Look Who's Got His Own Merlot: Da Coach

In Effort to Tap Yuppie Market, Mike Ditka Releases Signature Wines

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Former Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka is blitzing the wine cellar. The gruff-talking, 1985 Super Bowl-winning tough-guy icon is selling something new for his fans to stuff in their lunch pails: pinot grigio.

Mr. Ditka couldn't have better timing. His release of five signature wines-including "Da Coach Pinot Grigio" and "Mike Ditka's Kick Ass Red"-comes just as the resurgent Bears are again a contender for the National Football League championship. And with that resurgence comes the usual cliches about how well the tough Bears defense pairs with its blue-collar fans, whom Mr. Ditka memorably dubbed "Grabowskis."

But Mr. Ditka's ultimate success as a wine salesman may wind up undermining the Grabowski legend he helped create: Today's Bears fans aren't the blue-collar, sausage-devouring, beer-swilling "Superfans" immortalized in a long-running "Saturday Night Live" sketch; they're professionals who like merlot.

"He's selling to the yuppie lawyers and bankers and ad-agency guys who want to relate to that old-time Chicago, even if they have nothing to do with it," said local media critic Steve Rhodes. "It's the wannabe-Grabowski market."

The real Grabowskis, of course, have faded. Manufacturing jobs-once the backbone of the city's economy and character-no longer rank as Chicago's leading form of employment, having been supplanted during the mid-1990s by the service sector; education and health care; and, increasingly, by lawyers, consultants and other professionals. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, the city had more than twice as many workers in its financial sector as it had in construction.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the home of the Bears, Soldier Field, which surrendered most of its eastern half to club seats and luxury boxes during a recent renovation. That renovation also forced most season-ticket holders to pay a $10,000 per seat "personal seat license" fee for the right to buy their tickets.

"If you see what they sold the PSLs for, and what they sell tickets for, it isn't Joe Six-pack at those games anymore. Mostly, it's wine drinkers," said Mike North, a former hot-dog vendor who today ranks as the city's pre-eminent sports-radio talker. "It's a city of condos, whereas it used to be a city of bungalows."

That certainly is a shift that will help Mr. Ditka's wine sales. But he's also counting on larger alcohol-consumption trends that have seen wine and spirits consistently take drinkers away from beer, which accounts for about 50% of U.S. alcohol consumption today, down from about 55% in 2000.

"There's a significant movement to bring down barriers to wine around the country," said Tim Thornhill, a part owner of the Mendocino Wine Co., which produced Mr. Ditka's wine. (The coach lent his input during the blending process.)

a touchdown so far

Mr. Thornhill said early returns on the wine, which is rolling out in Chicago this month and in a few other Midwestern markets after the new year, look good, thanks in part to the Bears' success. "I went to a bunch of wine shops in Chicago, and every response was: Bring it here and we'll stack it by the front door," he said.

Mr. Ditka wasn't available to comment, although his secretary noted that he's a longtime wine enthusiast.

It's not yet clear how serious wine drinkers will react to Mr. Ditka's offerings, which were selling at one Chicago outlet for between $9 and $15. On the message board attached to the website of the esteemed wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., oenophiles voiced their opinions.

"Ditka vs. [$1,600-a-bottle Cabernet Sauvignon] Screaming Eagle?" asked one poster in an echo of the old SNL "Superfans" sketch, in which Grabowskis would break from devouring Polish sausages to weigh in on how Ditka would fare in combat against various foreign armies, natural disasters and other calamities. "Ditka."

contributing: kate macarthur
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