What follows is a Focus report on Doubleback. Download a .pdf version of this report here. Read previous Focus reports here.

To whoever first said ‘There’s no going home again,’ this one is for you.

Drew Bledsoe grew up in Walla Walla, a small town in the southeastern section of Washington State. Unbeknownst to him as a child, four hundred yards from where he lived was one of the state’s finest wineries, Leonetti Cellar. This winery would ignite what is now a thriving wine community in the Walla Walla Valley. Today the region encompasses over one hundred wineries and makes some of Washington’s best wines. Bledsoe also did not know growing up that people at Leonetti Cellar would play an integral role in his future.

Chris Figgins, the son of Leonetti founder Gary Figgins, was two years behind Bledsoe in school. While the two did not know each other particularly well growing up, Walla Walla was then and remains now a small town. Bledsoe and Figgins’ lives intersected in innumerable ways. Bledsoe’s mother was Chris’ junior high school English teacher. Bledsoe’s father, a teacher and football coach, gave motivational speeches Figgins vividly recalls to this day. The message was to aim high. It was a lesson Figgins internalized.

While both Bledsoe and Figgins grew up in Walla Walla, their lives took considerably different, though similarly successful, trajectories. After attending Washington State University (WSU) where he was a star quarterback, Bledsoe was drafted first overall in the National Football League (NFL) in 1993 by the New England Patriots. He would play fourteen seasons in the NFL, becoming one of the league’s most prolific passers. Bledsoe brought the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1996 and played an integral role in the team’s first championship in 2002. While many remember the emergence of Tom Brady that year, true New England fans – of which I am one I must add – remember the pivotal role Bledsoe played in numerous games, including the conference championship, that season.

Figgins says there was “tremendous pride in Walla Walla about what Drew accomplished” at WSU and in the NFL. Figgins, however, always believed that Bledsoe would accomplish even greater things in his life after the NFL. Figgins just didn’t know he would also be playing a part in it.

Like Bledsoe, Figgins attended Washington State University where he studied horticulture. Figgins returned to Walla Walla to work at Leonetti Cellar in 1996. Over time, he assumed the roles of viticulturalist and winemaker. He now serves as Chief Executive Officer and Director of Winemaking.

An Interest in Wine

When Bledsoe was growing up in Walla Walla, the town was more about wheat than wine. Additionally, beer tended to be the beverage of choice at Washington State University (sources say this is still the case). It was therefore not until he was playing in the NFL that Bledsoe developed an interest in wine. This interest mostly centered around the dinner table with his wife Maura.

However, it was on a trip to Napa Valley in the late 1990s that Bledsoe became fascinated by the winemaking process. He says, “It was really, really intriguing to me at every level.” As his interest in wine increased, Bledsoe saw his hometown of Walla Walla emerge as a premier wine region. He was delighted to be able to order a bottle of wine from his hometown at restaurants.

As is the case with many wine lovers, Bledsoe had a moment that crystallized his interest in wine. In Bledsoe’s case, it was a 1998 Napa Valley Viader. Bledsoe says he was “walking around the house with this glass of wine and all of the sudden it just kind of stopped me in my tracks.” He suddenly realized wine was more than just a drink to have with dinner. His interest was ignited.

Bledsoe knew at the time that his NFL career wasn’t going to last forever. As he started to think about where to apply his passion once he retired from the game, he kept returning to wine. Bledsoe’s friend and fellow NFL quarterback Damon Huard knew a number of people in the wine industry. They began to discuss purchasing a vineyard together. The group soon expanded to include two other NFL quarterbacks, Rick Mirer and Dan Marino.

The group identified several pieces of property together, but all of the deals fell through. Bledsoe says this was “ultimately a blessing” as having four quarterbacks on any team – especially ones spread all over the country – was not a recipe for success. Bledsoe however continued pursuing his interest, purchasing a piece of property in the Columbia Valley outside Echo, Oregon.

The Subway Summit

Bledsoe was, at this point, already well acquainted with the wines of Leonetti Cellar. He also knew that Chris Figgins had made quite a name for himself at the winery. Similarly, Figgins had gotten wind of Bledsoe’s interest in wine. In 2001 when Bledsoe suffered a major injury on the football field, a mutual friend asked Figgins to send some bottles of Leonetti wine to Bledsoe as a ‘get well’ present. Figgins recalls thinking “Cool. Drew’s getting into wine!” Figgins did not, however, know just how interested Bledsoe had become.

