Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Dusty Baker takes a swing at winemaking

Baseball stitches are on the Baker Family Wines label.
Baseball stitches are on the Baker Family Wines label.

One of California’s newer vintners has a problem. He needs to be away from his vineyard this summer, and he’s conflicted about it.

“I’m out there almost every day. I’m there in the evenings and in the mornings, trying to keep the weeds down. I’m really bothered by weeds,” says Dusty Baker of his recent role as a self-described “gentleman farmer.”

This summer, however, opposing pitchers rather than weeds will be bothering him as he takes over as manager of the Washington Nationals. His return to baseball ends a two-year hiatus during which he spent summers tending two acres of syrah in the backyard of his Granite Bay home.

“That was my serenity time,” Baker says of the pruning, training, irrigating and other chores demanded by vines.

His return to baseball also will interrupt his hands-on effort to sell the first of his wines to be marketed under his new brand, Baker Family Wines. He’s been roaming the region, calling upon restaurants like Paragary’s in Sacramento and Hawks in Granite Bay in hopes they will add his pinot noir and syrah to their wine lists. He’s also selling his wines at www.bakerfamilywines.com.

He’s been having success, but nobody has latched on to his wines with more enthusiasm than the Washington Nationals, which just bought 17 cases of Baker Family Wines to pour at a dinner for players and executives in a couple of weeks.

“That’s pressure right there,” Baker says. “They haven’t even tasted it yet.”

Pressure is something that Baker knows after 10 years as manager of the San Francisco Giants, followed by stints at the helm of the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.

Weeds have been just one of the pressures he’s faced the past two summers. There’s been the prospect of freezes, and more than the prospect of drought. Birds also have been a nuisance, threatening to plunder his ripening grapes. “I’ve got turkeys flying over, and quail and pheasants and doves. I had to put nets over the vines. And my dogs discovered that they like to eat grapes.”

My hobby became an investment

Dusty Baker, winemaker and manager of the Washington Nationals

Sounds like the dugout might be a welcome respite, but Baker will miss his backyard garden, which includes assorted fruit trees and a plot of summer vegetables. “I was doing a lot of physical work, and found it interesting and rewarding. I appreciate farmers.”

He planted the vineyard eight years ago. Initially, growing grapes and making wine was a hobby. He gave his early wines to friends. As other winemaking hobbyists have learned, however, friends who really liked the wines urged him to turn commercial.

At first, Baker resisted, but about four years ago, as he totaled the costs he was incurring for bottles, corks and the like, he began to mull the possibility of generating some income to offset his expenses. “My hobby became an investment,” Baker says.

From the start, he’s had a seasoned mentor, Charles “Chik” Brenneman, winemaker for the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. “He was doing most of the (vineyard) work while I was off playing ball,” says Baker of the early years of their collaboration, which now also includes a third principal, business manager William “Bill” Matthews, a UC Davis economist.

Brenneman makes Baker’s wines at a collective winemaking facility that specializes in small-scale production, Treasure Island Wines of San Francisco.

Baker is jumping cautiously into California’s highly competitive wine trade. He expects to produce just 350 cases from this fall’s harvest, though the partners anticipate that annual output will grow. Toward that end, Baker and Brenneman have been scouting the foothills for prospective grapes, in particular sauvignon blanc and semillon, which would be the first white wines in their lineup. They also plan to add a zinfandel and another syrah to the roster.

The first wines to be released under the label of Baker Family Wines are an earthy and plush 2013 “Legacy” syrah from Baker’s home vineyard ($60), a light and supple 2013 pinot noir from Sonoma County’s Bennett Valley ($45), and a 2013 syrah from Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley ($45).

“Syrah was not my first choice, but it turned out great,” Baker says. “My first choice probably was cabernet sauvignon, but I’m not in the right place for cabernet,” he adds, referring to the difficulty that cabernet sauvignon has had in finding an accommodating home in the foothills.

Baker’s home wine cellar is stocked with 600 to 700 bottles by other vintners, he estimates. The collection runs enthusiastically to California cabernet sauvignons, though Baker says his tastes are eclectic and that he also stocks several merlots, syrahs and petite sirahs. “There’s not a whole bunch I don’t like, but I can’t drink too much wine. There’s diabetes in the family, and I’m pre-diabetic.”

Though California syrah has been a challenging sell in today’s market, Brenneman and Baker settled on it for his vineyard for its expression of “a sense of place,” for the traction it is gaining in the foothills, and for a chance to offer consumers something besides another chardonnay or cabernet.

Baker says he hasn’t yet settled on the style to define his wines, but Brenneman says they are being shaped with a more traditional European than contemporary California tone, their fresh-fruit flavors balanced by crisp acidity. Despite Baker’s penchant for chewing toothpicks in the dugout – a habit he adopted to avoid dipping tobacco – he doesn’t think he is especially keen on oak in wine, and his first releases show a light hand in the exploitation of wood.

Already, Baker’s wines have made a kind of playoff. Two of them were in a blind tasting of nine wines poured for friends and sensory specialists at UC Davis to help him determine what price he should set for his releases. The other wines ranged in price from $10 to $125. His 2013 “Legacy” syrah finished second in the ranking, not worthy of a World Series ring but not bad for a rookie.

And speaking of playoffs, should the Nationals win the pennant, will a Baker still table wine succeed the customary sparkling wine in the celebratory locker room? “Probably not, I don’t want anyone spilling my wine on my head,” Baker says.

Other family members in the business are his son, Darren, who is apt to assume more vineyard duties during his father’s absence this coming spring, summer and maybe fall, and his daughter, Natosha, a graphics artist who with her husband, Tim Smith, created the label art, a close-up rendition of baseball stitching.

Now that he’s resumed work beyond his vineyard, Baker has dusted off plans to build a house on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. “My eventual goal is to build a modest home way up on a hill with a great view, where I can clear my head and just chill, somewhere where my family and friends can go.”

Does that mean a pineapple wine in his future?

“Maybe,” he says.

Mike Dunne contributes a weekly wine column to The Bee’s Wednesday Food & Drink section. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.