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Bradlee Van Pelt: Wine Dreams Part 2


[Continued from yesterday. This is the final installment. Have a great weekend!]

When did you leave the NFL?

My last training was 2007. I went from the Broncos to Houston, and at training camp, before the season, is when a lot of people get cut, and I got released in 2007.

What were your options on getting released?

What it was, when you’re released you’re a free agent, and what you do from there, you keep training, and waiting for the opportunity to come back to where you can go back with someone.

And you  didn’t want to do that?

No. I didn’t want to, because–and it wasn’t just about wine. I was cracking. I was living away from my friends and family. I remember vividly walking around, primarily in Hispanic supermarkets, searching for wine. And I’ll tell you, I bought this great bottle of ‘97 Heitz, in 2001, for like $10! It was weird, what am I doing in my free time? I’m scrounging for wine in these Hispanic supermarkets in Houston. That’s where my mind was: my free time was collecting wine.

You got bit by the wine bug.

I did. And that’s what it was. I was spending time at steak houses. I was into dining. Drink wine, get away from the things I didn’t like. Money wasn’t a problem. I could shield myself from reality. Yes, I love football, yes, I wish I was still playing. But did I make the wrong decision, walking away? Because my dad and everyone was like, “What are you doing? There’s hiccups in careers. You don’t throw everything away you’ve built up.” And I’d say, “Yeah, but I’m jeopardizing someone I want to be.” Because I thought I would become someone in football I wasn’t.

Did your father have the remotest idea what you were talking about when you told him you were jeopardizing the person you wanted to be?

No. I don’t think he had the slightest idea, because, you know, everything I’ve told everyone about “This is who I want to be,” and I did, by all means, because that’s what I thought would bring me ultimate happiness, but it also brings me power. In a sense, I thought money was power, and power was prestige, and I could start commanding. I was becoming a very commanding person.

Was there some religious aspect to this? You didn’t turn into a born again Christian or something?

No. I was drinking wine every night, hiding out in wine bars! But spiritually, yeah, I remember reading a lot of Eckhart Tolle, a lot of spiritual stuff, meaning I had to start asking myself questions about what was I running from and who was I trying to be. And I decided that–and I knew what it was about. It was about fear, it was about anger. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t an angry person. I’ve never been in a fight in my life.

I guess you need some anger to be in the NFL.

That’s true, but I wanted power so I could command and get what I wanted in life. Not that I knew exactly what that was back then, because I didn’t see it as being bad.

I’m still not getting where it came from. Usually when people undergo that profound of a change, it’s due to something. Something happens. Somebody dies in their life, they take a psychedelic drug, whateveer. What happened to you?

What happened in football is I started getting the gits. [slang?] You know what happens in golf? Like, tremors? What was happening was the pressure started coming in on me, and I started cracking. I wasn’t that relaxed, free.

You mean, this would happen in the middle of a pressure play?

Exactly. I would just try to breathe through it. I would get very hypersensitive. I couldn’t–

Makes me remember watching Joe Montana in the pocket. He was so graceful and relaxed.

And it wasn’t just football. It was my friends. It was people that I started–the people that really knew me, I started breaking away from it. There were friends at that time that said, “You know what? You don’t realize what you’re becoming.”

What kind of friends?

These were my friends, people I knew very well in college.

How do you know they weren’t just jealous?

Well, because, deep down inside I’d start to see how I’d be, how I’d drink too much, how I’d walk around and I was very nice, but I was also–I wasn’t so–I was very judgmental.

Some wine drinkers are like that.


It’s not like you left one dysfunctional world and now you’re going into some pure, unblemished one.

I know that, but I also–I’m not saying I’m leaving an undustry that is filled with everything bad to an industry that is just bursting with good. That’s not it. But I also find that, to me,  the people in the wine industry are more mindful, they’re more agriculturally based. I’ve found peace in the vineyards. It wasn’t just wine drinking, it was the idea of walking vineyards, of seeing the sun set and rise in vineyards.

Where were some of the first places you went?

Napa. I think it was with my mom. I did the big tours, like Beringer, just sat on the grass with my mother.

So these were not private, one on one tours for Bradlee Van Pelt.

Not at all.

You’d show up as a tourist.

