First Crush

Former LA Kings right wing and current game announcer Jim Fox, his wife, Susie, and business partner, Dean Nucich, turn a lifelong passion for wine into a full-blown winemaking business.

SOUTH BAY GOTHIC Susie and Jim Fox get rustic.

 

As the backstory goes, one-time Los Angeles Kings hockey player and Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket announcer Jim Fox and his wife, Susie, first started dating in elementary school. “We grew up in a small, little town in Canada called Coniston, and it’s a mining community. Everybody knew everybody, and I’ve known him, like, all my life,” says Susie of the town about 200 miles north of Toronto with about 2,500 residents.

“She knew quality when she saw it,” jokes Jim. Susie adds, “Supposedly we had a bath together at age 2, but I can’t confirm that as the truth.”

The pair, who have called Redondo Beach home for 30 years, dated on and off in Canada for several years before Jim ultimately left to play hockey in the U.S. as a teenager. “He was one of the tallest guys at 15, so I liked him because he was tall. And then he didn’t grow anymore, but I still liked him,” laughs Susie, who worked as a teacher’s assistant for 10 years in Manhattan Beach. “So he got drafted by the Kings when he was 20, and I was finishing my second year of college. We got married the year after, and here we are 34 years later.”

Jim, a prolific hockey player who spent his first season with the Kings in 1980–1981 and played for them for 10 years, now serves as the team’s announcer—a position he has held since 1991. “I’m not leaving until someone kicks me out,” jokes Jim, who confesses the transition from player to announcer wasn’t exactly easy. “It was five years of torture—learning a new job and being embarrassed at how bad you are. I went from being a professional athlete. I went from the top to the bottom. And I struggled.”

“I used to have a yellow legal pad, and I’d listen to him during the game and sit by the phone,” adds Susie. “And as soon as the game was over, he would call me and say, ‘I was terrible.’ And so I’d go, ‘Well, during this time you could have said this, or done this,’ but I didn’t want to be negative. I think he’s hard on himself.”

 

 

 

 

 

PARTNERS IN VINE Susie, Dean and Jim on the Foxes’ rooftop in Redondo.

Now Jim admits he finally feels much more at ease in the role. “As a hockey player, at the end of the game you know how you did, but at the end of a broadcast you don’t necessarily know,” says Jim, a five-time recipient of Southern California Broadcast Associations’ Best Television Analyst Award. “Now I know. It was a learning experience to find comfort. I talk to kids on career days. Preparation equals confidence. Confidence equals comfort. Comfort equals communication. If you’re not confident, you’re not comfortable and you’re not communicating. Now I know at the end of the game how I did. It took me five years to get a clue.”

But aside from hockey, Jim also had another lifelong passion: wine. This, he says, stemmed from an accumulation of a few things.

“For me, it was about a 25-year process from being introduced to wine, which happened right down here at the Bottle Inn in Hermosa, to tasting and then taking classes, and then traveling based around making wine,” says Jim. “And, maybe let’s say about eight years ago, we kind of said, ‘You know what? This is something we want to do seriously.’”

“I like wine, but Jimmy loves wine. And I think when I saw his passion, I realized how much he wanted to do this,” says Susie. So they set out to find a property to buy to make and create their wine brand. Seven years ago, a meeting with a group of mutual friends playing volleyball on Sundays on 21st Street in Manhattan Beach led them to fellow wine enthusiast Dean Nucich—and ultimately the launch of their wine label, Patiné Cellars patinecellars.com.

“Dean knew I was interested in wine, and I knew he was interested in wine because we would keep bringing wines to the beach to try. And then I found out that Dean was a ‘cellar rat’ for a winemaker up in Napa. He really didn’t know that we were looking seriously yet. So that’s basically how it started. Innocent conversations on the beach, followed by tastings, followed by ‘Oh, that’s what you’re doing,’ and ‘Oh that’s what you did.’”

“It was a mutual interest,” says Dean, co-founder and Vancouver native. “Over time we would end up drinking wine and watching the sunset. That’s how it started.”

From there, Dean (who had volunteered to work harvest for St. Helena-based winemaker Mike Smith from 2009 to 2011 shortly after he had taken on Carter Cellars as a client) arranged for a tasting with Mike, who mentored under winemaker Thomas River Brown. Mike had recently gone out on his own.

 

 

 

 

“We went to Mike’s house. We tasted all of his wines that he made, and we left there going, ‘You know, this is our style,’” says Jim of the custom-crushed, single-designate wines made in Napa Valley. “He was making mostly cabs and syrahs. He wasn’t making pinot at the time, but we were just drawn to the consistency—throughout his whole portfolio—of the quality.”

“We wanted to do pinot first of all. They are my favorite grapes, and Mike has a background in pinot. He grew up around pinot, but he wasn’t making them at the time. So it started mostly from us,” says Jim, who refers to Mike as a “wine-crafter” rather than a winemaker.

Professional sports has its own priorities, and there’s no question that priority is the final score of the game. It’s so black-and-white … I have been able to experience the process, and the journey and the art. It’s more of an atmosphere and a feeling. It’s not so black-and-white.”

“It was a good fit because he had primarily been doing cabernets, and it’s pretty busy come cabernet time—the harvest. And the pinot grapes ripen quicker than cabs. And so it was an opportunity to get a slot in,” adds Dean.

Since the first release of 100 cases of pinot noir of Gap’s Crown in 2011, the small production wines ($60 per bottle and sold in three-packs) are sold via a mailing list of nearly 3,000 followers. They are carried only at select stores and restaurants based upon personal relationships with either Dean, Mike, Susie or Jim, including Shade Hotel and Darren’s in Manhattan Beach, The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Andrea at The Resort at Pelican Hill.

And the label name and bottle design (all bottles are hand-labeled) were equally as important as the quality. The word “patiné,” which means “to have skated” in French, took much careful thought and consideration. The same goes for the tuxedo-like bottle design with a black, textured, silicone slip-on band that mimics a hockey puck and a capsule with silver lines designed as a nod to skating lines imprinted on the ice rink.

“A lot of thought went into the name and what it represents,” says Jim of the reference to hockey and power and balance. “Not that we’re in a retail shop, but you still want to have a nice label—and just picking the shape and color of the bottle was a process,” adds Susie. “When I see the finished product, I still can’t believe it’s ours. When people send us an email and say, ‘We love your wine,’ it’s sometimes just hard to believe. And sometimes I feel like I’m working for somebody else, and then I see it and I realize it’s ours. It’s really a dream.”

The rest of the team agrees. “A lot of people think it’s very romantic, but in actuality it’s a lot of hard work,” adds Dean.

“This is not just an ex-athlete making a gimmicky wine,” says Jim, who remembers the wine that first caught his attention: Château La Nerthe, a Rhone white blend from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region in France. “My goal, and this is long-term, is to be the winemaker. And so it’s about wine. It’s not just a hobby; it’s not just a passion. It’s my life.”

But Jim does believe his background as both a player and announcer for the Kings has helped in promoting his wine brand and preparing him for this next adventure. “Professional sports has its own priorities, and there’s no question that priority is the final score of the game. It should be. It’s so black-and-white,” says Jim. “To me, I have been able to experience the process, and the journey and the art. And I’ve said it many times, that to me that is very intriguing. So there’s something more nuanced about wine. It’s more of an atmosphere and a feeling. It’s not so black-and-white.”

For now, though, Jim is right where he wants to be. “I feel that I had a great time playing hockey, but I feel like wine gives me something that I never had before, or I was not able to feel before,” he says. “It may have been there, but I couldn’t get there.

 

 

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