Mario Andretti in 1978
Mario Andretti, now 67, is tan and fit, and only gray hair and facial character lines hint at his age. It's hard to believe that more than a decade has passed since he's been a regular in the cockpit, yet his name remains synonymous with racing's highest levels, among both ardent fans and the general public. Andretti is the greatest race driver of our time, having won in just about every series in which he's competed.
He is nothing if not forward-thinking, a trait that served him well in forming his racing career and armed him for on-track battles. He used foresight again as he began to wrap up that career in 1994. That's when he stumbled on something that would become his new passion: a winery in California's Napa Valley. As he traveled the world racing cars, Andretti renewed a love of wine that began when he was a child in Italy.
"I grew up drinking wine," Andretti said between sips of his own chardonnay in the yard of his winery. "In fact, that was about all we had on the table. Would I have preferred a soda pop? Yes, I would. It was 90/10, water to wine, to flavor it.
"I really started to pay attention to wine when I was in my 30s. I became more curious about wine through my travels. In South Africa in the early '70s, we would always go to good restaurants, and I wanted to order French wine, but some of the people I was with said, 'No, no, order the South African wines.' You try them, and you see they make good wines, too. So in Argentina, I ordered Argentine wines, and so forth. I enjoy the ethnic specialties of food everywhere; you can never go wrong with those. It's the same with the wines."
During his days competing in Formula One in the mid-1970s, Andretti had a lunch in Long Beach that turned him on to California wines. "I was with [team owner] Ken Tyrrell, [driver] Jacky Ickx and journalist Bernard Cahier, and I was ordering French wine, and Ken said, 'Mario, we're in California, why are you ordering French wine?' So I said, 'You do us the honors.' Ken was very much into California wines.
"At the end of that season, I loaded my plane with a couple of friends, and we came to Napa Valley. We made the rounds of the wineries. Every year after that, I came to Napa to buy wines," he said.
During Andretti's last full CART season in 1994, the "Arrivederci, Mario" tour, he cut a deal with a winery to produce a wine commemorating his retirement. It sold out by August, months before he retired, and the seed was planted. More at AutoWeek