Somewhere in the horseshoe-shaped wine cellar beneath Danica Patrick's home in Scottsdale, Ariz., a bottle of Harlan Estate cabernet sauvignon rests, improves, awaits the proper moment. Maybe a birthday, a dinner with friends, or perhaps even a first NASCAR victory will coerce Patrick downstairs and into her antechamber of bins and vertical display shelves.
"Well, now, if you watch 'Sideways,' it's not the night that makes the wine, it's the wine that makes the night," she said, referencing the 2004 cinematic homage to wine and its devotees. "Uh-huh."
Some wine drinkers are aficionados. Some are connoisseurs. Patrick jokingly refers to herself as a "wino." Hers is a humble but fervent affection for a complex and increasingly expensive pleasure.
In her cellar of a thousand or so bottles, she and husband Paul Hospenthal have amassed a catalogue of coveted global vintages.
"There's a secret door in the back that goes to ... I don't know what the heck is back there. I wouldn't open it though," she joked. Some bottles come back from vacations; some come in crates a few years after purchase. But they come into appreciative hands and waiting glasses.
"Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine," Patrick posited. "It must be something."
Patrick's introduction to wine came when she tasted freedom as a teen racing in England, but consuming it became part of the ancillary process of being a professional race car driver.
"In England, I just asked for 'the sweetest white wine you've got,'" she recalled. "And then as your palate develops, it was sort of the driest white wine I could find. And then I came home from England, and I guess you go to sponsor events and dinner things, and it's not exactly the most polite thing to order a vodka and diet Coke, so you have a glass of wine and you be social and sort of do the adult thing."
Patrick's philosophies on wine and work seemingly coincide on some subconscious level. The 30-year-old has long said she wished to enjoy and exploit her finite abilities -- specifically driving race cars and persuading consumers to patronize her sponsors -- until they were depleted. A cabernet sauvignon is therefore very much like her career goals, but goes better with duck.
"There is sort of that fun factor of it's not an endless commodity," she said of wine. "If you want a 2005 cab sav from so-and-so winery, there's only so much of it. They don't make any more of it. It puts a value on it, and it puts an interest level onto finishing it because you don't want to waste it."
Patrick, whose speech cadence quickens as she begins extolling the virtues of her favorites, refers often to Harlan Estate, an exclusive Oakville, Calif., vineyard dubbed by Vanity Fair in 2005 the "ultimate cult winery." One can almost sense her thirst.
"The Harlan is sort of still sitting there [in the cellar]," she said. "It's tough to get and it's pretty fancy and expensive, so we're trying to hold onto that one. We have '05, '06, '07, '08 and '09 purchased and we have '05, '06, '07, '08 coming, and '09 won't come until next year. We laugh and say that's a wonderful business to buy the wine and receive it a few years later."
Patrick became more of a connoisseur in spirit if not self-label when she began dating Hospenthal, to the point that they attended a class at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., in 2008 to learn the intricacies of merging the appreciation of wine with their other developing homebody hobby, cooking.
"One of the elements of the school was learning about wine pairings and learning what it does when you have something salty -- drink this type of wine -- or avocado, and all of a sudden you drink it and, 'What does it taste like now?'" she said. "It's one thing to describe what you like and another thing to actually know from a winemaker what you're describing. It helps you to be better explaining things to sommeliers at a restaurant where you can get more of what you want."
Patrick said one of her favorite ways to dine is with wine pairings, where specific bottles are matched with foods on the menu.
"Eating fancy dinners and going out to fancy places and having course menus and set menus where they can have eight, 12, 20 courses, and having wine pairings with it, is, quite honestly, the most fun way to do it and also the most educational," she said. "And also, sometimes it's the cheapest way to do it. I'll do pairings with it. You really start to learn more about wine, and it creates a whole 'nother layer to dinner, which is really fun."
Patrick and Hospenthal visited Napa Valley on their first wedding anniversary in 2006 and have incorporated vino tourism into their vacations since. After partaking in a safari last offseason in South Africa, they discovered some of the sprawling wine region outside of Cape Town.
"The year before, we went to New Zealand and we put part of our trip in as wine-tasting, and one year we went to Australia, when we went to race in Surfer's [Paradise in 2008]. We extended our trip an extra week and went to Adelaide and toured around there," she said. "Heck, even when we went to Watkins Glen, N.Y., we toured around the Finger Lakes and went wine-tasting there. Look, there's definitely that fun factor of it being OK to drink at noon."
All of which is perfectly acceptable for an adult. In an image-conscious sport where many of her fans are young girls dependent on parents being comfortable enough with her to purchase her merchandise, Patrick is a rare commodity, unabashedly holding onto her adulthood and speaking freely about what that entails. NASCAR, the once-rambunctious offspring of moonshiners, has few drivers today -- besides those sponsored by breweries -- who discuss or associate themselves with drinking, even when prodded.
"I suppose I don't go into all the gory details about what it is to be an adult and that kind of stuff, or perhaps how I feel in the morning, I suppose," Patrick said, chuckling. "I'm not trying to offend anyone with it, but especially in the age of social media, you kind of help people understand more about your personality and the things you enjoy and the things you like to do. You're not going to make everyone happy, but the best I can hope for is I am authentic and real, and that people respect me for that."
Patrick and Hospenthal toasted the beginning of this NASCAR season -- her first full-time in the Nationwide Series after seven IndyCar campaigns -- with a 2004 Barnett Rattlesnake Hill cabernet sauvignon. Though noncommittal on what might entice them when the next racing milestone demands popping of corks, one of those Harlans could figure in the decision process. Or maybe the Abacus, the Chateau Margaux given by GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons. Or maybe the cabernet sauvignon from the winery of five-time Indianapolis 500 starter Randy Lewis. Ah, but there's the pinot noir from the Kosta Browne winery. ... So many choices.
"I think you always plan to save the nicest bottles for a special occasion, when those who can appreciate it are there, and most of the time it's Paul and I," Patrick said. "But we're pretty capable of finishing a bottle of wine. We always say, 'It's the serving size.'"