By Don Holton
Terlato Wines International claims to distribute more than one in eight bottles of wine over $14 sold in America. So when I was invited for a tasting at its headquarters, I expected a stiff corporate experience, designed to pump a few new labels and move us on our way.
The Armour Mansion - photo courtesy of Don Holton
But this was no typical office park. In 1995, Anthony Terlato acquired the historic mansion of Philip D. Armour (the meat packing heir) in Chicago’s north suburb of Lake Bluff, and through a careful restoration, brought the 61-room home back to its original 1932 Tudor Gothic splendor. Called Tangely Oaks, a name now used on some Terlato wines from California, it now serves as the company’s home office, and with 26,000 square feet, there’s room to grow.
Headlining the event were pro golfers Ernie Els and Luke Donald, both in town for the BMW Championship, and in Lake Bluff to promote the wines they produce under their respective names.
The evening was “smooth” on all fronts – the character of the wines, the Terlato hospitality (food stations in various rooms with paired wines; loved the veal meatballs), and a measured tone for the evening, set by the easy-going personalities of Els and Donald. I also came away energized with a golf tip that Els assures will help me hit the golf ball farther.
Inside the mansion - photo courtesy of Don Holton
Donald is a native of England who was a star golfer at Northwestern University. He is now a top international player, with victories at the World Cup, Target Challenge, and a 5-5-1 record in the Ryder Cup. Els is a two-time US Open champion and winner of the British Open. Several years ago, before Tiger Woods dominated the game, he was the world’s top-ranked player. Both Donald and Els are known for their cool heads in competition and their rhythmic, flowing golf swings. Els nickname fits; he’s called “The Big Easy.”
As with many pro athletes, both players are seeking to extend their professional branding – in this case, to the world of fine wines. We sampled three reds – yes, all very smooth – that Els produces in collaboration with Jean Englebrecht in Stellenbosch (Cape Province), South Africa. The flagship Ernie Els wine is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. It is aged in French oak barrels for 20 months, bottle-matured for another 18 months, and the result is an elegant softness with hints of red currant and plum. The pourer said it retails for about $90. Even in this economy, I dare to say, this wine may be worth it.
Ernie Els Magnum - photo courtesy of Terlato Wine Group
Another was Englebrecht Els, also a Bordeaux style made with Shiraz that delivers stronger, more earthly hints of berries, mushroom, and spice ($35 retail). This wine is well layered; it keeps rolling at you in ever more pleasant ways.
Finally, Cirrus, produced with Silver Oak’s Ray Duncan under the Cirrus corporate name, is a Rhone style ruby/red Syrah/Viognier blend that’s supple, light on its feet, very drinkable, but may be overpriced at $55. It feels like the marketing team is trying too hard to plug a pricing gap between $90 and $35.
Beneath the grand staircase at Tangley Oaks, Els posed for photos with event guests, and he meets each one with a quiet sincerity. He actually looks at you and seems interested, especially when we exchanged comments on several golf courses I’ve played in South Africa. Like Royal Cape and Sun City. “Heh,” I asked, “how about the par three 13th hole at the Lost City course with the 38 crocodiles in that deep greenside bunker?” Els smiles; he knows it well. Seriously, don’t get too close to the edge. If you fall in, it’s a two-stroke penalty.
Els’ wife Liezl was on his arm. Together, they’re one of the golf world’s most admired couples, not only for their friendliness, but also for their international work on behalf of child autism. Their 6-year-old son Ben was diagnosed with autism a few years ago, and the Elses raise awareness through the Autism Speaks organization.
Ernie Els, photo courtesy of Don Holton
Els wines were impressive, but what I really needed was a golf lesson. I’ve been hitting some nasty hooks lately and found a moment to ask how Els maintains his characteristic swing tempo, especially in the heat of play. The key, he said, is to grip the club a little lighter, making sure you feel the weight of the club head. We tend to tighten up and squeeze too hard. “Soft hands,” he said, “make your hands feel soft. You’ll hit it a lot straighter and farther.”
I told Els that I was a member at a nearby golf club, designed in 1913 by legendary architect Donald Ross. His face brightened. He said he likes Ross courses, with their large sloping greens and Scottish style. He seemed to be angling for an invitation, but with my schedule, it will have to be next season.
By the way, Els struggled at the BMW Championship, finishing tied for 38th place, far back from winner Tiger Woods.
To learn more:
Monday: Luke Donald wines and branding wines with pro athletes.