Scott Pruett is the racer's racer -- and one of the most versatile drivers in motorsport history.
And along the way he's turned a wine business he (literally) started in his garage into Pruett Vineyard, a world-class winery that produces, among other award winning wines, what Wine Spectator declared the highest-rated Syrah in the country.
There's an old joke that goes, "How do you make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune -- and start a winery." So why (and more importantly, how) did a race car driver launch a winery that within a few short years consistently score 90-plus wine ratings?
To find out, I talked with Scott and his wife Judy -- two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet -- at the Rolex 24, his final race before retiring from driving. (Although he will be the Grand Marshal for the 44th Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race you can see live on FOX on Saturday April 14th at 4 p.m. ET. And yes, I will be watching.)
Racing at the highest levels is all-consuming... so why get into winemaking?
I grew up on a ranch. I love working. I love being outside. I love working in the dirt.
As far as making wine... I wanted to give it a try, and I knew a few things. I didn't want to just hire a winemaker and step back out of the way. I didn't want to just put my name on a label. I didn't want to buy my fruit.
I wanted to do the work.
You didn't want to be like a corporate seagull: Fly in, eat all the food, and poop on everything as you fly away?
(Laughs.) Well, no.
During my IndyCar career we had purchased a property in the Sierra foothills with an incredible view of the American River. The Sierra foothills are a very old wine-growing region because of the gold rush: The miners would plant vines, harvest the fruit, ferment the grapes... it gave them something alcoholic to drink.
Being just over an hour from Napa, we knew a lot of very successful people in the business. Thomas Rivers Brown has multiple Wine Spectator and Parker hundred-point Napa Cabernets. Randy Lewis was a racer and is now a successful a winery owner. Bill Harland is there.
Through them we met Tom Prentice and Peter Michael. We needed experts to do climate and soil studies because the last thing I wanted to do was just put vines in my backyard and say, "Isn't that pretty." (Laughs.)
But you had no idea whether your property was actually good for growing grapes -- much less high quality grapes.
No one had really done much in our area. There were a number of wineries around... but not necessarily making premium wines.
So we took a couple of years to do soil studies and climate studies: Looking at soils at different times of the year, looking at moisture levels, at holding capacities, etc.
Keep in mind we were doing all this in and around racing, but I could manage it fairly easily because we could just set up tests... it wasn't complicated from a time management point of view.
And when we completed our analysis Tom said, "I will quit my job if you can't produce something exciting here."
So I said, "Let's go."
Of course deciding to start, and actually working through the process, are two different things.
The next challenge was choosing our root stock. That was a process in itself. Then, our soil type is 80 percent fractured rock and red clay soil. You couldn't stick a shovel anywhere without hitting a rock. That also created challenges.
Fast forward and we were two years into analysis, more years into preparing the soil and putting plants in and cultivating them... it's a long runway, and you're spending money all the time.
But that's where your inclination towards bootstrapping comes in.
There is a fairly sizable amount of capital involved, but if you're willing to do the work yourself you can save a lot of money. Tearing down trees, doing all the dirt work, being creative... It was a lot of hard work.
But it was also a lot of fun. I like working outside and digging up dirt. It was right up my alley. Although it did mean I got so filthy I had to take my clothes off outside before I came in the house. (Laughs.)
So we got the plants in the ground and I got some help from guys who really knew what they were doing. Again, that came through my contacts in Napa. And I hired a consultant and bought some grapes from my neighbor just so I could start the learning process of actually making wine.
Saying there's a lot to making wine is a huge understatement, and I started with no real experience.
So how do you resist the temptation to just turn it over to someone knowledgeable?
Again, that's not why I got into it.
On the growing side, I felt more comfortable. Getting the plants in the ground, managing them.. and soon you have a little bit of fruit. The goal was to play with the fruit -- with no intention of ever selling it -- and just gain some knowledge.
And I did get some help with that process. But the goal was for me to learn from the help I got, not just turn things over to someone.
What did you learn early on?
For starters, we set up all the cross arms based on growing principles from Napa.
But we don't get those really cool, foggy Napa mornings. So it wasn't uncommon to have a lot of heat in the fruit because they were in direct sunlight. So I had to go back in and change cross-arms to expand them out and let branches cascade over the shoots so it resulted in a dimpled instead of intense light on the fruit.
I didn't know what I didn't know, but I was willing to do the work to correct for things I didn't know.
How did all that work fit into the time you needed to spend racing?
Fortunately, harvesting happens towards the end of the racing season. But it's still tough.
And the fact that I'm a racer made it challenging from a mental aspect. Skipping forward a little bit, our first significant crop was in 2010. We harvested, got some help with the pressing, did all the fermentation... and then it's still another two years before you can release the wine.
For me, as a race car driver used to things happening in fractions of a second, two more years was almost more than I could deal with. That was probably the hardest part -- dealing with that really, really long runway.
And with no guarantee of a return.
Exactly. You could be five years in and be left wondering how long you can use your vintage for cooking. (Laughs.)
In 2011 we were hit with a really long growing season. A lot of rain, we're really having to move and adapt... it was good we had a small vineyard. Between myself and a couple of guys who helped, we came through it.
