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Popping bottles: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Pinot Noir a perfect pairing

Apparently, Gregg Popovich's Rock & Hammer pinot noir is as complicated as the Spurs coach. (Rex Hill Vineyards)

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Apparently, Gregg Popovich's Rock & Hammer pinot noir is as complicated as the Spurs coach. (Rex Hill Vineyards)

For a man who enjoys foreign films, Dostoyevsky and fine food, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's passion for wine is one of the few things about him that makes sense. That this rare blend of former spy turned basketball savant owns a wine label as equally difficult to decipher also follows.

What doesn't dovetail is why a man whose disdain for media has been so well documented would name this wine for a muckraking journalist's brilliance, even if Jacob Riis wrote the words around the same time Dr. James Naismith invented the game Popovich inevitably mastered.

Actually, the quote that adorns the back label of each Rock & Hammer Pinot Noir vintage also covers the walls of San Antonio's locker room in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, paraphrasing Popovich's philosophy in a manner no writer has accomplished since.

"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it — but all that had gone before."

No two sentences better explain the Spurs coach's art of cultivating greatness on Texas courts and Oregon vineyards, and nobody pairs the two like Popovich. Red Auerbach smoked an Hoyo de Monterrey victory cigar. Popovich sips his winning Rock & Hammer Pinot Noir.

In much the same way San Antonio's defensive schemes are designed to slow the LeBron James and Kevin Durants of the NBA world, growing Pinot Noir grapes requires painstaking practice and a delicate attention to detail best described in the 2004 film "Sideways."

It's a hard grape to grow, as you know. It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention, and in fact it can only grow in these really specific little tucked away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, oh, its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.

It's impossible to ignore the parallels between Popovich's Spurs and his Pinot Noir. In the unlikeliest of NBA cities, his sustained success as the longest tenured coach in American sport coincided with the growing popularity of a grape found flourishing along Oregon's coast.

As we learned from Jack McCallum's wonderful Sports Illustrated feature last year, Popovich's penchant for both coaching and wine began at California's Moffett Federal Airfield, where he served as both an officer in the Air Force and captain of the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team during Napa Valley's 1970s wine boom. And just as good fortune landed Tim Duncan in San Antonio for Popovich's first full season on the Spurs bench, an opportune tasting bore similar fruit at the only Willamette Valley winery with a basketball hoop.

While Popovich was winning his first NBA title in 1999, Bill and Deb Hatcher still owned Domaine Drouhin, a winery in Oregon's Dundee Hills with roots in Burgundy, France. As TrueHoop's Henry Abbott first relayed, Deb Hatcher had coached prep girls' basketball and installed a hoop in her husband's office. Burgundy and basketball being two of Popovich's great passions (Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanee-Conti has sold various vintages at auction for more than $10,000 and is Pop's white whale of wines), he took a detour through the Portland suburb during a road trip.

As the story goes, Bill Hatcher, a worldly winemaker who left Wall Street behind, had no idea who the Spurs coach was, and — Popovich being Popovich — the two became fast friends. Years later, when the Hatchers launched A to Z Wineworks, Pop reportedly became the leading outside investor. In 2003, as the Spurs won their second title, A to Z landed its first vintage on Food & Wine magazine's Best American Pinot Noirs under $20. The vino has since cracked Wine Spectator's Top 100 list twice. In other words, it's good, especially at $12 a bottle.

As part of Popovich's arrangement with the Hatchers, who also run Rex Hill Vineyards, the winemakers also bottled a private label Pinot Noir solely for the coach's use. Thus, Rock & Hammer was born. You won't find it on your local wine shop's shelves or rated on any of the countless wine websites, because unless you find yourself in Popovich's inner circle or had $760 to blow on an autographed 2011 bottle entered into auction last year, you've likely never tasted it.

Popovich once hosted a tasting at the 2008 San Antonio New World Wine & Food Festival, and Express-News dining editor John Griffin snuck a sip. "It would be hard to imagine New World Pinot fans not liking Rock & Hammer's 2006 vintage based on the sample poured at the tasting," wrote Griffin. "The wine was heavily concentrated with plenty of lush fruit, especially ripe cherries, and a bit of bacon. It may not have been Burgundian, the style Popovich has been quoted as preferring, but it was an excellent wine that lingered long on the palate."

And that's reportedly considered the worst vintage.

Popovich delivered a bottle to George Karl each trip through Denver. He shared a few with Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo during championship runs in 2005 and 2007. He shipped one to Caltech coach Oliver Eslinger when the Beavers snapped a 310-game conference losing streak in 2011. "It's one of the best wines that I've ever had," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle once said, "and I'm not a wine drinker." But few outside the coaching fraternity have sipped Rock & Hammer.

Until earlier this month, when Popovich hosted the first vertical tasting of every Rock & Hammer vintage from 2004-12 alongside A to Z Wineworks co-founder Sam Tannahill at Rex Hill's Classic Wines Auction in Newberg, Ore. Tickets cost $750. James Beard award-winning chefs Eric Ferguson and Carmen Peirano supplied the food. Proceeds went to five charities, and Popovich reportedly matched donations. These are the rooms where Rock & Hammer resides.

The Oregonian's John Canzano searched for Popovich only to discover four empty bottles, a fantastic story about the coach sending bottles of Rock & Hammer home with each donor for the first time in the vineyard's history and another description of the wine from Deb Hatcher.

"It's a fine Pinot Noir. It's different, year to year. Full body, richness, some spice on the finish," she said. "It has a beautiful Pinot Noir nose. It has complexity. It's always a blend; we specialize in that."

Then she stopped.

"It just can't be done. I always believe you have to taste the wine to talk it."

The parallels between Popovich's Spurs and Pinot Noir never cease — equal parts intricate and exquisite. As his Larry O'Brien trophy case expands, so too has his wine "cellar,"a 240-square-foot building housing roughly 3,000 bottles in his backyard fashioned out of stone "the same gold-yellow as Chateau d'Yquem," another of the coach's favorites that runs roughly $125 a pop.

Popovich once complained about noon tipoffs eating into his wine consumption on the eve of games, and Tony Parker has explained how wine has mellowed Pop in recent years. The few personal stories Popovich shares with the media often involve a glass of wine following a defeat.

Three days after a Game 7 overtime loss to a 2006 Mavericks club coached by Avery Johnson — the first player he signed upon becoming general manager of the Spurs — Popovich told Wine Spectator, “A vintage in Bordeaux like 2000 or 1990 comes out, so you go get X number of cases and you think, ‘How am I going to drink all this before I croak?’ Then you end up having nightmares that your kids are going (to inherit the wine), mix it with 7-Up and make sangria.”

Likewise, in the days after a Game 6 loss to the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, when his team lost a five-point lead in the final 28 seconds, reporters asked Popovich about how he'd like to be remembered. "What's my legacy?" he told reporters. "Food and wine. This is just a job."

A job that has now resulted in five championships and a win-loss record that ranks him among the greatest coaches in NBA history following a systematic dismantling of a Cabernet champion by another grown in a specific little tucked away corner of the world.

Pointing to the Jacob Riis quote on San Antonio's locker room wall, Matt Bonner told The New York Times last month, “Whenever I’m done with this game, that’s going to be hanging up in my house for my kids to read the rest of my life. The lesson in that sign is why we can start out the way we did tonight and come back and win by 20 points — keep pounding the rock.”

The philosophy serves Popovich well on the court and in the vineyard, although we're left guessing the Rock & Hammer Pinot Noir is as complex and coarse as the Spurs coach.

"If you don't like it, I don't give a damn," he told tasters in 2008, "because we don't sell it."

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