NASCAR fans' palates turning more sophisticated, at least in Sonoma

6/21/2008 - NASCAR
Soon after Jeff Gordon got in the wine biz in 2004, consumption by NASCAR fans rose 22 percent. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

SONOMA, Calif. -- At the foot of the scenic mountains surrounding Infineon Raceway, on the black pavement behind the main grandstand between souvenir haulers and barbecue stands, is a lattice-covered wine garden surrounded by large oak barrels.

Less than a hundred yards away, a large group of people gathered for wine, cheese and shrimp cocktails in Victory Lane.

Even though a driver with Budweiser on the hood of his car won the pole for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at this 1.99-mile road course, wine connoisseurs now have a place in NASCAR.

All of a sudden a word such as "palate" is as understood as spring rubbers and wedges.

"I didn't even know what [a palate] was 20 years ago," team owner Richard Childress said with a laugh. "I used to load a bunch of used parts on a pallet."

Childress is a big part of NASCAR's move from beer and hot dogs to a wine-and-cheese crowd. He opened the Childress Vineyard in the fall of 2004 in the Yadkin Valley less than 15 minutes from his Welcome, N.C., race shop.

A year later, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon got into the wine business by introducing a 2004 Carneros Chardonnay featuring his name and Gordon Collection logo on the bottle.

Soon after that, according to a Nielsen Co. survey, wine consumption among the average NASCAR fan jumped 22 percent -- from spending $66.80 in 2005 to $81.40 in 2006.

While that didn't put NASCAR at the top of the list of wine drinkers in sports -- LPGA fans spent on average $124.90 in 2006 and tennis fans $111.90 -- it did draw the sport closer to the NBA ($86.20), Major League Baseball ($89) and the NFL ($94.30).

And the increase was by far greater than in any other sport, prompting many wine companies to expand their research on the dynamics of purchasing and consumption by motorsports fans.

In 2005, Texas Motor Speedway became the first track to offer wine from vendors. Earlier this year, the Performance Racing Network launched its own wine show, "The Wine Crush."

This wine fad is so out of control that there was a Saturday morning news conference to discuss wine.

So has the sport born of bootleggers turned sophisticated?

"It kind of outgrew the Southern fan base," said NASCAR West series owner Randy Lynch, who started Bennett Lane Winery a year before Childress got into the business. "The clearest demographic information on the San Francisco market that NASCAR puts out says the No. 1 identifying factor is the NASCAR fan in the Bay Area is affluent.

"It's becoming more of an upscale crowd."

It definitely is in Sonoma. There will be more wine-tasting tours in the three days before the checkered flag falls than there have been car tests leading to this race on the winding pavement surrounded by vineyards.

"The sport that grew up on moonshine and beer sponsorship, now all of a sudden we have wineries sponsoring race cars," said Doug Rice, the president of PRN. "It's part of an evolution the sport is going through."

Rice, once an avid beer drinker, never imagined five years ago his radio network would air a wine show.

"Not in the most remote corners of my mind did I think that was a possibility," he said. "Part of it is the whole trend in wine. It's perceived to be better for you and has some health benefits. And NASCAR may be getting a little different crowd."

That certainly has been the case at the Speedway Club at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte.

"Speedway Club in Charlotte used to be all beer," Rice said. "They don't even have beer taps anymore."

Jeff Burton, who is second in points behind Kyle Busch, isn't surprised.

"If you think about it … you walk down any grocery store and there's like whole aisles dedicated to it," he said. "When I was a kid you had some Mad Dog 20-20. You didn't have a whole aisle of wine.

"It used to be stuffy people are wine people. Today, everybody drinks wine."

Well, not everybody.

"I'm a fan of the 26 car, to be honest," Mike Ford, the crew chief for Denny Hamlin, said in reference to the Crown Royal sponsor on Jamie McMurray's car.

I didn't even know what [a palate] was 20 years ago. I used to load a bunch of used parts on a pallet.

-- Richard Childress

Hard liquor aside, Ford acknowledged the palate of race fans has moved toward wine.

"It used to be a pretty hard-core Budweiser crowd," he said. "It's kind of branched out."

Gordon, who grew up in nearby Vallejo, Calif., often envisioned becoming a vintner as his family drove through the Napa Valley and Sonoma County to water-ski at Lake Berryessa and race midgets in Calistoga.

"I remember seeing the vineyards and thinking, 'This is so beautiful,'" he said.

Beauty turned into reality after Gordon tasted a bottle of Batard-Montrachet while traveling in London. Soon he began talking about the oakiness of wines like he would the setup of his No. 24 car.

Childress began drinking wine in the 1970s during trips to California to race. He finally turned 65 acres off Highway 64 into a vineyard and built a winery that looks as though it belongs in Italy with its beautiful stone masonry.

This past year, his tasting room was ranked among the top 25 in America.

But Childress admits Lynch knows more about making good wines than he and Gordon combined.

"We had three of the top cabs [cabernets] in the country," Lynch said. "And we only make three red wines. Without tooting my horn too much, we're very proud of our wine."

Lynch was the first to put grapes on a car three years ago, when road-course specialist P.J. Jones drove one of his cars at Sonoma.

"That was the day Tony Stewart took out five cars, and one of them was ours," Lynch said.

He shouldn't have been surprised. Stewart drinks Schlitz beer.

"As we all know, beer is kind of on the downswing," Lynch said. "Anheuser Busch in the last two years has gone on a cost-cutting mission. Who knows what the future holds for beer?"

The future for wine certainly looks bright in NASCAR. Fans are trading their beer koozies for wine coasters, opening up an area of marketing that is virtually untapped in NASCAR.

For $50 you can have the Gordon Collection Merlot. For $255 you can get the gift set that includes a bottle of his Carneros Chardonnay in an autographed, hinged wooden case with the Gordon Collection logo and two Riedel Extreme Chardonnay stems with the logo.

For $5.99 you can have a Gordon helmet wine bottle stopper. Or for $6.99 you can get Gordon's wine glass charms, featuring the No. 24 car or a checkered flag.

"There are NASCAR fans out there that drink wine," Gordon said. "The thing is, we're not so thinking of promoting our wine with racing. I want it in fine restaurants. I want it to be something completely nonassociated with racing."

But there is the potential for a pretty good rivalry. Gordon fans can tout their driver makes a better wine than Childress, and vice versa.

"Richard makes a nice wine, but Napa Valley is where you should grow your grapes," Gordon said diplomatically.

The business already has a point system like NASCAR. Anything with a 90 or better is consider excellent. Lynch has had 10 90-plus grades over the past three years.

"The thing about asking somebody if somebody's wine is better than the other, everybody's palate is different," Childress said.

Two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson gives the wine edge to Childress over his car owner.

"Man, I haven't had Gordon's wine. Is that wrong?" he said. "I've had his white but not his red. I've had Childress' red. Richard gave me a nice bottle of red when I won the Daytona 500, so I think he's ahead there."

So much for beer wars.

Pretty soon we'll have the Childress Winery challenging the Gordon Collection the way Miller challenges Budweiser.

But while there are awards and prizes in the wine business, connoisseurs like Gordon and Childress haven't completely lost touch with their primary objective.

"I've taken home a lot of trophies all over the world," said Childress, also an avid hunter. "What's the next championship I want to get? A Cup championship."

Of course, he would fill it with wine.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.