• Former NFL quarterbacks Damon Huard (left) and Dan Marino developed a friendship while they played for the Miami Dolphins, then teamed up to start a winery in Washington State called Passing Time after their careers in football came to an end.

Former NFL Quarterbacks Dan Marino and Damon Huard Found
Their Post-Football Passion – They Call It Passing Time Winery

Ten years after starting the winery, the pair makes approximately 2,500 cases of wine per year at its
production facility in Woodinville, WA., and wine enthusiasts are saying: “Oh my God, this wine is really good.”

Stakeholders in Passing Time Winery raise a glass to the success of the winery. They are (from left to right): Doug and Jeri Donnelly, Dan and Claire Marino, winemaker Chris Peterson, Damon and Julie Huard and Kevin and Krista Hughes.

By Sebastian Moraga

For Damon Huard, managing partner of Passing Time Winery, it all started far from the vineyards of Washington state. It was the late 1990s, and the former University of Washington star quarterback, less than halfway through what would be a 12-year National Football League career, found himself sharing a locker room with legendary quarterback Dan Marino.

Marino, in the process of closing a prolific Hall-of-Fame career with the Miami Dolphins, shared with his backup the fact that back at his home, he kept a few bottles of Washington wine. “He had some Andrew Will, he had some Pepper Bridge, he had some Col Solare, some awesome wines,” Huard said, thinking back to what he saw in Marino’s cellar. In addition, Marino made sure to pour some wines from the old country too.

The scion of an Italian family from Pittsburgh, PA., Marino also shared with his understudy the ins and outs of his family’s longstanding relationship with the vine. “Dan’s uncle Chucky used to make wine in the garage,” Huard said, before quipping, “Dan was probably drinking wine with his spaghetti when he was 16 years old.”

One time, while at Marino’s house “the bug kind of bit,” Huard said, and he and Marino started talking about making their own vino once they both hung up their helmets. Every offseason, Huard would come home to Washington and try to learn as much as he could about the Washington wine landscape, as well as build relationships with some of the major players in the industry back then. Names like Paul Champoux, who knew Huard’s dad, and who became an icon of the wine industry in southeastern Washington, showed him the ropes.

Damon Huard does everything he can to make visitors to Passing Time Winery’s Woodinville tasting room happy. like signing the Number 11 jersey he wore when he played for the Miami Dolphins for Dennis Huang of Issaquah, WA. Photo by Sebastian Moraga.

Then, in 2012, after a season with the 49ers, Huard decided it was time to hang it up and start focusing on the next chapter of his life. He phoned his Hall-of-Famer buddy, put together a business plan, found Chris Peterson and hired him to be his winemaker, and thus Passing Time Winery was born, with 450 cases that first year. Huard credits Marino’s wife, Claire for the name. “We wasted a bunch of money trying to come up with a name that was cooler than Passing Time,” Huard said. “Daniel-Damon, or Audible, and all these crazy names.” It took an expert graphic designer Joe Chauncey with the company Boxwood showing the quarterbacks what he could do with the words Passing Time on a label (the stitching of a football serves as the underline for the two words) for the search of a name to be officially over.

The beginning was not bereft of growing pains. Having hired firms that weren’t the right fit to build the e-commerce side of Passing Time, one of their bullseyes was hiring Jennifer Nance as a local consultant for a Passing Time event. “I said, ‘that’s our girl” Huard remembered, so he hired her as the winery’s General Manager.  “She’s been with us ever since.” In addition, it took a while for folks in the industry to realize Huard and his onetime teammate were in for the long haul

“The biggest challenge was people taking us seriously,” Huard said. “Like, ’What do these former athletes know about wine?’ People might buy the first bottle to see what it’s all about, but they would not come back for more if it wasn’t about the juice.” Besides, the two former athletes go to great lengths to put the focus on the wine, not the football.

Neither Marino’s nor Huard’s names appear on the label, “It’s about the wine, it’s about the fruit and it’s about Washington,” Huard said. “Looking back at why it’s been such a success, it starts and ends with the fruit.” Huard still remembers holding that first bottle, and hosting that first launch party, and witnessing people realize that the two newbies from the NFL had made something that was not half bad. “People were going, ‘Oh, my God, this is really good!’” Huard said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah.’ It took off like a rocket from there.”

Ten years later, Passing Time circles around the 2,500-case mark, with its 2014 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon serving as the flagship vintage of the winery. “Mother Nature was just perfect that year,” Huard said. “We were able to pick grapes at our leisure, with no rough weather.” When Passing Time opened, it was the only wine the company made, so, Huard said, “we got the recipe dialed in.”

Damon Huard was so impressed with Jennifer Nance when she put on an event in the early days of Passing Time that he hired her as the winery’s General Manager. She’s still on the job these many years later.

