Game, Set, Wine

Industry professionals find room for wellness and fitness in the wine world

Meet the industry professionals finding room for wellness and fitness in the wine world. From left: Laurent Montalieu, Frank Foti, Ben Belletto, Sarah Murdoch, Mike Duffy, Shardul Ghogale, Matt Vuylsteke and Bryan Laing. ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Sarah Murdoch with wine critic James Suckling during a visit to sample Oregon wines. ## Photo provided by Sarah Murdoch
Wine critic James Suckling preparing for a tennis match with Sarah Murdoch, owner of Puncheon PR, formerly communications director at the Oregon Wine Board. ## Photo provided by Sarah Murdoch
Frank Foti playing at Grounded Body, the Carlton facility he built for Inn the Ground guests and nearby tennis and pickleball enthusiasts. ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Shardul Ghogale, director of sales & family ownership at Left Coast Estate. ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Bryan Laing, co-owner and winemaker at Hazelfern Cellars. ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Owner of Puncheon PR, Sarah Murdoch, playing tennis at Carlton’s Grounded Body. ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Matt Vuylsteke, winemaker at Amaterra Winery and 51 Weeks Winemaking, enjoying a glass of wine at Inn the Ground.  ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Laurent Montalieu, founder and CEO of NW Wine Company, during a tennis match. ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Mike Duffy, private client host at Alexana ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Some of Oregon’s tennis-playing wine professionals enjoying a glass of wine at Inn the Ground after a match. From left: Shardul Ghogale, Ben Belletto, Laurent Montalieu, Frank Foti, Matt Vuylsteke, Sarah Murdoch and Mike Duffy. ## Photo by Tom Grissom
Ben Belletto, tasting room manager at Domaine Drouhin Oregon and founding tennis coach at Court & Vine. ## Photo by Tom Grissom

By Sarah Murdoch

Within minutes of meeting superstar wine critic James Suckling two years ago, we were talking tennis. Discovering we played at the same level, we met for a game of singles the next morning at Linfield University. The college’s women tennis team played on the adjacent court. 

Later that day, Suckling tasted through several hundred Oregon wines. The following morning, we duked it out again on the court. This time we were joined by Laurent Montalieu, founder and CEO of NW Wine Company; Bryan Laing, co-owner and winemaker at Hazelfern Cellars; and Ben Belletto, who competed at the highest tennis level of all of us, former Linfield coach, who now runs the tasting room at Domain Drouhin Oregon.

These aren’t fair-weather tennis players batting a ball around a few times each summer, but rather a fierce group of competitors committed to their game. They play indoors all winter, compete in weekly matches, have rankings and ratings, and many rely on tennis for daily exercise.

Since Suckling’s visit to Oregon, more high-level tennis players emerged who had an affiliation to wine... A quick glance at the sidebar list shows their wine associations– a few have even founded some of Oregon’s highest-esteemed wineries. It leads to speculation—what are the similarities between competing on the tennis court and working in Oregon’s wine industry?

Portland native Glen Coblens believes a correlation exists connecting tennis and wine. As a sports psychology consultant, he works with athletes, their parents, coaches and officials to mentally train for peak performance. Some consult Coblens when feeling conflicted while trying to return to the game they love.

“Winemakers are entrepreneurial in spirit,” Coblens said. “They must be strong, sometimes stubborn, dedicated, committed, and thick-skinned; taking both success and failure in stride. From what I understand, it’s not an easy profession.”

“Planning skills are essential for both tennis and wine production,” he continued. “Winemakers must plan out their vineyard blocks, the seasons– they need a strategic plan. Tennis is a mental sport. You can plan, but you still gotta show up to play in the match.”

Mike Duffy agrees. The private client host at Alexana Winery says, “For both tennis and wine, you do a lot to prepare and set yourself up for success. But, ultimately, it’s the performance in the moment that truly matters. That pressure adds an exciting element to each.”

Coblens concluded, “In tennis, you find your opponent’s weaknesses and adjust your play, sometimes in the moment. Same with winemaking— last-minute decisions can be legendary or catastrophic on the crush pad. Winemakers need to be flexible enough to fine-tune their abilities mentally.”

While tasting in Bordeaux, Suckling related his history and love of tennis. “I began playing the game when I was 10,” he recalled. “We had just moved from Hollywood to Newport Beach, and tennis was a big sport there. I played in tournaments around Southern California while on the team at Newport Harbor High School. I joined the Utah State tennis team for two years, playing on and off throughout my 20s and 30s. But then I stopped for 30 years.”

Those three decades he devoted to building his career in critical wine writing, working for The Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, writing, (including a book on vintage Port) and establishing residences in Hong Kong, Napa and Tuscany. In 2021, Suckling was honored for his lifetime work with French wines and vineyards. French President Emmanuel Macron bestowed him with the title and rank of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite– the only Asian-based wine critic to receive such a distinction.

In 2019, he “caught the tennis bug again,” he said. “I love the game. It’s a great workout and you use your mind. I also like the etiquette of tennis. I now travel with my racquets and try to pick up a game or play with my wife. When I am in town, I play on the B team at Ladies’ Recreation Club in Hong Kong.”

Oregon wine professionals also find ways to incorporate tennis into their wine lifestyle. Left Coast Estate’s director of sales & family ownership, Shardul Ghogale, began playing the sport as a youngster. “I started playing tennis at age of eight, with my grandad’s old wooden tennis racquet, and it taught me how to play the game of life,” he said. “Even when you’re down 0-5, never give up! There’s still a chance to claw it back with a tie-breaker. Tennis has taught me how to identify an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses to better my own game. That has been my motto with everything I take on.”

