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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

It's vintage Bird

I have to admit, it was a while before I stopped laughing. I mean . . . really. Larry Bird lending his name to a prestigious wine label? Why not just put out a Homer Simpson collection? Who would not want to try a sip of Duff Merlot with Homer's signature on the label?

The bottle arrived at my office with a nifty press package. The release started, ''Larry Bird is delighted to present you with the premier release of Legends, a joint wine venture between Larry and Winemaster Mitch Cosentino."

I removed the bottle of red (Meritage) from the box, looked at the label (2003 Napa Valley), and started to giggle. Napa Valley? Please. The closest Larry ever got to Napa Valley was when the Celtics played the Warriors at the old Oakland Coliseum. It's truly impossible to imagine him doing the ''Sideways" thing, twirling wine in his mouth, then announcing, ''Quaffable, but not transcendent."

This is a guy who would not know oakey from Charles Oakley. It's simply more proof that our pal Larry will do anything for money (which, by the way, makes him OK in my book). Who can forget the day back in the 1980s when Larry was spotted wearing a hideous short-sleeve shirt -- a shirt your mother might have bought you for the first day of first grade -- and acknowledged, ''I'll wear anything if it's free."

And now the all-time beer guy has put his name on a bottle of wine. Can't fool us. We know better.

Colleague Bob Ryan, Bird's official biographer, said, ''I never saw him drink anything but beer. I remember the day we were wrapping up the book, sitting in his truck. He cracked open a Budweiser and said, 'Gotta pay Ozzie's salary.' "

Ozzie, of course, is Ozzie Smith, the Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, who were owned by the King of Beers.

Larry and beer were always the best of friends. Like Ryan, I know this firsthand. Back in his MVP years in the mid-1980s, he caught me drinking a Molson one night and said, ''I never drink beer that comes in a green bottle. It all goes back to a party one night in college. I picked up the wrong bottle, a green one, and started chugging and didn't know what was happening until that third cigarette butt went down my throat. That was it for me and green bottles."

In his autobiography (co-authored by Ryan), he admitted his beer-infused, late-night carousing with Rick Robey threatened his career. ''Even now Rick says that the best thing that happened to my career was him getting traded to Phoenix -- and in many ways I've got to agree with him," Larry wrote. ''. . . he was slowly killing me by keeping me out so late."

During the 1986 playoffs, Bird and his teammates swore off the nectar of the gods. A championship followed.

The Larry Bird/Mitch Cosentino Legends Meritage is a blend of 41 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 37 percent Merlot, and 22 percent Cabernet Franc. Next month the label will release a chardonnay and a merlot. In the summer, there will be a Legends cabernet.

And just how did Larry get involved in this venture?

Julie Weinstock, president of Cosentino Winery, said, ''A mutual acquaintance of Larry and Mitch knew that Larry was looking to be associated with the production of a wine. Larry tasted some of our wines and liked them and said, 'Let's do it.' When I heard about it, I said, 'Larry Bird, the basketball player? I don't get it.' But he has such a following. It's introduced wine to a group of people that may not have been interested in wine. It opens a whole new world to them."

Cosentino said, ''He seems to appreciate better wines. I've always said that great wines can be enjoyed by people that may not be wine-collector types. Larry's goal was to say, 'They've got to be championship-style wines.' He wanted to strive to be at the top level. I think we both shared that vision in the project. And he definitely has a wide range of appeal to folks all over the world."

Celebrity wine is something of a trend. Director Francis Ford Coppola has his own label, as does golfer Greg Norman. According to Larry's press release, fewer than 500 cases of Legends Meritage were produced and the company suggests a retail price of $80 per bottle.

Eighty bucks per bottle. That killed me. I mean, we're talking about Larry Bird here. This is the man who refused to leave a tip when he went out to eat in New York his rookie year. He just couldn't believe the price of lunch in Manhattan in 1979. In 1992, when he was in Monte Carlo with the Olympic Dream Team, he walked out of a lounge when the barkeep told him he owed 7 bucks for his bottle of beer.

Larry said something like, ''You can keep your $7 bottle of beer."

Know how much beer you could have bought for 7 bucks in French Lick, Ind., in 1992? Probably a half-keg.

Happily, Bird's love of all things American has not changed. He's always been a guy who drove American cars and wore only clothes (even the ones he actually bought) made in the USA. Cosentino signature wines are 100 percent American, made with only California grapes.

According to my dandy press packet, ''The best condition for storing is in the dark with a constant temperature of between 55 to 57 degrees. Wine should never be stored in the kitchen or an exposed wine rack. Wine racks are for everyday drinking wines."

No problem. I stored the Larry Bottle on my desk and it was around 55 degrees most days last week. Friday night, at dinner with neighbors across the street, we ran out of wine and I could not resist the temptation to retrieve the $80 bottle of Legends from my desk. Six of us made it disappear in about 10 minutes.

''It's pretty fruity," said Barbara, a native of Indiana who insisted there are vineyards in the Hoosier state. ''Seems high in alcohol and a little too thin."

''Not bad at all," said her husband, Joe, another Hoosier. ''I can dance to it."

Another neighbor, Lee, who played with Ralph Sampson at Virginia and was drafted by the Clippers, said, ''It actually wasn't bad once it got going. It got better the more air it got. Who knew that Napa Valley was in southern Indiana."

I called Larry to break his chops and tell him how much we enjoyed his wine, but he hasn't called me back yet.

D'oh.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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