Dusty Baker's wine business keeps him busy

SACRAMENTO — “Come back right now,” Dusty Baker said on a cool, recent Saturday morning at his home here. The veteran manager had made ...


SACRAMENTO — “Come back right now,” Dusty Baker said on a cool, recent Saturday morning at his home here. The veteran manager had made some final cuts earlier in the week and now it was time to pick up the pieces.

When he returned, he had no roster card in hand, nor was there a general manager nearby. Instead, he came roaring down a path driving his trusty Kawasaki Mule, a small off-road vehicle. The cuts had come during the pruning of the vines. A lockout may put Major League Baseball operations on hold, but Baker, 72, is still managing.

His small vineyard and Baker Family Wines business require more attention to detail than even the most discerning puncher. And, just as he learned some hitting and management tactics in his 50-odd years in professional baseball, he also learned outside of the dugout.

He pauses between picking up piles of clippings off the Mule’s back to throw them elsewhere to explain how the north side of a particular vine is cut shorter than the south side, so the grapes can soak up the morning sun. . The south side has more growth to protect the fruit from the afternoon sun, which in the summer here becomes far too intense.

“It’s called an umbrella,” Baker said of the technique. “Too much sun, then you get raisins. And I don’t want raisins.

He puts into practice theories he started learning a long time ago, when he was an outfielder in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I would be on first base and Willie Stargell would explain to me, hey, it was a dry year, it was a wet year, have you ever tried this wine, have you ever tried this wine?” said Baker. “He was my man.”

Now Baker has many friends in the industry. Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver had been something of an oddity during his transition to a highly respected and successful winemaker after his playing days. But over time, Seaver, who died in 2020became a de facto grandfather for others in the sport who wanted to make a similar transition.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia, a shortstop for Baker’s San Francisco teams from 1995-2002, are partners in Napa Valley Red Stitch Label. Greg Vaughn, who hit 50 home runs helping lead the 1998 San Diego Padres to the World Series, runs 23Wines in Lodi, CA. Chris Iannetta and Vernon Wells, who had been teammates with the Los Angeles Angels, created Vineyard Jack and Joe Blanton, a retired pitcher, farms for his Tag Selah in Napa.

“Along with the athletes, we’re so committed to what we do to be successful,” said Roberts, who taste-tested chemistry beakers when Red Stitch started but now has more of an ambassadorial role. “And having wine and food, that makes you a whole person. I think it’s something people crave. I know I do. When I have wine, I enjoy food, and it lends itself to travel and baseball.

Roberts’ path began when he and his wife, Tricia, visited Napa Valley in 2002 with Shawn Green, Roberts’ Dodgers teammate at the time, and Green’s wife, Lindsay Bear.

“Meeting winemakers and hearing their stories aired any pretension and intimidating stuff about wine and the industry,” Roberts said. “It kind of simplified what you like and what you don’t like. We invested in people.

Baker’s first foray into winemaking came while he was managing in San Francisco. One of the club’s minority owners, Phil Greer, introduced Baker to Robert Mondavi’s son, Michael. They fly-fished together in Montana and Quebec, and Michael invited him to the Robert Mondavi Winery board. It was good business for Baker: he would be paid to attend a few dinners a year, and Mondavi would provide Baker and his coaches with cases of wine.

Then, when Baker built his current home on five acres about 15 years ago, he planned to include a fishing pond. When warned that a pond might flood his neighbor, Baker veered off to a vineyard instead.

“It says in the Bible to plant your exterior before you build your house,” Baker said. “It makes sense, because you need food.”

Through his connections with Mondavi, Baker met his partner and current winemaker, Chik Brenneman, who helped choose rootstocks, wires, poles and lines.

