What is this guy doing here?
That was the reaction Cameron Smith often received as he doled out details about the complexities and character of wines to patrons in the tasting room at Melville Winery.
The 6-foot-2, 238-pound USC linebacker with a chiseled jaw line and quaffed red hair educated customers on how whole cluster fermentation gives a pinot noir its veggie, earthy taste or how a particular wine’s smell resembled a newly opened can of tennis balls or fresh-cut grass.
In the summer of 2017, the Minnesota Vikings' fifth-round draft pick had a unique opportunity to tap into an interest away from football. He worked as an intern at the Melville Winery nestled in the Santa Rita Hills of Southern California, learning all aspects of the business from Chad Melville, a USC alum and the son of the founder, Ron Melville.
Smith shadowed Chad Melville from the vineyards to the cellar and client meetings -- allowing him a look at the business side of sales -- to the tasting room. Because he had not yet turned 21 years old, Smith was unable to pour wine for patrons visiting the property but could relay the knowledge he’d gathered from sampling wine -- and learning how to gracefully taste and spit -- at Melville’s home.
Melville, the head wine grower, poured several California wines and the same varietals from France. He had Smith taste many of these "blind," meaning he could see the color but didn’t know anything about what he was drinking. The exercise was designed to force Smith to focus on the aroma, flavor and texture to develop his pallet and an understanding for what he was tasting. It was Melville’s way of throwing Smith “into the fire,” forcing him to use those skills in the tasting room when customers asked questions about the differences between blends and what food would pair well with each wine.
“What I struggle with is when people say it just smells like grapes,” Smith said. “You’re not having fun with it. It’s all about opening your mind. Everything is subjective when it comes to drinking wine. I can taste something and you can be like 'I don’t taste that at all.' Doesn’t mean I’m right and you’re not right. It’s supposed to be enjoyable.
“It was probably one of the most beneficial things for me because I learned how to talk to people who looked at me like, ‘What do you know about wine? You’re 20 years old.’ It was cool to form conversations and talk about things other than football and helped build my confidence.”
Smith, who led USC in tackles for three consecutive seasons, earned an appreciation for hunting, farming and agriculture while growing up in Roseville, California, just 20 miles northeast of Sacramento. He was fascinated by the wine-making process having lived near the world-renowned vineyards of the Northern Bay Area. He said he would have gotten a degree in agriculture business or viticulture (the science behind the growing of grapes) had USC offered either as a major. He didn’t want to just be the guy who could tell you to forego the most expensive bottle on a menu for a superior blend that costs less. Smith wanted to educate himself on the method of how each bottle is made so he could understand every step in the wine going from the vineyard into a glass.
Smith, who was introduced to Chad Melville by former USC and current New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, had to balance his football conditioning with his internship. For three months during the summer of 2017, Smith worked out from 6-8 a.m. on the USC campus and then made the three-plus hour trek up to the winery in the Santa Rita Hills. After four hours of work, he made the same drive back.
“I was in the car longer most days than I worked,” Smith said with a laugh.
He learned to describe the intricacies of Melville’s most popular wines, from light and pretty pink pinot noirs, cooler temperature syrahs, chardonnays and sparkling Blanc de Blancs.
He got his hands dirty in the farm (Melville is an estate winery, meaning it grows all of its own fruit) and learned how wine is processed and distributed for sale.
Ron Melville was impressed by Smith’s work ethic.
“One time my dad came up and was like, ‘Hey, who are you?’ and (Cameron) introduced himself,” Chad Melville said. “(My father) asked what do you do here, and Cameron said ‘Whatever I’m asked.’ I just love that response because that’s his whole attitude.”
Smith, 22, hasn’t been able to enjoy wine over the past eight to 10 months while transitioning from his senior season into training for his NFL career. The bottles he’s received from Chad Melville are the start of a collection he one day hopes to grow to fill out an entire cellar. But for now they are stashed away at his father’s home in California.
While becoming a sommelier, or wine steward, isn’t Smith’s focus now, the experiences he gained while seeking out his passion that summer provided him with a unique perspective.
“This was probably the first time he did something in his life that wasn’t football related,” Melville said. “With football, everything is in your control from a standpoint where you control your workouts, how you take care of your body, how you prepare. When you’re growing wine, when it comes to farming, 80 percent of it is beyond your control. Learning to work with mother nature teaches you how to learn to let go of the things you can’t control, like the weather. I think he really attached himself to understanding that.”