As a tourist, regular guy walking around, asking questions. Couldn’t get enough. I was going to Cakebread, Quintessa. Again, it was the culture, the scenery. At that time, I didn’t quite understand the type of people who were in wine, because I was reading Wine Spectator and Enthusiast, and going buying wines that you would recommend. I’d buy a case of it, and that’s how I started out. I’d have 20, 30 cases lying around, but that’s how it was. I was passionate. And I just realized, at the same time, I was pressuring myself who I wanted to be. I wanted to understand me. I didn’t find it in wine, but wine helped me ease the transition, and gave me this clear path to leave who I was.

Where do you live now?

Santa Barbara.

Where do you work?

Ergomotion, a manufacturer of adjustable foundations. So we work the bedding industry.

So you’re not in the wine industry?

Well, I have side projects. What I decided professionally, because of all these grand plans I have in wine–I’ve tried to buy a wine bar, I’ve tried to buy into a wine bar, that really turned out bad, partly because I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t trained in business.

So what are your side projects in wine?

Right now, we’re buying negociant style.

Who’s “we”?

Me and a business partner. It’s how I’m setting up my early strategy. And as we buy wine, we’ll also start producing wine on a limited scale.

So you’re buying wine now? Where are you selling it?

We’re bottling right now. We’ll probably sell straight to restaurants.

Under what label?

Tributum. Some people will find it corny and cliched, and I understand it, but Tributum to me is, it’s my tribute to certain people, and to myself, and it sounds corny, but it’s to live up to the person I want to be. It is. It’s about giving back.

Do you have a website?

No. We’re going back and forth. We’re starting very small because there’s a lot of social media tactics I want to go after, and again, this is all to learn. It’s going back to square one. So it’s a time in my life to go and experiment. I want to custom crush in very limited quantities. This isn’t high end. It’s very price point driven, very strict on costs. I’m not about trying to undercut people. I just really enjoy wine, and I’ve got to start learning, to really see wine from a distributor, wholesaler perspective, and a producer.

Where would you like to be in ten years?

Ten years? I’d like to be a retailer of wine.

You mean, have a store?

Have multiple stores.

A chain.

A chain.

Like who? BevMo?

No. Not at all. Small and nimble. Like nothing you’ve seen. That’s something that arose in our first conversation, when I was actually talking to you, you were like, “Tell me more,” and I said, “Steve, I’d love to, but…”

You were all secretive.

Not because I’m the oracle, or that you’re looking at the next Howard Schultz [CEO, Starbucks] of wine. So part of going back to square one is that for me to be that retailer that I believe I can be, how do I do a paradigm shift in retailing, which I think I’m setting out to do, or at least, that’s what I want to do. If I have to go back to square one and, like, okay, I got to buy wine that’s finished, I got to sell it negociant, I got to custom crush, I got to learn those dynamics, I got to learn about distribution, really learn it, not just study or read it, not just work for wineries and not just travel, but actually distribute my own wine, and then I can enter the retail scene once I have proven successes underneath my belt, so that people aren’t going to look at me and, like, “So, kid, what makes you the next big retailer? Why is your idea so good?” And I’ll be able to go, “Well, this is why.” And that’s why I’m doing this, my current [mattress] work, a small company that allows me to head up certain projects within it, so that’s now sharpening my business sense in a different area from wine. So wine is my hobby; that’s what I do after work, that’s what I study at night, that’s when I meet people. In ten years, I assume I’ll be on a path to become the world’s largest wine retailer.

P.S. I hope to see you at the Chardonnay Symposium, which is tomorrow, Sat. July 23!

  1. Bill Williamson says:

    Please tell me you are kidding.

    Bradlee Van Pelt? He had a cup of coffee in the NFL.

  2. Such a cool story, Steve! Thanks for sharing. I imagine there might be those folks out there who’d poo-poo what Bradlee is doing, especially pundits in the industry. But you have to start somewhere, and at least he’s willing and passionate. Reminds me of a great saying I once heard: The difference between dreams and reality is “willingness.”

  3. Awesome piece Steve. I really enjoyed this two part series. I watched Bradlee going to school at Colorado State. He is still a god and legend at CSU. I wish he would come back and give our boys some words of encouragement. Thank you.

  4. Rand cramer says:

    Wow-great story! I grew up with bradlee in Santa Barbara as well as played football with him in high school. He was always super intense on the field, perfectionist if you will, but very laid back off of it. He was one of those athletes you could put at any position and he would excel in it. I’ve tried to keep up on his career etc., but info. has been lacking. Its good to know he’s redirected his passion. Bradlee always seemed to find his way around or through would be tacklers, it’s just a matter of time before he does the same in the wine industry or whatever else he decides to do, and be successful. Good luck bradlee. Thanx for the story.

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