When Dusty Baker bought five acres of land in Placer County, Calif., in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento, he wanted to put in a fishpond. But after his insurance agent told him how much it would cost to line the pond and warned that it might overflow and flood his neighbor’s property, Baker decided to plant grapevines instead.
That was nearly a decade ago. Last month, Baker released his first commercial wines under his Baker Family Wines label. A week earlier, he had been named manager of the Washington Nationals, with a two-vintage contract. At age 66, he found his transition from major league manager to country vintner interrupted by his desire to manage a team to a World Series championship.
Baker talks about his experience tending his two acres of syrah vines with the same sense of humor that charmed the nation’s capital during his introductory news conference at Nationals Park. When I spoke with him by phone, I was laughing so hard I could hardly take notes.
“My dad was a landscaper — though we called them gardeners back then — so I figured I could grow anything,” Baker said. “I enjoy dirt.”
During his days managing the San Francisco Giants from 1993 to 2002, he joined the advisory board of the Robert Mondavi Winery. That gave him access to rootstock, and he paired up with Chik Brenneman, then a winemaker at Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi and now manager of the teaching winery at the University of California at Davis. Brenneman planted the vineyard in 2007 and became Baker’s winemaker and business partner.
“I was just giving the wine away in shiners,” he said, using wine industry slang for unlabeled bottles. “I’d sign them something like, ‘2012 syrah, Dusty Baker.’ It was getting expensive.” So with the 2013 vintage, he and Brenneman decided to turn the hobby vineyard into a business. “It takes a lot of paperwork to get legal,” Baker lamented. He enlisted his daughter, Natosha Baker Smith, a graphic designer, to develop a label evoking his baseball career, with a little smudge of dirt representing either an infield or a vineyard. Or both.
The initial releases of Baker Family Wines, all 2013, include a lush, fruity and deep syrah called Legacy, from Baker’s own vineyard; a second syrah from the Shenandoah Valley of California in Amador County, from a vineyard Brenneman helped plant in 2001; and a pinot noir made with purchased grapes from Sonoma County’s Bennett Valley. They are available direct from the winery at $150 for a three-pack, with one bottle of each wine. Future vintages will include wines from the Chalk Hill area of Sonoma County and some old-vine zinfandel, Brenneman says. They are also developing a second label called B and B Wines.
While his managerial career continued with the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, Baker was an absentee owner. “I’d help with the pruning in January, then head to spring training,” he said. Out of baseball during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, he became a full-time vintner. And that meant learning just how hard it is to grow grapes.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “Especially when I was trying to do it all by myself during the summer. And if you don’t get out in the vineyard early in the morning around here, it gets mighty hot! I learned to appreciate farmers a lot.”
He also learned to respect grape predators. “We have every type of doves and turkeys here, and they were eating about a third of the crop each year,” he said. So for 2015, Brenneman persuaded him to buy bird netting. “We got our best crop ever this year,” Baker said. And the netting did more than protect the grapes from birds: It protected his dogs as well.
“I have two hunting dogs, and they would go after the birds in the vines,” Baker said. “They’d tear down the irrigation system and wreck the vines, then they’d eat the grapes. My wife says grapes are bad for dogs, but they love them.”
His dogs may love his syrah grapes, but Baker confesses a preference for cabernet sauvignon wines. However, he wisely followed Brenneman’s advice to plant the Rhone grape in the hotter climate of the Sierra Foothills, where the heat might bake the fruit flavors out of the cabernet.
“I’m no expert,” Baker said, assessing his grape-growing skills. “I’m just working my butt off in my gentlemanly vineyard. And I’m having fun.”