EAGAN, Minn. — A new venue for 2019 provided a different flavor to the annual Taste of the Vikings fundraiser that was presented by Land O'Lakes.
Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center welcomed fans to join with players and coaches in support of the Minnesota Vikings Foundation's efforts to fight hunger by providing meals and nutritional information through the recently launched Vikings Table and other efforts.
As has become custom, players donned custom-made aprons and helped distribute food from some of the Twin Cities' top restauranteurs.
On the eve of being surprised with news of his induction to the Vikings Ring of Honor, former tight end Steve Jordan served as one of the judges. He congratulated Lat14 for its winning chicken wings that scored high marks in execution, appearance and taste.
The Vikings hosted the annual Taste of the Vikings event at Viking Lakes, the home of the TCO Performance Center.
Attendees had options to add on multiple types of unique experiences that took fans into position meeting rooms with players for intimate Q-and-A sessions, the draft room for a personnel evaluation presentation by Rick Spielman, the general manager's office for a signature wine tasting with current Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Hall of Fame Coach Bud Grant, and TCO Studios where Paul Allen provided an inside look into his approach as the "Voice of the Vikings."
"Taste of the Vikings is a celebration uniting Vikings fans, our coaches, and our players for an evening of food, fun, and philanthropy," Vikings Executive Director of Social Impact Brett Taber said. "The proceeds from this event directly support the Minnesota Vikings Foundation and the mission of our Vikings Table program to bring healthy meals and nutritional education to youth in our community."
Stories and sips at wine tasting | By Lindsey Young
Ten tickets were sold for the unique "Grumpy Old Men" experience that gave lifelong Vikings fans a chance to join Zimmer and Grant for a wine tasting.
"The Vikings have been very gracious; they gave me an office here. They keep me around to schmooze like I'm doing now," joked Grant, who opted instead for a Miller Lite as his beverage of choice.
Zimmer, who is a known red wine aficionado, quipped, "Is this all you've got? This isn't going to last long. I might have wine in my office."
For 30 minutes, the coaches and special guests tasted four types of wine and learned a lot from E & J Gallo Winery Business Development Manager Clay Burrows.
Guests also were able to ask questions of the coaches, from the favorite game they ever coached, to how players have changed over the years, to asking Zimmer if there was anything he "wishes he would have known" when he was hired by Minnesota in 2014.
Zimmer recalled his first evening in Minnesota, during which he stepped on a patch of ice and "fell on my butt."
"The next morning, I was going to work, it was about 4:15 or something, and I looked at the thermometer in my car, and it said minus-15," Zimmer laughed. "That was like a, 'What the heck did I get into?' kind of moment."
Tom and Anne Mootz, Vikings season ticket members since 2009, were among the group of fans who purchased tickets for the experience.
"For me, it was just being able to ask those questions you've always wanted to ask of both of the coaches," Anne said. "They're both iconic in their own way, and it's been a great experience having them in Minnesota. I grew up in Minnesota, so seeing Bud coach when I was a child and now seeing the legacy continue with the Vikings today has been a lot of fun.
Tom added that he appreciated watching Grant and Zimmer interact.
"There was a high degree of respect for both of them, which I think is fantastic and something I don't think you see enough of these days," Tom said.
Zimmer enjoyed talking with fans who are so passionate about the Vikings.
"They were just excited to sit down and visit with you, talk and really spend some quality time," Zimmer said. "That was good, and it's always great to me when I can sit and talk to Bud. I would pay money to do that.
"I've had the opportunity the past five years to get a chance to know him pretty well. We think alike on a lot of things," he added with a chuckle. "It's nice to hear the way he used to do it but also a lot about the memories and history of the Vikings."
As for the head coach's favorite wine variety?
"The [cabernet] was my favorite, but I did kind of like the sparkling wine a little bit," Zimmer admitted. "It might be a good drink on a hot summer day at the ranch."
A look behind the curtain | By Eric Smith & Craig Peters
The state-of-the-art Vikings draft room doesn't have a physical curtain like its predecessor at Winter Park.