Figgins’ cousin, a close friend of Bledsoe, would serve as somewhat of a matchmaker for the two. With Figgins, he discussed Bledsoe’s interest in wine. With Bledsoe, he discussed Figgins’ interest in consulting. Indeed, Figgins had been approached about consulting a number of times, but he had never found the right fit – someone who could be a true partner. He had heard about Bledsoe’s interest in starting a winery but wasn’t sure how sincere it was. He also wondered how Bledsoe might have been changed by life in the NFL. While Figgins knew Bledsoe had always been a person of exceptional character, he remembers thinking, “Let’s see what fourteen years and some big contracts does to a person.”

So where do one of Washington’s best winemakers and one of the NFL’s most accomplished quarterbacks meet to discuss a possible joint wine venture? Subway of course. While the location may have been less than formal, the meeting was more serious than Bledsoe originally anticipated. Bledsoe says, “We were about five minutes into the conversation when I realized I was being interviewed.” He quickly stepped things up, emphasizing that this was a real passion for him and that he wanted to be involved in every step.

While Figgins was impressed at Bledsoe’s responses to his questions (and he determined that life in the NFL had, in fact, not changed Bledsoe), he somewhat expected to hear that Bledsoe wanted to make a ‘trophy wine’ with lots of oak and lots of alcohol. When talk turned to wine and Bledsoe began talking about Italian and French wines, Figgins was intrigued. “It became clear to me that he had an educated palate,” Figgins says. Over the course of the conversation, Figgins realized not only how serious Bledsoe was about starting a winery but also how serious he was about making great wine, saying he realized that for Bledsoe it was “not a lifestyle play, not an ego play.” The two soon struck a deal to form a winery with Figgins as consulting winemaker.

General Manager and Coach

Once there was an agreement between Figgins and Bledsoe, the venture came together remarkably quickly. Bledsoe wanted to focus on making one wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon. In doing so, Bledsoe says he “wanted to be very tightly focused on making one wine and making it as great as we could.”

Drawing an analogy to football, Bledsoe says of the partnership with Figgins, “I am the owner and general manager. Chris is the coach and the quarterback. I make the big decisions about what direction we are going and what I want to see in the wine and Chris makes it happen.”

Bledsoe’s initial direction to Figgins was to make a wine that was expressive of the place it came from, specifically the Walla Walla Valley. Bledsoe says, “I did not want to make another super overripe, big oak, Napa blockbuster. I wanted a wine of more subtlety and elegance that allowed great Walla Walla fruit to shine through and be the dominant factor in the wine.”

This fit perfectly with Figgins’ approach. Like many, Figgins believes winemaking starts in the vineyard. Figgins says, “I don’t want to do ‘What style do you want?’ and I make that.” Instead Figgins started off by saying to Bledsoe, “Let’s talk about vineyards.” Figgins’ goal as a winemaker is to express the vineyard sources he uses and then apply any stylistic goals.

Figgins has been transitioning the Leonetti wines to entirely estate fruit. He had contracts for fruit from Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills vineyards, two of Walla Walla Valley’s finest, that he could use for the project. The 2007 vintage for the new winery was born.

Naming the Winery

With the fruit secured, the question was what to call the winery. Figgins pushed hard to name the winery ‘Bledsoe’, saying, “I love the name. It’s so unique.” Bledsoe, however, wanted the wine to speak for itself. He says, “I didn’t want anybody to have the perception that this was just an endorsement type deal. If the wine is good enough, it doesn’t need a celebrity endorsement.” Bledsoe also believes that discovery plays an important part in the joy of wine. He says, “With wine there should be a sense of discovery where you look at our bottle, try the wine, really like the bottle, and turn it around to find out more and find out ‘Cool. That’s Drew Bledsoe’s bottle.’”

With the name ‘Bledsoe’ ruled out, coming up with a moniker for the winery proved to be considerably harder than anyone anticipated. Bledsoe “thought a name would just fall out of the sky.” Names did of course, but all of them had already been taken. After working with the Seattle-based firm, Kendall Ross, the group winnowed hundreds of names down to a baker’s dozen for a trademark search. One of those names was Doubleback. Bledsoe liked the name with the connotation of returning, or doubling back, to his hometown on Walla Walla with the winery. Having the letters DB in the name, which also would play subtlety into the label design, was a happy coincidence.

The First Vintage

The first thing one notices about Doubleback’s inaugural release – a 2007 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – is that the bottle is immaculately designed. The bottle is physically beautiful with weighted glass, hand numbering (a “logistical nightmare” Figgins says), and an elegant label design. ‘Doubleback’ is etched around the neck of the bottle. The Doubleback insignia forms swooping silver and gold arches, reminiscent of cattle horns, above the word DOUBLEBACK. On close inspection, the insignia also forms the letters DB.

