Mike Ditka Takes on the Wine World

"Da Coach" Adds Wine to Growing Hospitality Empire.

Football legend Mike Ditka is the latest ex-athlete to get into the wine business—but for him, it was a natural evolution from his popular restaurant in Chicago and a growing food business.

Though he comes from Pennsylvaniaserious beer territory—Ditka says, "I've always drunk wine."

He made his fame in football, however. He was All-American as a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, then was drafted by the Chicago Bears, traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and then traded to the Dallas Cowboys where a 7-yard touchdown pass he caught help the Cowboys win Super Bowl VI.

After 12 seasons in the NFL, he became assistant coach for the Cowboys, then head coach for the New Orleans Saints before retiring from the business and starting Mike Ditka's Restaurant in Chicago.

"Da Coach" is a beloved figure at the restaurant, eating there frequently and never hesitating to work the crowd. The restaurant features steaks and has an extensive wine list, but like many, considered adding house wines for its biggest fans.

A contact at distributor Southern Wine & Spirits suggested partnering with Mendocino Wine Company, and after meeting with its Paul Dolan and Tim Thornhill, Ditka found both kindred souls - and even bigger prospects: instead of just creating a private label for restaurant patrons, Ditka was persuaded that his fame could appeal far beyond his own tables.

Mendocino Wine Company, which also owns Parducci, put together some custom blends of popular-priced wines, then threw in a high-end complement to the restaurant's signature "Kick Ass Paddle Steak," a $50 (retail) blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel naturally called Kick-Ass Red.

The other wines are Mendocino Chardonnay at $17 and Cabernet at $19, plus Pinot Grigio and Merlot at slightly lower price.

Costco has already ordered the wine, and Ditka expects it to sell well in the area, where he is a folk hero. Depending on the response, they may target other markets, such as Dallas where Ditka is also lionized. "We're after the Midwest first," notes Tom Kenny, Vice President, Ditka`s Real Foods, "but our goal is national distribution."

In the meantime, sales potential should double in the spring, when Ditka opens his second restaurant. Still, it's clear what's in the back of the mind of the passionate amateur golfer. "I look at that bottle with Arnold Palmer on it, and I know we can do it too."

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