Spielman, however, pulled back the metaphorical curtain with a detailed presentation on the process that led the Vikings to selecting Garrett Bradbury with the 18th overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Bradbury was on-hand to welcome guests into the room for photos, and the center and GM signed draft card replicas for each person. After Bradbury departed, Spielman utilized the touchscreen wall of 40 55-inch monitors to illustrate the exhaustive process that a personnel department goes through to sift through draft-eligible players and narrow the list to a select number of players (fewer than 200) that make Minnesota's draft board.
Spielman described the team's grading system but changed the figures to "protect the innocent."
The Vikings categorize players into blue (likely Pro Bowl caliber), red (reliable starter for all 16 games of a season) and purple (able to step in for a few games but prone to being "exposed" in a full season).
"Pro Bowl players are going to be early starters," he explained. "[The red players] are going to be starters but may take two to three years to become starters, [the purple] guys are going to be backups. Sometimes we hit on a guy that we thought was going to be purple who ends up being red or blue."
Spielman illustrated several of Bradbury's physical skills and pointed out that a great first step in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine helped him post a time of 4.92 seconds (third-fastest among offensive linemen in 2019).
The GM also mentioned the expanding role that analytics can play from time to time and the differentiation of tests that teams are now using to assess unique intelligences among players and mental quickness.
Over in the team meeting room, Kirk Cousins participated in a Q-and-A session with Vikings.com's Mike Wobschall and fans like Tom Olson, 25.
"I'm a huge Vikings fan. I'm a die-hard. I grew up watching Randy Moss, Cris Carter … all those guys, but Kirk is my guy," Olson said. "He's a great guy and has got a good head on his shoulders. He's smart and a man of faith, which I also really appreciate. It's been a great night, and it's always great to meet some Vikings. I'm pretty speechless right now."
Cousins enjoyed the informal setting and interaction.
"It was a great chance to interact with fans on a personal level and answer their questions and tell them stories from behind the scenes at practice, or in the locker room or from last season," Cousins said. "I've always enjoyed these moments where you get to meet people in a more relaxed setting. To hear their stories and how much they've enjoyed following our team for years, it always does our heart good because these are the people we want to give something to cheer about. Hopefully we're going to do it this year."
Cousins, who joined the Vikings in March 2018, said he appreciates the culture of giving back that exists in the Vikings organization and community.
"The Wilfs and the Vikings are so intentional about using this platform to truly make a difference for good," Cousins said. "[This event] is a great example of just that. It really all starts with ownerships. You really have to have a great ownership group to have a chance, and the Wilfs give us that in every way, including the way they're trying to impact this community and this fan base."
All-Pros Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith also held sessions in their respective meeting rooms, talking about Xs and Os and life off the field.
Thielen, a native Minnesotan, for instance was asked about his favorite fair foods.
If you guessed corn on the cob and chocolate chip cookies, then you might consider starting up a predictions business.
Thielen, who launched Thielen Foundation last September, said it has been great to see teammates give back to Minnesota.
"This community means so much to us because we were raised here and grew up here," Thielen said. "It's great when guys aren't from here but kind of make this their home."
Smith said he thinks this year's Taste of the Vikings is his "favorite one."
"Instead of posing for pictures the whole time, I got to go to the DB room and take some questions, whatever people wanted to ask, whether it was Vikings questions or on-the-field questions or what I do in my free time. It was a cool setting, and to have a little dialogue was fun."
Smith was asked about players that he considered his mentors since arriving in Minnesota as a first-round draft pick in 2012, his love for flying and his chocolate Lab named Deuce.
The safety listed Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway and Terence Newman as older players who helped him on his journey.
"It's cool that our fans are so passionate," Smith said. "Someone asked, 'How's Deuce?' It's funny that people love to see that side of us. I know everybody wants to see us win, and that's what it's about, but it's cool how engaged our fans are."
Smith said it's all about making a positive difference in a community that has become home to the Tennessee native.
"The way that the Wilfs have invested in the state of Minnesota with our facilities, with our stadium, with giving back to the community, everything has started at the top and trickled down to us with Rick and Zim' and the players and all of our coaches being around," Smith said. "I think it's something that everyone buys into. We're proud to be part of an organization that takes pride in that and wants to give back to the people who support us so much."