So our 2010 was still in barrels, 2011 was a challenging growing season... and my racing was going really well. So I'm out there winning races and I come home the next day and am out there in the wind and rain and dirt.
But that's what you do.
So time passes and you finally release a vintage. What was the response?
We continually test and try different protocols, different floors, different toasts... the more information we have, the better we learn what brings out the best in our wines. But again, there's no guarantee that you're doing anything right.
So we submitted to Wine Spectator and right out of the box we got three 93-point wines.
What was that like?
We did a happy dance. (Laughs.) Plus it was really cool because we name our estate wines after our kids. So that made it fun, too.
And we kept learning. I realized that using less new oak really showed our fruit better. The expression of the wines kept getting better. The flavors and the textures and the mid-palate and the affinity... they're striking and wonderful.
Did you ever imagine you'd be sitting here with all those terms rolling off your tongue so nicely?
(Laughs.) Oh, heck no. But that's the great part about doing something new. You learn a lot... and you can also surprise yourself by what you learn to love.
What I also never imagined is that we'd have one of the two highest-rated Syrahs, with 96 points, in the world. Or that we'd have a 95-point wine.
And all of a sudden our sales boomed. We sell our wines ourselves, and the phones and website just lit up.
Which only works if you have something people want; otherwise you need a distributor to push sales.
Exactly. Otherwise you need some sort of distribution model to get your wine out there and get it sold. But when you have people coming to you, you get to stay in control of your marketing and sales... which is very cool.
It also helps that we did something unexpected: Here I was, a guy who shouldn't be making great wine, doing it in an unknown wine-growing region.
That also helped put us on the map.
I'm fascinated by people who are serial achievers -- who accomplish more than one thing at a very high level. Did working on your winery benefit your racing?
I wouldn't say it made me better at racing, but it was a wonderful getaway. As a vineyard owner you're walking through your vineyard at sunrise, at 5:30 in the morning, the sun is coming up, it's peaceful and quiet... it's pretty cool to know you built all that.
Plus being involved in making wine makes us part of that very centuries-long chain of people who have made wine. That's a humbling and wonderful thing.
Honestly: All I wanted was to be able to sit across from my friends and have them try my wine and not bust my chops over the taste. (Laughs.) Everything else is gravy.
Judy: Lots of people chase one thing and try to be really, really good at it -- much less two things. So I do sometimes think, "How did this happen?"
Scott says he's totally shocked by the success of the wine. I'm not shocked. He commits all the time and energy necessary to succeed. If it needs to be done, he'll do it, and he won't complain. He's the first guy there in the morning and one of the last to leave. He'll give up sleeping and eating and anything he has to in order to make it perfect.
So it doesn't surprise me at all that the wine is so good.
Is the ability to work hard and persevere something you had to develop?
That's the way my dad was. That's all I know. And I like working: This harvest was a lot of 14, 15 hour days.
My dad always said, and we say to our kids, "Do your best. Invest yourself in what you want to do. Do your best, then push it a little farther." That's how you accomplish hard things.
So you have 50 acres... are you running out of room to expand?
We had this courtyard in front of our house, a big grassy area... and I was constantly fixing irrigation lines and sprinklers. I finally said to Judy, "I'm sick of taking care of this grass and mowing it. Plus it's using a lot of water. We're going to rip it out."
I might be able to pick up another acre, but that's about it. That's all there is.
Judy: And now there isn't much room left to park cars. (Laughs.)
Will that be enough? And if it's not, when you do you run out of personal capacity to be as involved as you are?
That's a complicated question.
One, the winery is doing well. It's paying for itself, putting some money in the bank, letting us buy new equipment... and it's paying back past debt. And we're making highly-rated wines. Those are all very, very good things.
That also put you in a small fraction of wineries.
Yes. We started out like Lucy and Ethel, bootstrapping, with minimal equipment... there was a lot of physical labor. But we've been able to buy equipment to help make the work easier. And we're a lot more efficient.
So it's paid off the installation of the initial vineyard, it's paid back all this debt and put some money in the bank, there are two vintages sitting in the wine barrels right now and all those costs have already been absorbed... that's a really good situation to be in.
And we don't need to work with distributors. Nothing against distributors, it's just nice to be able to set our own prices, to not absorb the cost of a middle-man, not have to raise our prices to support that... because when you do, the consumer ends up paying that cost.
So we won't ever get rich from this, but it provides a good living and we get to produce great wines.
And we have a loyal following with our wine club members. One might can call and say, "My father-in-law's birthday is next week, can you autograph a bottle?" We do, we add a special card... we like providing that kind of service.
It's a business, but there is a personal aspect to it, too, and we never want to lose that.
So with all that said: We want to stay small because we like the personal relationship we have with our customers. We like our old-school approach.
Wine is ultimately a product... but it can be more than that.
There's something special about sharing a bottle with your spouse, a business associate, your friends... when you pull out a special bottle and share it, that's a really cool thing.
People put away bottles for special occasions: Graduations, birth of a grandchild, wedding anniversaries... there's a community aspect that comes with wine.
And our vineyard is also our home. It's like living in Tuscany.
Making wine started as just an idea, but it's become a lot more than we ever imagined. That's what happens when you pour yourself into something.
When you're willing to work hard, you really do get out what you put in.