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From professional football player to formidable producer of Rhone-style wines

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Visiting the winery again years after I first tasted Terry Hoage’s wines, they still stand high above the norm.(Courtesy)

I discovered Terry Hoage’s wine years ago at a “Paso On The Road” tasting event in Pasadena. Of the 20 to 30 featured wines, his Rhone-style blends, along with a few others, stood above the rest.

At the time, I was not aware of Terry’s background as a two-time All-American defensive back at the University of Georgia, a Heisman Trophy candidate and 1984 SEC Athlete of the Year.

He spent 13 seasons in the NFL, playing for the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and other teams. It was while playing for the Saints that he met his wife and partner, Jennifer who has recently launched a project of her own.

In his retirement from pro sports, he is a formidable producer of Rhone-style wines and has been hands-on in every aspect including the design of the winery buildings, engineering the irrigation systems, selecting and planting the stock on 26 acres of vineyards purchased by he and Jennifer in 1992.

While Terry was playing football, a young Jennifer was studying mime in Paris, France under master Etienne Decroux whose name, and memory, she honors with her new line of wines. Decroux, with elegant labels designed by Paragon, focuses on sourcing pinot noir from some of the finest vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills appellation of north Santa Barbara County.

Our tasting began with a Decroux Rose’ of Pinot Noir ($38), sourced from Central Coast vineyards, that was, after brief skin contact, aged sur lie, giving the juice more contact with the yeast lees, adding texture to the soft flavors.

Before the Rhones, Jenn poured the 2016 Decroux John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir ($75), from one of the most inland vineyards in the coastal appellation, just as lead winemaker Phillip LaMontagne stopped by. He spoke of Sebastiano’s diligent care and of the two Dijon clones they source that ripen early and complete, producing a wine of depth.

Partial to the fruity grenache varietal, I requested to taste the Hoage’s 2015 The Skins Grenache ($66), an aromatic, medium- bodied wine that was fruit-forward, but nicely balanced with spice notes. The name honors the skins of the grape that add color as well as the Washington Redskins, with whom Terry won a Super Bowl ring in 1991.

Double meanings continue to be a trend in naming Terry’s wines. For example, 2015 The 46 ($60), a 50 percent grenache, 40 percent syrah blend and 10 percent mourvedre co-fermented blend, was named after Highway 46 West near the vineyards as well as the defensive scheme of famed coach Buddy Ryan who coached Hoage for much of his career.

Naming aside, I enjoyed the balanced jammy fruit and spice flavors enough to order two bottles to go.

Hoage talked about irrigation practices in the Paso Robles region, specifically noting that dry-farming in the local climate was nearly impossible. He explained that during intense heat spells, grenache will completely shut down photosynthesis while syrah will continue through it. He irrigates in the winter to simulate natural rainfall which allows for more dry- farming during normal spring and summer months. However, during heat spells, sporadic waterings are necessary.

Terry feels that the flavors of syrah are carried through the acidity of the wine. He also manages the alcohol content to avoid inhibiting the aromatics. Described as one of their most popular wines, 2014 The Hedge Syrah ($66) is a bold and balanced release that is very accessible to the palate.

The 2014 Three-Four -Block Designate syrah ($88) is sourced from a small portion of Hoage’s vineyard that he shares with acclaimed winemaker and mentor Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards in Paso Robles. The vines here are planted densely, yielding small clusters and highly concentrated fruit. The result is a luscious wine with rich integrated flavors. Continuing the trend, the name comes both from the vine spacing and Terry’s jersey number.

Visiting the winery again years after I first tasted Terry Hoage’s wines, they still stand high above the norm. A tribute to his vineyards, Justin Smith produces an annual blend sourced from Terry’s grapes including the 2016 Saxum Terry Hoage Vineyard ($98), a blend of grenache, syrup and mataro, released last July.

Those serious about fine Rhone-style blends from the Paso Robles region should include TH Cellars during their next visit to the area.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com.

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