“I told him I wanted to grow Cabernet grapes,” Baker said. “He said, ‘You can’t grow Cabernet grapes because you’re not in the right climate.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘You’re in the perfect climate for Syrah.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to grow Syrah.’ He said, ‘I guess you don’t want a vineyard!’ »

Baker laughs out loud at the memory, which seems to be a lifetime ago. What started as a “gentleman’s vineyard,” from which they produced Syrah in the basement under Brenneman’s garage, has taken off. In those early days, Baker shared his prime house with friends, including Sacramento baseball buddies like Jerry Royster, Rowland Office, Jerry Manuel, Leron Lee and Vaughn.

“People loved it, and it made us say, hey, let’s get commercial,” said Brenneman, who at the time was the winemaker and facilities manager at the department of viticulture and oenology at the University of California, Davis, which has one of the best programs in the world.

They partnered to start Baker Family Wines in 2012 and, with Baker between two management positions in 2014 and 2015, he had time to help build a strong foundation. His daughter Natosha, a graphic designer, designs the labels. By the 2016 MLB season, when Baker returned to the game as manager of the Washington Nationals, winemaking was in full force. Brenneman left UC Davis to go full-time to Baker Family Wines in 2019.

Their deal is for Baker to sell the first bottle and Brenneman the second. Meaning: Many people will buy a bottle out of curiosity because of the attachment to Baker, but the product has to be good enough to keep customers coming back, which is Brenneman’s domain.

“It was our deal because I bought a bottle of Scotch with a famous man’s name on it and it was the worst,” Baker said. “I took a sip and said I can’t drink this. I said to Chik, I don’t want anything with my name on it unless it’s good.

Baker’s lifelong friend, Henry Aaron, invested a few years ago, asking Baker about a Baker-label cabernet. They didn’t have any at the time, but Brenneman went to work finding these grapes at Aaron’s request. Now, the 2019 Cabernet Savignon Hammerin’ Hank is almost ready to be unveiled. The 2018 vintage is sold out.

The winery sources grapes from across the region, including Mendocino, Shenandoah Valley, Russian River and Amador County. Baker’s backyard vineyard produces, in a good year, about 80 or 90 cases of Syrah. This year it was only half due to drought conditions in California. Stargell’s words – “dry year, wet year” – keep Pops in Baker’s heart, especially now, when dramatic weather events occur regularly.

“Bees come and poke holes in every grape,” Baker said of the effects of a dry climate, where insects seek moisture wherever they can find it. “Usually they are not like that. That’s what I’m telling you, man, we’re all affected by this weather.

The lockout has made Baker’s February plans uncertain due to an unknown date for the start of spring training. Just months after leading the Houston Astros to Game 6 of the World Series against Atlanta, the only time free agent shortstop Carlos Correa appears – Baker not allowed to talk about trouble work or its players – refers to Baker’s Walk Off Red variety.

“I was our best customer for a while,” he said. “I would buy crates and my players would buy crates. I remember when Carlos Correa left the Minnesota Twins, the first thing he asked was, “Hey, where’s my Walk Off?”

Whenever the season begins, Houston’s 13th win will give Baker the No. 2000 career win, which should cement his eventual Hall of Fame entry. Of the 11 managers with at least 2,000 wins, all are in the Hall except for Bruce Bochy, and that’s only because Bochy hasn’t been retired long enough.

Baker points out that he would have earned his 2,000th a long time ago had it not been for the unwanted breaks between jobs. But this free time has also allowed him to fully enjoy his daughter’s wedding, mourn the loss of his brother and father, and start his business (he also owns an energy company, Baker Energy Team).

“I guess I’m where I’m supposed to be, in my life and my career,” Baker said. “There are only a few things missing now, a championship and the 2,000th win. I will be the only African American in this club, you know what I mean bro? And hopefully I can help convince d Owners other than me and Dave Roberts shouldn’t be the last, that we should have many more.

One day when they slow down, maybe Baker and Roberts — the only black managers in MLB working today — will all enjoy it together around a pretty red.

“I sent him some wine,” Roberts, 49, said. “He sent me wine. We know some of the same people in the valley. I never really sat down and dined and reviewed wines and spent the whole night with him. I would love to do that at some point.

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