In the back corner of a Manhattan restaurant, winemaker Cory Lane, of Napa Valley’s Frith Wines, samples the offerings of two California vintners, a bottle of red and white from each. He takes a sip, swishes and spits. “There’s a difference in personality and point of origin, what wine means to each of them, but the desired destination is actually pretty similar,” he says. It’s a poignant description considering the men whose names grace each label, even if those names are more likely to turn up at the starting line of a racetrack than at your dining table. “Not bad. These definitely aren’t just souvenirs for racing fans,” says Lane with a slight tinge of surprise.
The wines’ namesakes, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti—“Co-drivers of the Century,” as voted by Associated Press members in 1999—were (arguably) equally successful race-car drivers, between them winning five Indianapolis 500s, two Daytona 500s, a Formula One Championship, a 24 Hours of Le Mans, a 24 Hours of Daytona and hundreds of other races over careers that spanned nearly four decades. Drivers today don’t enter that wide a variety of races, let alone win them, and the pair’s dominance, along with their polar-opposite personalities, fueled an intense rivalry. Andretti was the suave Italian immigrant who drove with a European flair, and Foyt, as Texan as they come, was a larger-than-life hard-charger with no time or need to mince words.
Over the course of their careers they were linked by their ability to win anytime, anywhere, driving anything, but what happened in competition became ancillary to what each man came to represent culturally, elevating the rivalry to mythic proportions. Andretti danced, Foyt steamrolled. It was Red State vs. Blue State, Coke vs. Pepsi, or as motorsports writer Bones Bourcier astutely points out in the recently released Foyt, Andretti, Perry: America’s Racing Trinity, Andretti vs. Foyt was Sinatra vs. John Wayne—whatever side you chose said just as much about you as it did about the driver for whom you were rooting. And although they no longer race head-to-head, both having retired in the early ’90s, the near-concurrent release of their wines proves they’re still at it, the two storied names now vying for superiority in vinification.
The transition from driver’s seat to tasting room may have been a more obvious path for Andretti than for Foyt, who looks back on his early days racing on dirt tracks and laughs, saying, “Andretti and I didn’t have enough money to even buy a glass of wine in those days.” For Andretti, though, growing up in Italy, wine was “a staple,” on the table with every meal. After he and his twin brother, Aldo, had their tonsils removed at age 8, they were each given half a glass of red wine with their hospital meals to aid recovery.
Between sips of the Montona Reserve series, named after Andretti’s childhood hometown, Lane observes what he calls a faithful “re-creation of home” with a California twist, a symbolic union of Andretti’s Italian heritage and American success story. The wines are produced by Bob Pepi, son of Napa Valley wine pioneer Robert Pepi, with constant input from Mario and his business partner, Joe Antonini, the retired CEO of KMart, a major sponsor of Andretti during his racing days. “I have a lot of pride about the wines,” says Andretti. “There’s nothing more delicate. And when somebody tastes your wine and you get that acceptance, it means a lot. It’s not a business that you’re into for the big kill financially, but it’s got a lot of satisfaction to it. I love it.”
Foyt, on the other hand, doesn’t profess to know anything about wine. In fact, he says, he’s not a big drinker at all. The impetus for Foyt Family Wines came from his son, Larry, and his grandson, Anthony (A.J. the fourth). Anthony drove in the IndyCar series and Larry in NASCAR, but upon collectively hanging up their helmets about 10 years ago, they experienced what Larry describes as “a huge passion loss; when you quit driving it leaves a real void in your life.” Looking for somewhere to channel that energy and sharing an interest in wine, the two went to see what the family patriarch thought about putting the Foyt family name on a bottle of wine. “Super Tex” thought for a minute before he answered. “If we’re going to go up against Andretti,” he said, “make damn sure our wine is better.”
To follow through on such tall, albeit simple, marching orders, the Foyts teamed up with Napa Valley winemaker Tom Meadowcroft. As much as Andretti’s wines are about continuation, the Foyt Family Wines are about galvanizing what A.J. built, finally—and rightfully—elevating it to a legacy. Though their father rarely drinks, the Foyts’ foray into wine began as a tribute. “We’re trying to share some of our family history,” Larry says. “We don’t want people to collect these wines. Wine is meant to bring people together to create moments and memories.” (Even so, we sampled a full-bodied 2011 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that was rated as “investment grade,” worthy of being stowed away in a cellar, by independent evaluator Sommelier Capital Advisers.)
As Lane samples the cab, he notices, true to A.J.’s style, its “bold but well-rounded finish.” For Meadowcroft, who equates his process of blending to painting a portrait or scoring a piece of music, constantly striving for just the right traces of harmony and dissonance, the Foyt legacy was an ideal subject from which to create a narrative in wine. “What I see with A.J. was that he was passionate and paid his dues,” he says. “That singularity. That Americana.”
When each icon is asked about the other—and naturally they get that a lot—both profess to “have a lot of fun” with the renewed rivalry, even if it’s said through gritted teeth. Then they’ll quickly, and happily, point you to the many medals and awards their own wines have won. Competition is as essential to these two families as sunlight and water are to their grapes. When prodded, Andretti, usually the more subdued of the duo, will throw down the gauntlet, declaring, “Our wines are better than Foyt’s,” as well as those of Jeff Gordon, another recently retired NASCAR driver who’s entered the vintner fray.
Even Lane agrees that declaring who makes the better wines is a highly subjective matter; like determining who was the better driver, the fun is in deciding for oneself. And so you can: In addition to selling bottles at stores around the country, the Andretti Winery in Napa Valley hosts visitors year round and the Foyt Wine Vault tasting room opened last year, just outside the Indianapolis Speedway.
While a pilgrimage to Andretti’s vino sanctuary is highly recommended and will transport you back to the old country, you should also expect the staff there to diplomatically brush off any direct comparison. Foyt’s team isn’t so discreet. In pitch-perfect A.J. Foyt run-what-you-brung fashion, you can sneak away from the Brickyard between watching qualifying runs to sample Andretti and Foyt wines head-to-head at the Vault. “I don’t say I was better than anybody, but in my day I held my own,” Foyt says. “So much has changed since our days… But I say racing is still racing.”