Damon Huard’s hands are stained a deep purple. His white polo shirt has two circular splotches of the same hue. For the past hour he has been siphoning wine out of new French oak barrels—just another day at the office.
“This is our little Napa,” Huard says. It’s late July, on the eve of another football season, and the retired quarterback is surveying his new, 5,300-square-foot winery with the look of a proud parent. “We’re making a world-class, 94-point wine,” Huard says, “right here in a warehouse in Woodinville.”
Woodinville, outside Seattle, is the home of Passing Time, a winery Huard co-founded with Dan Marino, the man he once backed up for the Miami Dolphins. It’s a business built on 18 years of shared passion for Washington State’s wines. And while Marino brings greater fame and marketing power to the enterprise, it’s Huard who runs the winery day to day.
That means frequent trips to this warehouse, which shares a strip mall with 22 other wineries. Inside, each of Passing Time’s roughly 70 barrels bears a label with a seemingly random concatenation of letters and numbers, corresponding to regions of Washington, specific vineyards, varietals, and yeasts. Huard deciphers them like he’s reading from a play sheet in the huddle.
“Ah, this is the fourth-leaf stuff from Champoux,” he says. “It has that floral essence, and the cocoa powder coats your mid-palate.” Huard takes a wine thief—a turkey baster, basically—and siphons some wine from a barrel into a glass. He swirls it like a sommelier and takes a sip. “This is some good s--t.”
Marino started collecting wines after being drafted by Miami in 1983. By the time Huard arrived, in 1997, Marino’s Fort Lauderdale wine cellar contained some of Washington’s finest vintages. Huard had grown up in Puyallup and graduated from the University of Washington as the school’s all-time leading passer, but he had yet to be exposed to his home state’s wines. “I drank Bud Light, or Captain Morgan and Coke,” Huard says now. “But over my years with Dan, the wine bug just hit me.”
During the next three seasons that bug became the foundation of a friendship, and the pair began to dream about starting their own winery. In quarterback meetings, they’d doodle in their playbooks, drawing different iterations of names and logos. (One rejected pairing: “Rifle Arms,” with a label of two arms entwined.) Their interest endured, and by the time Huard retired, in 2009, he had spent years cultivating relationships with Washington farmers and vineyard owners. The next year, Huard, Marino, Doug Donnelly, and Kevin Hughes joined up to invest $500,000 in Passing Time—the moniker Marino’s wife, Claire, had given their family’s beach house on Kiawah Island, S.C.
Passing Time’s first vintage, a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, was released in April. It earned a 93 in Wine Spectator and a 94 in The Wine Advocate—ranking “outstanding” in both publications. The scores put Passing Time on the map in Washington’s $4.4 billion wine industry but certainly didn’t guarantee financial success. That’s why Huard spends much of this July day on the road. Early on he delivers three bottles to a woman staying at a nearby hotel—a mailing-list customer who happens to be in town. At lunch he orders white wine to pair with his blackened steelhead and chats with the restaurant’s manager. The conversation ends with a sale and Huard’s promise to return with six bottles of Passing Time.
Marino isn’t Huard’s only accomplished teammate. Through a client of Donnelly’s—who is also Huard’s financial adviser—the partners recruited one of Washington’s top winemakers, Chris Peterson. After Peterson finished trials of the 2012 vintage, he gave Huard and Marino some news: They had 500 cases of really good wine, but 300 cases that weren’t good enough. Peterson suggested they sell the lesser cases wholesale to another winery for use in a blend, even though that would mean losing about $200,000. Huard and Marino didn’t hesitate to sell. “If you want to make a high-end wine, you have to be ruthless,” Peterson says.
The remaining cases have sold for $75 a bottle, bringing in about $375,000 to date. Nobody takes a salary except Peterson (Huard has a day job as director of community relations for the football team at his alma mater); all proceeds go back into the company. The partners expect their 2014 vintage, to be released in 2017, to bring them closer to profitability. They’ll produce 1,200 to 1,500 cases, selling three types of Cabernet Sauvignon to showcase three famous Washington appellations—Walla Walla, Horse Heaven Hills, and Red Mountain.
“This is definitely not a vanity project,” Marino says. In an interview in New York, the Hall of Famer talks football—discussing other quarterbacks who have joined him in the 5,000-passing-yard-season pantheon—and the discomfort of retirement (“It was tough … you have withdrawals”). But he also extols how great it is to work with Huard, a friend he trusts to run the show. “I’m good at drinking it,” Marino says of their wine with a laugh. “That’s my job. Social director and drinker.”
Back in Woodinville, Huard double-checks to make sure he put the stoppers back in the barrels correctly. Construction workers are building a huge new room that Passing Time can use for tastings and parties. Huard asks a friend if the fresh paint on the walls could have any effect on the wine. The friend assures him it won’t.
Huard cleans his glass and wine thief. He tries to find the key for the newly built addition but can’t. So he turns off the lights and walks to his car. “Oh, you know what, wait,” he says, jogging back into the building to grab four more cases of wine. “I still have deliveries to make.”
A version of this article appears in the September 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “Trading touchdowns for terroir.”