What is inside the bottle does not disappoint. The two primary components of the 2007 wine come from Block One of Seven Hills Vineyard and the oldest block of Pepper Bridge. Keeping with the idea of focusing on the fruit, the wine was aged in fifty percent new French oak. Six hundred cases of Doubleback wine were produced in 2007. Bledsoe’s long-term goal is to grow the winery to several thousand cases annually.

Bledsoe says that the results for the 2007 vintage were exactly what he hoped they would be, saying the wine “has subtleties, elegance but still great complexity.” Figgins is similarly pleased saying the wine is, “highly aromatic with a real purity of fruit.”

While at this young age the oak shows through at times, as the wine opens up the luscious Walla Walla fruit steals the show. The wine is marked by opulent fruit aromatics and flavors while remaining elegant and structured. Compared to the Leonetti Cellar wines, the Doubleback 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is a bit softer and more fruit forward. While the wine will benefit from additional years in the bottle, many will find it irresistible now.

A Winning Team

Bledsoe says there are many parallels between being successful in football and being successful in any business, including making wine. “At the most simple level, having a great team around you is more important than any other factor,” he says. Bledsoe describes the partnership with Figgins as “spectacular.” Figgins is equally enthusiastic about Bledsoe’s commitment to making great wine, saying, “A lot of people don’t get it. Bledsoe gets it.” Heidi Wells, another Walla Walla native, rounds out the team as Doubleback’s General Manager.

Much like football, Bledsoe also says of making wine, “If you are going to be successful, it takes really hard work for a long time.” Bledsoe continues by saying it requires “tons of patience and a thousand small decisions that end up making a big impact.”

One large decision is what fruit to use for the wine in the long-term. While the winery sourced fruit for the 2007 to 2009 vintages, Bledsoe’s goal is to ultimately use estate fruit. In determining a site for an estate vineyard, Bledsoe and Figgins wanted a place that would be stylistically consistent with their initial offerings. Bledsoe invested in a fifty-acre estate vineyard in the SeVein project, which Figgins started with a group of investors. The vineyard, named McQueen after a family name, was planted in 2008 to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. The site is in close proximity to Seven Hills Vineyard, which provides the backbone of Doubleback’s first vintages. Doubleback currently produces its wines at a custom crush facility in Walla Walla. Bledsoe says he may build some type of facility at the McQueen Vineyard site in the future.

While both Bledsoe and Figgins are excited about the potential of the McQueen vineyard, they say the transition to estate fruit will not be made until the quality of the fruit exceeds the vineyards they are currently using. Bledsoe also owns the Flying B Vineyard in the Columbia Valley outside of Echo, Oregon. This vineyard is planted to fifty acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah. The first fruit from this vineyard came in 2007.

While he lives in Bend, Oregon with his wife and four children, true to his word, Bledsoe has been involved in Doubleback every step of the way. He travels to Walla Walla about once a month most of the year and more frequently during critical times for the winery. Figgins has been impressed with just how involved Bledsoe has been, saying the family has even been involved in vineyard planting and worked the bottling line. “And not just for photo-op stuff,” Figgins adds.

Figgins and Bledsoe recently conducted blending trials for the 2008 Doubleback wine at Bledsoe’s home. While Bledsoe says he is “really, really proud of what’s in the bottle for 2007,” he is even more excited about the 2008 vintage saying, “It’s been hard not to talk about it.” Figgins similarly describes the 2008 vintage as “awesome.”

Going Home

Although he lives in Bend, Bledsoe keeps his hometown close at heart. He talks enthusiastically about the way the wine industry has revitalized Walla Walla in the last fifteen years. He also stays in close touch with the Walla Walla Valley’s ever-growing wine industry. When asked for his top valley wineries, Bledsoe gives a long list of favorites from wineries large and small. Consumers asked that same question in the future seem sure to add Bledsoe’s Doubleback to their list.

Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley 2007 $85
Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) A nose that informs you on the first sniff that there is serious stuff in your glass with sweet French oak spices, toast, bittersweet chocolate, intense red and black fruit aromas, high-toned herbal notes, and a dusting of earth. An intriguing mixture of bold and lithe flavors on a palate tightly packed with opulent blackberry and cherry fruit robed in silky oak. Has a big black fruit lick on the mid-palate accented by silky tannins. Winds and weaves on the finish.

Sample provided by winery
Photos courtesy of Doubleback