In 2005, Jon Staenberg attended his first soccer game.
It was widely considered one of the world’s top sporting events. The match was in Argentina, and it pitted intense Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Junior against each other.
Boca lost, and angry Boca fans held Staenberg and the rest of the stadium hostage for an hour and a half. Boca fans and River fans aren’t allowed to leave the stadium at the same time due to the fear of (inevitable) rioting. When riot police arrived to force the fans to leave, Boca supporters set the stadium seats on fire.
“Anything that can evoke that much passion — I don’t think we have an equivalent in this country,” said Staenberg, now an avid soccer fan who follows the Seattle Sounders, the Argentine teams and football clubs in Europe, and who named his winery after a famous World Cup moment. “That for me was the epiphany. That was when I understood that it was bigger than any one person.”
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Staenberg’s favorite player, Argentine forward Lionel Messi, normally plays for FC Barcelona but is leading Argentina’s national team for the World Cup. (Argentina was scheduled to play Belgium Saturday, July 5, after this story went to press.) Staenberg, who has been closely following the competition in Brazil, believes Argentina will win, and has been surprised by how soccer is finally starting to catch on in the U.S.
“I walk down the street with an Argentine jersey now, and people are like, ‘Messi! Good luck!’ There’s a reference point here,” he said. “Every day now I’m having conversations about the games and people’s awareness, and did you watch this. It’s extraordinary.”
Staenberg, a Microsoft alum who spent decades working in venture capital and startups, owns two vineyards in the Mendoza region of Argentina and produces a wine called Hand of God. The memorable name refers to a famous moment in the 1986 World Cup, when Argentine player Diego Maradona used his hand to score a goal against England without being caught by the referee. In a news conference after the game, Maradona famously said that the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
A large photograph of the moment hangs at the Velvet Underground Dining Experience (VUDE), a dinner club that is Staenberg’s latest venture in the Seattle food scene. “I’ve had Argentines walk in and cry,” Staenberg said. “Americans cannot begin to understand what that moment is for an Argentine. Americans are starting to understand how soccer, next to air for most of the world, is the essence of life.”
Hand of God Wine was born during the same 2005 trip to Argentina as Staenberg’s first soccer game. While catching up with former Stanford classmate Santiago Achával, the two friends decided to get into the wine business.
“We had several glasses of wine, and the short story is that five hours later I said, ‘If I bought some land would you make the wine?’ He said, ’OK, let’s do it.’ ”
Nine years later, Staenberg’s parallel passions for growing grapes and watching soccer have grown hand-in-hand. “You don’t know the result until you finally take that bottle, open it up, and taste it,” he said. “You have indications … but what if in the end it’s corked? That’s like soccer — the ups and downs, the pulls and the pushes, that’s the heartstrings.”
Staenberg has 15 jerseys from teams around the world, including four personalized Argentine jerseys that have “El Jefe” emblazoned on the back, one of which he sported for Tuesday’s game (he wore boxers printed with the American flag to show his support for the U.S. as well). He has friends in Brazil collecting World Cup ticket stubs to add to his collection of 50,000 stubs from all kinds of sporting events.
When he’s not traveling around the country selling his wine, visiting Argentina, or watching soccer, Staenberg likes to kick a soccer ball around with his 6-year-old daughter.
“It’ll be my lifelong journey, learning about it and participating in it, being a fan — I’m pretty thrilled by that,” he said. “The only requirement to be a fan is you just love it.”
Katharine Schwab: email@example.com. On Twitter: @kschwabable.