersing yourself
WB: yea, and that was just the start. I began hanging out in wine shops and tasting, and I’d be there when the distributors came. That’s the way to do it, you can rip through 50 -100 wines in no time. This is when I realized I wanted to be in the wine business some way, some how. My first thought was to make my own wine. But after talking to some guys in the business, they all told me the same thing. Can you sell wine? So after researching some more I thought. “I’m a connector, why don’t I just be the middle man” And that’s when the idea of the Wine MVP came into being. To act as a wine concierge between people and the business. Actually it was originally called the NFL Wine Guy, and I got a nice call from the NFL (laughs) but that call helped me to realized that the name may a bit too limiting and Wine MVP was more broad and marketable.
BP: So how did you get that idea out there?
WB: I called my friends that I knew had cellars. I called Matt Ryan on the Falcons, Reggie Bush and I curated those two cellars. Then a buddy of mine did an article on the club. I thought it was going to be some small thing, but it ended up on the front page of USA Today Sports. From that, my phone just went berserk. I had other NFL people calling me, then I worked a partnership with the Wine Exchange here in Orange County for awhile. Everyone of those things just helped the club grow. I’m currently reworking the club and will relaunch it soon. So that’s where we are now
BP: You mentioned WSET earlier, have you continued that?
WB: I have. I completed CMS 1 and W-S-E-T 2 and 3 and the Wine Business Certification through Sonoma State
BP: I’m a CMS 1 as well but now going down the WSET road, just because it aligns with my career path better
WB: Ohh, by the way. You cant say WSET (pronounced Double-U-set) I was in London last year and I visited the headquarters and said it that way, and they quickly corrected me. They would like it to be Wine & Spirits Education Trust. I think they felt spirits got skipped over when it was pronounced W-SET
BP: Noted (laughing) So what would be your deserted island beverage?
WB: I get asked about this every now and then, and I always say “It would depend on the mood, the day…” but, if I had to choose, it would be champagne. I can do champagne every day
BP: But it’s a deserted island Will, you won’t have any refrigeration
WB: Hey, if the ocean’s cool enough…some people do store in theirs in water
BP: Let’s go back to Wine MVP. What would you like to accomplish…what’s your vision?
WB: The vision behind it is education. How do you make something less intimidating, it’s through knowledge and education right? I have 3 different types of people who get involved. I have the curious, who just want to get started and know where to go. I have the seasoned wine drinker, who know what they want and are more adventurous. Finally I have the collector, and they want the big names and they want the cool stuff
BP: So is your clientele primarily pro athletes?
WB: Its a big part of it yea. When I was playing we all had a guy around that we called the “plug”. We were all so busy this guy would tell us things like, what are the cool sneakers out there how to get them and where to get them. The Wine MVP provides that service for the pro athlete, because I have that direct connection with the wines and the athlete. But not only do I provide the product, I provide the education to go along with it. Cause when they go to dinner, they wanna know what they’re talkin about. I also set up wine tasting trips for them and try to emphasize that it’s not that intimidating. It’s just fermented grape juice, it’s not that complicated. I just want them to have fun
BP: So tell me a little bit more about the club
WB: I originally just wanted to have a club, you know, getting the wine out to people. But I think because of me, I became more of a personality. I also learned that offering the wine is cool, but it needs to be more of an experience, so they can relate. So I’m trying create more immersive experiences for clients. Help them to not only know the wine, but the winery, the region, everything. The rebranded Mine MVP will be still be an education experience, of course
BP: I see you’re still active in the NFL world
WB: Yea, I still do analyst stuff on TV for Fox and Sky Sports in Europe. I have a podcast called Upsets and Underdogs sponsored by WynnBET, which is a gambling sports analysis show. Also, sometimes agents will call me to train their players in the offseason, so I’m still involved in sports, no question
BP: I’ve also read about the Blackmon Football Academy
WB: Yea, The Blackmon Academy is more directed towards youth. I have the Will Blackmon Football Camp, which is a free camp that I put on every year back home in Rhode Island for like 300 kids. Its a 1 – 2 day event that’s really cool. Then we have a Blackmon/Rowley Combine, which is where I invite a whole bunch of small colleges to try and get kids scholarships. The first year we got two kids scholarships. I know how hard it is for kids to get recruited, so that’s why we created that.
BP: Finally, do you think you’re fulfilling your life’s dreams and goals?
WB: I do, one of the hardest things is when you have to leave your passion, which for me was the NFL. You wonder if you can find something you’re as passionate about. I didn’t want to just do “something”. I needed something to move me, something to challenge me, and that’s what wine does for me
BP: So, I like to end my interviews with something I call 5 questions, what’dya say?
WB: Go for it
BP: Red or White? WB: White
BP: Ocean or Mountains? WB: Ocean
BP: Slow and Steady or Fast and Wild? WB: Slow and Steady
BP: Rock or Jazz? WB: Jazz
BP: Vegas or Paris? WB: Paris
BP: Thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure
WB: Thanks for your patience, glad we were able to connect