Coach Pop’s Secret: You Can’t Spell “W-I-N-E” Without “W-I-N”

For a man who’s been in the public eye for over 20 years and led the Spurs to five NBA titles, Gregg Popovich is something of an enigma. Despite hundreds of contractually mandated media appearances every year, we only really know three things about him: he doesn’t whine, he always wins, and he loves wine.

You can’t spell “wine” without “win.” If Coach Pop was on Wheel Of Fortune, he would buy an “e” right away because he already knows how to win. And that $250 Pat Sajak is taxing on vowels isn’t going to phase Pop, who hasn’t exactly impoverished himself as the longest tenured coach in American professional sports.

Pop is taking home $11 million this year, but his relationship with wine goes back 40 years — long before $6,000 dinners were on the menu.

Way back in 1973, Pop began his coaching career with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team, after serving the five years of active duty that’s required of graduates of the United States Air Force Academy, Pop’s alma mater.

Granted, his stint as an active duty member of the military was a little different than your typical fly boy. During his five years of compulsory service, he toured Eastern Europe with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team, and was named captain in 1972.

The Air Force has nothing to do with wine, but California’s Moffett Federal Airfield — where Pop served as an officer in the Air Force and a member of the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team — happens to be located smack dab in the middle of wine country. And he was there, in Napa Valley, during the wine boom of the 1970s.

The wine-Popovich osmosis that occurred back in the ’70s didn’t bear fruit until Pop stopped by a winery in Oregon during a Spurs road trip in 1999. But not any old winery.

Domaine Drouhin, then owned by Bill and Deb Hatcher, was the only winery with a basketball hoop in the owner’s office. Deb, who coached girls’ prep basketball, had a hoop installed in Bill’s office. The marriage of basketball and wine, two of the things closest to Pop’s heart, was too much for him to pass up.

As the story goes, Bill Hatcher, a well-traveled man who had left the hustle and bustle of Wall Street to make wine, had no idea who Pop was when he stopped by. The two became fast friends, and when the Hatchers launched a new company, A to Z Wineworks, Pop was the leading outside investor.

One of the benefits afforded to Pop as the money man behind A to Z Wineworks is his own private label wine, a Pinot Noir called Rock & Hammer, that’s made exclusively for the coach’s use.

Only a lucky few have tasted Pop’s private wine, mostly other NBA coaches like George Karl and Rick Carlisle.

“If you don’t like it, I don’t give a damn, because we don’t sell it.”

Gregg Popovich on his Rock & Hammer wine

At 68, Pop is not a young man. His days coaching in the NBA are numbered. No one knows for sure when he’ll pass the torch, but the league will be a worse place when he leaves it, though a better place than when he joined, because like a bottle of Rock & Hammer, the NBA has appreciated under Coach Pop.