There is a bit of a difference between racing and winemaking. No, make that a serious dichotomy. Racing is measured in thousandths of a second. Winemaking is measured in years. In fact, the slower you go, especially with reds, the better the wine.
Yet quite a few who have made their living in the racing business have taken to the slower life of growing grapes and fermenting the juice. Scott Pruett is one of them.
The 2014 12 Hours of Sebring overall winner – with regular driving partner Memo Rojas plus Marino Franchitti, driving the No. 01 Riley/Ford for TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates – is following in the footsteps of his grandparents and great-grandparents, farmers in Northern California.
“I love being outside,” Pruett says. “The whole family’s involved, my wife and my kids, between labeling and bottling, corking and so on. You know, the Good Lord has blessed me. I’ve had an incredible racing career, and the children’s books, and now the wine business. It’s been a great ride.”
Oh, yes…the children’s books…racer, vintner and author? Indeed, Pruett has created a series of four children’s books, written with his wife Judy, all with a racing theme.
“There were no really good, authentic racing books. One afternoon my wife and I were just kind of messing around, going, ’12 little racecars…11 little racecars…10 little racecars’. Each one of them were having a problem – a transmission, an on-track problem, and she says, ‘Let’s make this into a book.’ I said, ‘You’re going to have to make it a book,’ because I was right in the middle of my Indy car career and there was a lot of testing and development going on. I’ve got to give her credit. She was the one who took the ball and ran with it,” he says.
“We self-published,” he continues, “because we didn’t want to lose the authenticity of the books. Even though they are done in a very cartoonish way, everything that happened to those cars in the book has happened to me over the years,” That first book, Twelve Little Race Cars, sold around 75,000 copies. So as Scott’s career shifted from ChampCar to NASCAR, they re-did the book with stock cars instead of open-wheelers. Then came an inspirational book, Rookie Racer, and an ABC book, Racing Through the Alphabet.
Although they still have a couple of children’s book ideas waiting in the wings, Pruett has turned his focus to the wine business. That sort of shift is not unlike his racing career. While he has concentrated on endurance sports car racing for the past decade – where he started winning championships in 1986 with the first of two IMSA GTO titles – winning the 24 Hours of Daytona five times and five Grand-Am Daytona Prototype championships, he did race in stock cars and ChampCars in the intervening years. He won the 1995 Michigan 500 in ChampCar, was the 1989 Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500, and helped develop Firestone tires when they returned open-wheel racing. He also won three SCCA Trans-Am championships in three different decades.
One doesn’t accomplish all that without working hard, and Pruett didn’t go into the wine business to prepare for a life of ease. “I love working in the dirt. I’ve got a lot of big, heavy equipment, big tractors and such. So I cleared the land – it’s a very steep vineyard and we had to drop a lot of trees. I did all the trenching and I laid the pipe,” he says. “I didn’t’ want to put my name on something just because I wanted to put my name on something. I wanted to do the work.”
“I want to be the guy that’s hands-on. I want everybody to know that we touch every bottle, and we do, and know that my passion and desire goes into every bottle.”
The area in the hills East of Sacramento where the Pruetts made their home and grow the fruit happens to be one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the country, dating back to the California gold rush. The methods, though, have changed a bit since then. Being close to Napa, Pruett had access to a variety of experts who analyzed the soil and climate and said the land could be perfect for wine grapes, particularly Rhone varietals including Syrah. The Pruetts chose a very specific root stock from a very specific Syrah clone, chosen to suit the soil.
The effort paid off. Pruett Vineyard produces about 500 cases a year from four varietals. That includes four estate wines, plus some others for which they buy fruit from other regions to make a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir. Pruett is justly proud that the estate wines regularly earn high marks from Wine Spectator.
Many of the wines have racing-themed names, such as Championship Cuvee, Rolex 24 Estate Syrah, and Indy 500 Cab. Three of the estate wines, though – and don’t ask him to name a favorite – are named for his children. They are Lucky Loren Red, for his oldest daughter, Taylor’s Reserve Syrah for his younger daughter, and CSP Estate Syrah for son Cameron Scott Pruett. Fortunately for family unity, all three scored 93 points from Wine Spectator last year. He’s also producing one named after his wife, Judy Marie, from grapes grown in their north-facing Cabernet vineyard.
“My blood, sweat, tears and passion that’s gone into working the dirt in the place we live, growing these grapes and naming it after my kids, it’s pretty special,” he says.
The racing, the wine and the activities of the two kids who aren’t in college take up most of his time, leaving little for leisure pursuits. But he does like to dabble in hot rods, and has a 1950 Buick Woody that was built for him by Roseville Rod and Custom, called Low Tide, that was introduced at SEMA last year and is currently touring the show circuit.
Despite the time dichotomy, there is something about fast cars – racecars or hot rods – and wine that makes them go together. It could be the luxurious aspects of good examples of both. Or it could be that making good wine and making racecars go faster than everybody else both require a good dose of hard work. Either way, Scott Pruett seems to have mastered both.