Filling the World’s Cup

Story and Art by Mark Stock

A fair share of sparkling wine was consumed the night of March 20, 2009. That was the fateful evening Portland, Ore. agreed to house a team that would compete in the highest level of domestic professional soccer, or Major League Soccer. The Willamette Valley’s self-proclaimed “Soccer City, USA” would finally be able to live up to its name.

Meanwhile, a transatlantic ride on the 45th-parallel away, Bordeaux was on the verge of winning their first French League title in 10 years. The vine-covered region would finally dethrone perennial champions Olympic Lyonnes and drink from the cup. 

One year from now, as the 2010 harvest wraps up in South Africa, the world will watch as 32 nations take to the pitch to determine what part of the world is best at the world’s most prominent sport.

It just so happens that that yet-to-be-determined nation likely excels at both the “beautiful game” and the “beautiful industry.”

A sport more akin to viticulture is tough to imagine.  The game is a lengthy and developing one, full of subtlety, patience, agility, endurance and religious-like passion. Both arenas share a lengthy tradition. While the ancient Greeks and Chinese were the first to kick a ball thousands of years ago, wine, previously crafted by age-old villagers of what is now Iran and eventually the Roman Empire, had already gained quite a following.

The same bladders used to store and serve wine eras ago were used—wrapped in sinew—as soccer balls. And though the game has evolved to one soaked in media, sponsorship and business, it still plays out like a good glass of wine. It has avoided leaping technological developments and over manipulation.  And it has aged to the point where it just now may be pouring well—sigh—in the States.

On the field, the positioning and demands are like those of the vineyard. The back line, the fortress of the castle, is occupied by fullbacks; they are the “harvest team,” a hardworking no-nonsense lot that knows the importance of timing. The midfield is run by artists, the inventive craftsmen of vintners of the team. One wants the ball in their possession as much as possible. 

The flank players, with their frequent sprints up and down the length of the field, are the distributors. They may accumulate plenty of mileage if only for a single touch of the ball, but their movement is pivotal. Up top, sit the strikers, the salesmen of the team, direct and attack-minded. They’re strong and convincing with the ball at their feet and most likely to affect the score of the game.

And manning the goal with bravery and borderline insanity is the goalkeeper. Mother nature’s role in wine is that of this quick-acting, instinctive individual. He or she can dictate the style of the game with a series of far-reaching commands or one jaw-dropping maneuver. I won’t get into the obvious seasonal similarities between the two.

Soccer is still just outside of the mainstream in American athletics. Many site its lengthy matches as monotonous, its limited scoring as uneventful and its tendency toward theatrics as wimpy, even ridiculous. Dropped among a towering power forward, beefy linebacker or top-heavy second baseman, the average soccer player looks slight and unthreatening. 

Our athletic heroes are supposed to be the inflated size of the tall tales they’re featured in. Their massive reputation precedes them, like a screaming eagle Cab or a true Barbaresco. But the soccer player is like Oregon Pinot Noir, unassuming on the surface but leagues deep with character and traits we’re still trying to figure out.

“Great soccer is absolute poetry, and one inch or a split second can make all the difference,” says Scott Wright of Scott Paul Wines. “Pinot can be a lot like that.”

Wright poured his wine at the Agency Ultra Sports Lounge in Portland during the Champion League final—the Superbowl of soccer—between Spanish champions Barcelona and English titans Manchester United. 

“Some guy from Barcelona I don’t even know just hugged me,” Wright admited in the wake of a tremendous tenth-minute Barcelona goal. It marked the beginning of the Basque team’s complete takeover of the 2009 Champions League Final in Rome.

Wright’s love of Spanish soccer pours from within. In fact, it ends up in the glass in the form of 2005 Petite Verdot. His friend and proprietor of Storyteller Wine Company in Portland, Michael Alberty, is on hand, telling the small crowd of wine geeks and footy fans that the vines that produced this sleek Spanish wine are 120 years old. An ’05 Preorat from Grenacha follows, as do a few vintages from Scott Paul’s own Oregon wines. His Carlton winery pulls fruit from the Dundee Hills and his special enterprise, Scott Paul Selections, imports wine from a host of small-batch producers in Burgundy.

The scene at the Agency is much like the scene in America at large. A handful of somewhat nerdy European-minded people—myself included—watching intently even as a defender passes the ball to a fellow defender. It’s all part of a larger tapestry that is the game itself, so richly layered that most people fail to look beyond the score line.  Doing so is to dismiss a wine because it’s not popular.

As Wright points out, America may be waiting for its first soccer superstar, but the U.S. has emerged as a viticultural force to be reckoned with and as many nations seem to suggest, perhaps soccer will follow. What style of play and how it will relate to the wine we produce is still hanging in the balance. But it’s irresistible to muse over.

So if I may generalize, we do know that Italy plays safely and defensively, with a measured, mindful approach not unlike their countless food wines, which are good alone and great with food. The Brits play a beer-style game, physical, hard-hitting and direct like a heavy mead. The French game beams with sophistication, trickery and elegance, like good Burgundy and with the occasional flare of Champagne. 

The Argentines bear the rugged, hearty and sharp traits of a Mendoza Malbec, while the Germans, though intimidating, play a softer, simpler game in the vein of a Riesling. And while the Portugese play with skill and the thick, almost dangerously aggressive confidence reminiscent of Port, the Spaniards play artistically, assertively, and communally like a Rioja does at a crowded dinner table. Maybe the United States is next, and will translate what’s in the barrel and glass to raw talent, borrowed elements and versatility on the soccer field.

At the moment, there’s a perceived elitism affecting both wine and soccer. Many try to dumb the two down when in fact they don’t need to be. They’re already simple and like a compelling piece of art, need only be as complicated as the perceiver wishes. 

Budweiser is the official sponsor of World Cup 2010. Beer sponsorship is customary, but the world’s biggest sporting event ought to reflect its location. A bit of terroir needs to be employed here—some expression and geographical personality. In the competition of dollars, only a Yellowtail or Gallo could even come close to competing with Bud, but that’s not the point. Soccer is the game of commoners and so too should be what the people of planet Earth are drinking.

The United States drinks more beer than any other country on earth but our wine industry is still very much maturing. In countries like Italy—hosts of the World Cup in 1990 and the current trophy holders—wine costs as much as beer and is just as necessary in daily life. The steady growth of Major League Soccer here, with its newest team just miles from world-renown wine country, tells me we may challenge for power on both fronts soon. But to return to viticultural metaphor, it’s going to be a process. 

The scene in France in 1998 made perfect sense.
The home nation was competing against perennial powerhouse Brazil for custody of the World Cup.  Home field advantage was a plus, but few expected France’s good fortune to continue. But, 90 minutes later, corks erupted from bottles like fireworks as Les Bleus won in convincing fashion, 3-0. 

The old adage “there must be something in the water,” falls just short in this case. The real reason, at least perhaps, may reside in the barrel. And if there really is a connection between quality soccer and quality wine, the U.S. should be losing sleep over its exciting prospects. The Portland Timbers will join the MLS in two years and we’re already fighting to host the World Cup again in the not-too-distant future. 

Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.

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