Bo Schembechler is probably the most storied coach in college football history. You’ve heard about his inspirational one-liners, his compassionate nature, his incredible winning streaks and his fiery sideline personality.
But you haven’t heard about his affection for barrel aged wine — or poetry.
Enter Bo Merlot, the 2005 California wine and thoughtful tribute to the late coaching legend. Released late last month, the wine is being distributed by the local Studer Imports with support from Bo’s widow, Cathy Schembechler. It’s available at most Ann Arbor supermarkets and bars, even those — like Rick’s American Café or the Arena — which don’t usually do a brisk business in Merlot.
Though famously unpretentious — he wore a whistle instead of a tie on game days — Schembechler and his wife often drank red wine together. Studer imports founder Marlena Studer, a former University sociology professor, said the idea for a bottled tribute to Bo was Cathy’s idea.
“They actually saved all the corks from the wine they drank together,” Studer said. And on them, Bo would sometimes write affectionate notes, or rhyming couplets. Verse (on bottle corks) being one of Schembechler’s lesser-known talents.
Bo Merlot goes for $19.69 a bottle — a nod to Bo’s first year coaching, 1969, when he lead the Wolverines to topple the first-ranked Buckeyes. From every bottle sold, $2 will be donated to the Michigan Cardiovascular Center, which Schembechler credited for saving his life after he suffered a heart attack later that season on the eve of his first Rose Bowl match.
To get the word out, Studer is holding wine tastings at local bars and stores around the city. Last weekend at the Arena, bartenders were a little puzzled that she wanted to hold a wine tasting on a game day. It didn’t help that business for that game was unusually slow — but those who did come were impressed.
A group from Miami of Ohio (where Schembechler coached before coming to Michigan) even took a bottle home, despite their team’s 16-6 loss to the Wolverines.
The Arena has four of the 2,000 cases that were made. It’s a limited edition series, and they expect to sell out quickly.
“I’ll push it,” said Jennifer Dovichi, who bartended during the tasting, noting that it was better than the house red. Plus, Dovichi, who was an intern at the Cardiovascular Center the year Bo passed away, has a loyalty to Schembechler.
As for the wine, Dovichi was “pleasantly surprised” at how well it went over.
“We’re just sports bar people,” she said. “We don’t know anything about wine. We drink Bud Lite for Pete’s sake.”
Schembechler wasn’t an average wine snob, either. Studer said his wife tells a story about the first time he ordered merlot at a restaurant. He pronounced the “t” at the end of the word.
But Studer said she picked the wine mainly because it was a crowd pleaser, though she was quick to add that wine snobs would like it too. She described it as having a strong fruit-forward character, with notes of berry and plum. The idea was to make a wine that was robust and had a strong character — like the coach himself.
As far as football flavors, you can’t taste the cut grass or jock straps, but Studer claims with each sip people will experience “the delicious taste of victory.”
“From kickoff to finish,” she said. “From sniff to swallow.”
In 2005, for the first time ever, wine sold better than beer. In recent years, it’s become almost an everyman drank. And football, America’s everyman pastime, is developing a repartee with the product.
Retired National Football League coach Mike Ditka has a label, and just weeks before the release of Bo Merlot, Hiesman Trophy-winning Michigan football player Charles Woodson was at the Chop House, promoting his new wine, 24 by Charles Woodson. But Woodson, now a cornerback for the Greenbay Packers, received a slap on the wrist from the NFL — no wine endorsements allowed.
The Detroit Free Press reported that NFL representatives told Woodson any promotion of alcohol carries the threat of having “a detrimental effect on the great number of young fans who follow our game.”
Which raises the question, if football fans could be harmed by red wine, what does that mean for beer pong?

Laura Garavoglia

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