Drew Bledsoe is taller (6-feet-5-inches) in person than the NFL version that filled TV screens for 14 pro seasons.

That was my first of many impressions upon meeting Bledsoe in his Doubleback office in downtown Walla Walla, Wash.

The second is that his hands are big and strong -- good for tossing a football and farming a vineyard.

The third is that at 42 years old, Bledsoe is aging well -- just like the premium Cabernet Sauvignon he and winemaker friend Chris Figgins have produced since 2007 from vineyards across eastern Washington and Oregon.

The fourth is that Drew Bledsoe has a lot more on his mind these days than beating the New York Jets on a fall weekend. He's a husband, father of four, employer, wine lobbyist, high school quarterbacks coach, community philanthropist -- and relishing all the challenges that come with transitioning to a new phase of his life.

"If you think I felt stress before (in the NFL), think again," Bledsoe told me during an interview. "You make one bad decision and you can lose an entire vintage. That's stress."

  • Trip to wine country

In late June, the Wine Goddess -- my wife Mary Lee -- and I spent 10 days visiting wineries in eastern Washington state and western Oregon's Willamette Valley. We logged 1,100 miles on our rental car. One of the many highlights were the three days in Walla Walla, an historic town of 31,731. In 2011, USA Today selected Walla Walla as America's Friendliest Small Town. Believe me it is.

Doubleback's office is located on East Main Street and represents one of more than 110 wineries that have sprung up in the Walla Walla Valley AVA since the 1980s. There are 12 cozy tasting rooms sprinkled throughout the downtown, and another dozen within a 10-minute drive east or west on Highway 12.

I got the chance to play golf in Bledsoe's annual Doubleback tournament (he can hit a golf ball!), attend an outing for allocation-list members (held high atop McQueen Vineyard), interview Bledsoe (in full disclosure, I have been a Doubleback allocation-list member since 2010), and taste his new wines scheduled for release in October (they are luscious!).

  • The new 'old' Drew

Bledsoe is intelligent, approachable and a hometown sort of guy. His high school and college friends are still a big part of his life, as are the adults who mentored him during his formative years.

He willingly talks to people in front of his office, some of whom are aquaintances and others who are visitors.

If you can equate celebrity status to a football field, counting the end zones Drew Bledsoe is 120 yards removed from the NFL -- at least from my observations.

A day earlier, at Wine Valley Golf Club, an emerald green oasis surrounded by golden wheat fields and brown mountains, Bledsoe hosted 72 golfers, at $200 apiece, in a fun event. Dinner followed in which Doubleback's 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon flowed freely for the guests.

I was the lone person from Massachusetts and didn't know a soul. Yet before the day was done, I felt like I was an honorary citizen of Walla Walla.

A day later during our interview, Bledsoe said he considers himself "blessed" for the people who've influenced his life. His parents, Mac and Barbara Bledsoe, both retired school teachers, head the list. (I got to speak to Mac Bledsoe that afternoon, at Doubleback's McQueen Vineyard outing. Mac has written two books on Parenting with Dignity, a parent education curriculum funded by the Drew Bledsoe Foundation, and a third is due out in November.)

  • A successful transformation

Bledsoe acknowledges that his NFL career, where he earned in excess of $150 million according to published reports, gave him the opportunity to invest in an idea he's harbored since 1993. That's when he signed with the New England Patriots as a No. 1 draft pick out of Washington State University.

Bledsoe said the notion that an injury could abruptly end his career accelerated his preparation for life after football.

"I told Maura what I wanted to do and she said, 'Fine, but you better be the best at it.' She's been one of my biggest supporters. She's also challenged me every step of the way," he said.

The name Doubleback -- which means "return to one's roots" -- conveys the essence of Drew and Maura's journey back home to the Walla Walla area. While they reside 4 1/2 hours away in Bend, Ore., the Bledsoes check constantly on the vineyards (Bob Healy Vineyard, named after Maura's late father, is the other) and work in the fields during harvest.

To that end, Bledsoe's re-connecting with high school friend and notable winemaker Chris Figgins (Leonetti Cellar, Figgins Family Wine Estates) was instrumental in launching Doubleback in 2006-07.

"We've got a great relationship and we make all decisions together. At the end of the day, we're best friends too. That's the best part of striving for excellence in what we're doing," said Bledsoe.

Doubleback's premium Cabernet Sauvingnon has gained consistency with each vintage since its highly acclaimed debut in 2007. Bledsoe says he is striving for a "special occasion," elegant product. Only 3,000 cases of the 2011 Doubleback were produced, up from 2,000 cases of the 2010 Doubleback which sold out at $90 a bottle.

With his signature bottling in place, Bledsoe and Figgins are expanding the Doubleback line. In October, they'll be releasing a 1-liter reusable bottle of Bledsoe Family Wine, a Cabernet-Merlot blend, and a "Stolen Horse" Syrah. Both will be priced in the $40 range.

Bledsoe told me he is considering adding a white wine, Chardonnay, in the near afuture. He is also developing plans to build a modern processing facility and tasting room at the McQueen Vineyard site.

His competitive spirit is now channeled toward being a wine pioneer. He champions the Walla Walla Valley AVA to get the recognition it deserves. "We share information and we work together," said Bledsoe. "All the wineries want to be the best. If one succeeds, we all succeed."

To learn more about Doubleback wines and how to purchase them, go to doubleback.com.

The scoreboard

Doubleback's Cabernet Sauvignon has produced consistently high ratings since its 2007 debut.

Drew Bledsoe and winemaker Chris Figgins select only the best grapes from Doubleback's two vineyards, McQueen and Bob Healy, and several other top Walla Walla AVA sites for the wine. The end result is a deep, dark purple wine with concentrated black berry tastes, dusty yet polished tannins and smooth texture. Is it worth $90 a bottle? For the limited quantities produced, Doubleback stands tall against other wines in the same price bracket. This is among Washington State's finest reds, and the 2010 garnered 95-point ratings from both The Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast (WE also placed it on its 2013 Top 100 Wine List, at No. 53). Wine Spectator gave it 94 points. Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, a paid ratings service, gave it 92-plus and said, "potentially the best release yet from Doubleback, and balanced to age." The 2,000 cases produced have sold out.

The 2011 Doubleback, shipped to allocation-list members, is the product of a cooler vintage season which proved challenging and rewarding. It's silky smooth, balanced and intense in raspberry and blueberry flavors. Though young, early reviews from CellarTracker put it in the 90-point range. Three thousand cases were produced and it's still available (Tutto Bene Wine & Cheese Cellar in Lowell still has a few bottles at $112 each.)

The 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages have all sold out. Their individual ratings from all the above were stellar, ranging from 92-95 points.

At Doubleback's outing in June, guests sampled the 2012 Cabernet to be released in October. I can report it to be incredibly vibrant, super ripe and rich, and potentially an exceptional product.

-- Jim Campanini