Ghogale is the first wine professional from India accepted to the Wine & Spirits MBA from Kedge Business School in Bordeaux. He agreed working in wine requires resilience and patience, tennis has helped him through these uncertainties.

Matt Vuylsteke, winemaker at Amaterra Winery and 51 Weeks Winemaking in Portland, has much to say about tennis and wine. He grew up playing at West Hills Racquet Club, enjoying classes and outdoor pickup games during summer.

“I love tennis for the same reasons I love the wine world,” he said. “It’s interactive and social, yet all about the details. There is always something to work on and refine. Winemaking is absolutely about the details, and I think this repetition and search for the best next step or approach share many similarities.”
Tennis players in Oregon can’t rely on sunny skies to hone their craft. Plus, playing in the rain is dangerous. So, they join clubs or play on public indoor courts that offer tournaments and competitive teams.

Frank Foti, servant leader at The Ground, which owns the Humble Spirit Restaurant, Inn The Ground, Source Farms and the Stillwater event center, enjoys tennis so much he built a court at his newest retreat, “Grounded Body,” in Carlton. Guests at his inn can book tennis and pickleball courts, and work out at the nearby facility. A wooded hiking trail unites the two properties. Wine country residents can join the Grounded Body club for regular fitness. Tennis and wine offer camaraderie, adding, “there’s a lot of feedback exchange between the two.”

“There’s tremendous community in both wine and tennis, even between those who compete and our friends, opponents and partners. The wine industry is the most collaborative I’ve ever been involved with in my business career. And the overwhelming amount of support and assistance each provides the other is better than ‘coopetition.’ It’s true cooperation.”

I first picked up a racquet a decade before a wine glass. Forty years later, I count myself as one of 23 million tennis players in the U.S. Even though I prepare for days– sometimes weeks– I still get jittery before matches. While my stomach is in knots for at least the first two games, I have discovered a way to calm my nerves. Shockingly, it’s not a glass of wine…. It’s math. Yet, both are deeply entrenched in figures. I’ve never been a “mathlete,” but if I can focus on trajectory, angles and the geometry of the court, I feel composed. Turning my attention to the game’s weird scoring, geometric patterns, percentages of what is working and what isn’t, along with building points, helps too.

From what I know about wine— promoting and making it— math plays a huge role. Not a day passed during my seven-year stint at the Oregon Wine Board when I wasn’t sharing statistics with journalists on our state’s wine geography and census. They required numbers like pH and brix sugar levels, blending percentages, sorting bin and barrel capacity, oak toasting levels and more.

Belletto believes so deeply in the connection between court sports and wine, he launched Court & Vine in McMinnville so wineries can offer wellness and fitness experiences to their guests. Court & Vine doesn’t stop at tennis—pickleball, yoga and cycling are all wellness activities Belletto promotes. His goal is to show that wine can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

After leading Nike tennis programs in Santa Cruz and overseeing summer camps for kids and adults, Belletto established something similar in Southern California. In association with Whittier College and the joint varsity intercollegiate athletic programs for Pomona College and Pitzer College (two of the Claremont Colleges), he coached student athletes. I met him at a pre-pandemic tennis clinic which combined winetasting and vineyard visits over a dreamy ultimate Oregon wine country experience.

“I think there are a few reasons why wine and tennis fit so well,” he said. “Wine is very much the product of farming and much grittier than its finished product, bottled and capped in wax. Tennis, similarly, is physically taxing, takes years of practice, and at its best is fluid, graceful, and easy on the eyes.”

“Finally, having played and coached for many years, one common thread is the chase for perfection. As players, we cherish that one evening when we couldn’t miss or the feeling of the ball cracking off your strings for a backhand winner. You don’t forget those moments and return again and again for the chase. Wine is very similar. You remember where you were when you opened that one extraordinary bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir. It’s a perfect combination of time and place that hook tennis players and wine lovers.”

Consider wellness and fitness in your wine regimen. Even if you don’t play at a high level, the clinical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings published a study conducted over 25 years, surveying 8,577 participants. Scientists learned playing tennis regularly could extend life expectancy by almost a decade.

An additional decade of drinking Oregon wine and hitting a little green ball around? Sign me up!

Oregon’s wine professionals with a passion for tennis

Matt Vuylsteke, winemaker at Amaterra Winery and 51 Weeks Winemaking;
Bryan Laing, co-owner and winemaker at Hazelfern Cellars;
Shardul Ghogale, director of sales & family ownership at Left Coast Estate;
Stephanie Novak, general manager at Trisaetum Winery;
Ben Belletto, tasting room manager at Domaine Drouhin Oregon and founding tennis coach at Court & Vine;
Toni Kidd, area manager of Oregon and Washington for C. Mondavi & Family;
Mary and Bill Lowblad, owners of Stormy Morning Vineyard;
Laurent Montalieu, founder and CEO of NW Wine Company;
Mike Duffy, private client host at Alexana Winery;
Sierra Wright, general manager at The Pines 1852;
Augusto Carneiro, founder and chief friendship officer at Nossa Familia Coffee;
Frank Foti, servant leader at The Ground, which owns the Humble Spirit Restaurant, Inn The Ground, Source Farms and the Stillwater event center;
Sarah Murdoch, owner of Puncheon PR, formerly Oregon Wine Board communications director.

Sarah (aka Sally) Murdoch runs Puncheon PR and has marketed many iconic sports and beverage brands, which eventually led her to the Oregon Wine Board where she headed communications for almost seven years. A native Portlander and Oregon Duck with a journalism degree, she is an avid tennis player and captains a number of tennis teams. She recently made Forest Grove her home, and her go-to winery is David Hill Vineyards & Winery. Visit to learn more.

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