Peterson agreed, noting that it’s the wine with the largest volume at Passing Time, “so we have more barrels to choose from, in order to get that right combination.” In the midst of that first decade occurred three of the toughest years the world had seen in a long time. Passing Time not only survived but thrived during the pandemic. “I’m not going to lie to you, 2021 was the best year we had ever had,” Huard said. “People were at home, they still had their jobs, they actually had money, and weren’t spending it on travel, they weren’t going to restaurants. They were drinking through their cellars and they were calling me up, and asking for more wine.”

In addition, Passing Time started hosting happy hours via Zoom, a practice that has outlasted the pandemic. Passing Time also offers a 2021 Chardonnay, a 2020 Columbia Valley Red blend that’s 93 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and seven percent Merlot, a 2020 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2020 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 2020 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon.

Some of the bigger bottles come with the autographs of Marino and Huard. To Huard, the beauty of Passing Time is that although they bring enough fruit to make hundreds upon hundreds of cases of their signature Cab, “we spare no expense in making the best wine we can, depending on what Mother Nature did with that vintage.” He added, “Because of our size, we can literally go through every barrel and we can play with our blending trials…10 percent Merlot, and five percent Cab Franc, or eight percent Merlot, seven percent Cab Franc…and we go at it for months until we find that very best blend.”

Passing Time’s fruit hails from 11 different vineyards, including Champoux, Seven Hills, Bouchey, Discovery, Wallula, Pepper Bridge, Kiona, Conner Lee, Andrews Family Vineyard, and others. To the Yakima-born Huard, having such a connection with the east side of the state is one of the strengths of Washington wine. “Here in Washington, we can be a winery here in Woodinville and get all this amazing fruit from all these amazing places.  We bring it in-house and we make more interesting wines.”

On a Saturday in May, guests enjoy themselves and a little wine in Passing Time Winery’s tasting room in Woodinville, WA. Photo by Sebastian Moraga.

Some of the fruit hails from Walla Walla, where another football-playing wine connoisseur has its own shop, Doubleback Wines. “Drew Bledsoe and I do a lot of fun stuff together,” Huard said. “We play off each other with the Husky/Coug thing. It’s been great to continue our friendship all these years later.” Bledsoe was a star quarterback for Washington State University prior to a 14-year NFL career, but that’s where the rivalry ends. “We have great fun doing things together.”

The fact that Washington is comparatively new to the world of heavyweight winemaking helps foster a less competitive, more symbiotic relationship between all wineries in the state, celebrating each other’s successes. “As our vineyards continue to mature, and our brands are more and more established, we are kicking tail,” Huard said.

Many people across Washington are sparing no expense in making quality wines, he added. While the tail-kicking gains in force, Huard had special thanks to the members of the Passing Time Wine Club, whose support has been pivotal toward maintaining the brainchild of two quarterbacks in business for a decade. “It starts and ends with them,” he said. “We don’t grow without them.” Members can be found as far away as South Florida.

Details about joining Passing Time’s wine club can be found at: www.passingtime.com/Futures.  The wine club offers three levels of participation – they have a 3 bottle option, a 6 bottle option, a case option and a Club 13 option, which supports the Dan Marino Foundation.

A decade into this venture, Huard describes Passing Time as a “lean, mean machine,” with Nance his right-hand-person east of the Cascade Mountains, Peterson the winemaker, John Sigmar and Jarred Schmick as assistant winemakers, and three partners, Marino, Kevin Hughes and Doug Donnelly. “We tackle most of our issues ourselves,” he says. “We really don’t have employees.”

About 80 percent of Passing Time’s wine sales are direct-to-consumer, he noted, so it might be tricky to find Passing Time at the grocery store. Huard said that although some growth is the goal, they don’t want Passing Time to grow at the expense of quality.   Peterson agreed, adding that the goal is to make the best wine possible. “I’m pursuing every avenue I can to get that done,” he said.

That pursuit, however, does not keep some of the partners from dreaming a little. “It’s our dream to make a 100-point wine,” Donnelly said. “We think it’s possible.” To be fair, Donnelly is not the only partner with dreams. “Dan keeps bugging me to make a Grappa,” says Huard with a laugh, referring to the Italian liquor. “So if we have a Grappa down the road, don’t be surprised. But the focus is certainly wine.”

While the winery grows, so does Huard’s gratitude at having found something to call his passion after decades in football. Many of his gridiron comrades struggle to find a direction after hanging up their uniforms, and being spared that fate is something he does not take lightly. “It’s something you built your whole life for, and then at age 27, 28, you’re told you’re no good anymore, and ‘go figure out the rest of your life,’” Huard said. “It can be a challenge, but I was lucky enough to find another calling. “This is my everything,” Huard said. “I love it. It’s the best.”

Passing Time Winery is located at 18808 142nd Ave. N.E., Suite 1A, Woodinville, WA. 98072(425) 241-5670.  If you can’t get to Passing Time this summer, you can purchase all of the winery’s current releases by visiting their online wine store at: www.passingtime.com/wines.