Good news for Washington Nationals fans: Dusty Baker’s wines are available in distribution locally — just in time for the playoffs.
Baker released his first commercial vintage about the same time he was hired to be the Nationals’ manager in November 2015. There were only about 150 cases of three wines from 2013 — too much for him to just give away, as he had with earlier vintages, but not enough to feed the monster that is our wine distribution system. Some Baker Family wines were available at Calvert Woodley in the District, but otherwise availability was limited to direct purchases from the winery.
In the nearly two years since, while he was coaching the Nationals to a National League East Division title in 2016 and a commanding lead in the division this year, Baker and his winemaker and business partner, Chik Brenneman, have been developing the Baker Family Wines brand. Brenneman came to Washington recently to promote the wines, and I met with him and Baker at BLT Steak near Farragut Square to discuss their efforts to grow essentially from a retirement project into a fledgling winery business.
“It takes volume, more than anything,” Brenneman told me. Having enough product to get into the distribution system has been the biggest obstacle for Baker Family Wines, at least until now.
Growing grapes was Baker’s “gentleman farmer” move to retirement from baseball. He grew up in Riverside, Calif., where fruit trees were in every yard and neighbors shared their bounty. His father worked as a gardener, so young Dusty grew up with a love of growing fruits and vegetables.
“Nothing’s better than seeing your own toils out there come to fruition, eating your own fruit, drinking your own wine,” Baker told me. “This is how it was supposed to be in the old days. There weren’t stores where you could go get it. You grew your own. There’s nothing better . . . . That’s why I miss my garden.”
In 2007, Baker planted two acres of syrah vines on his property in Placer County, Calif., east of Sacramento. When he realized five years later that he was giving away too many autographed bottles of “Dusty Baker syrah,” he decided to go commercial. Two acres will not sustain a commercial operation, so Brenneman began looking for grapes elsewhere. As the manager of the teaching winery at the University of California at Davis, he had connections.
Those 150 cases from 2013 made a modest entry into the market. In 2014, the fruit from Baker’s own vineyard was decimated by birds feasting on the ripening fruit. And additional syrah the Baker operation had purchased the year before from a vineyard in California’s Shenandoah Valley was suddenly unavailable — proof that a handshake agreement is only good until someone lets go. They were able to bottle about 75 cases that year.
So in 2015, Baker invested in bird netting. The result was a dramatic increase in yield. That was also the second year Baker tended his own vineyard, during the hiatus between his managerial stints with the Cincinnati Reds and the Nationals. Total production ramped up to about 400 cases, including wines from better vineyard sources Brenneman found.
Another growing pain for a winery: How to name and market a wine. Baker’s label, designed by his daughter, Natosha Baker Smith, features a baseball with a smudge of dirt, evocative of a baseball diamond or a vineyard. The syrah from Baker’s vineyard was dubbed Legacy, because, as he says, “I told them not to put ‘baseball legend’ on there.” But despite what Brenneman calls an “exhaustive” trademark search, they received a letter from a much larger winery advising them to change the name. The 2015 is labeled as “Dusty’s Vineyard.”
Like a baseball player who hits his stride in the third or fourth year of his career, Baker’s wines are getting better. The 2013s were good, but the current releases from 2015 and 2016 show more sophistication. In addition to the Dusty’s Vineyard syrah, they include a syrah and a zinfandel from the Chalk Hill area of Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley and a crisp, minerally vermentino from the Fiddletown area of Amador County.
As we tasted the wines and discussed viticulture, baseball and home gardening, Baker admitted he had been skeptical of Brenneman’s decision to buy vermentino.
“I’m a sauvignon blanc fan,” he said, “and this vermentino had to grow on me a bit. But I like it a lot. I can’t resist my own stuff.”
Baker Family Wines are now distributed in the Washington area by wine@34south, a boutique distributor based in Annapolis. They range from $20 to $42 per bottle at retail, and can be found at Harry’s Reserve Fine Wines & Spirits, Eye Street Cellars and Calvert Woodley in the District, Oakton Wine Shop and the Wine Cabinet (Reston) in Virginia. In Maryland, they are at Beer Wine & Co. and Georgetown Square Wine and Beer in Bethesda. They are on the lists in the District at BLT Steak, Bourbon Steak, Charlie Palmer Steak and Blue Duck Tavern.