“Some people catch the bug,” Blanton said, “and I did.”
Blanton grew up in Kentucky, where 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is aged and produced. He went to high school in Franklin, population: 8,787 and now home to a distillery named Dueling Grounds because the town was known for hosting pistol duels,including one involving Sam Houston. It wasn’t until Blanton reached the big leagues with the Athletics, who drafted him in the first round out of the University of Kentucky in 2002 — common knowledge to anyone who has read “Moneyball” — that he was introduced to wine through dinners with teammates.
Steakhouses were usually the choices for postgame get-togethers, and veterans would order bottles to pair with the meat. Those meals planted an interest that sprouted with off-day trips up to Napa from the Bay Area and bloomed after that 2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia experience into weeks-long offseason retreats. That led to him proposing to his wife, LeeAndra, in Napa and marrying her there. On one of those trips, Blanton was at a wine-tasting event when somebody asked whether it was okay if a former baseball player who owned a winery joined Blanton’s group. Blanton said it was fine. He didn’t know it was Tom Seaver until the Hall of Fame pitcher showed up.
“I had no idea, and we did the tasting,” the 36-year-old Blanton said, “and he was like ‘Yeah, if you guys want to come up to my place, we’ll have a bottle of wine and I can show you the vineyard.’”
Blanton accepted the invitation and the visit initiated the final phase of his wine fixation: Between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he bought his own vineyard in Napa. It sits on three acres near Howell Mountain, on the northeast side of the valley, and all of its grapes are cabernet sauvignon. A winery followed, and Blanton and his wife, seeking to avoid anything baseball-related, named it Selah, a word from the Hebrew Bible with various interpretations, including “to pause and reflect.”
“We just felt like that kind of really hit,” Blanton said. “Every time we would go there, that was our place to just pause and slow things down.”
This past winter, the Blanton family moved to Napa permanently. It was why Blanton, a free agent, preferred to sign with a West Coast club before he finally agreed to a one-year deal worth $4 million with the Nationals on the last day of February. He became Washington’s second winemaking addition in as many years, after Manager Dusty Baker, founder of Baker Family Wines.
“It’s been great living out there,” Blanton said. “It has a Midwest feel … but it’s almost European at the same time. They’re into the food and the wine and that kind of thing, but at the bones of it, it’s a farming community. It’s kind of fancy farming, if you will.”
The Nationals valued Blanton’s versatility — he was a top setup man in 2016 but as a former starter he is also capable of going multiple innings, which could render a bullpen spot for a long reliever expendable — and he reported to camp March 2 in shape. He trained at Napa Valley College, with a daily regimen of baseball during the day and wine business at night. His wife had shouldered the business details for much of last year as Blanton revived his career as a reliever and posted a 2.48 ERA in 75 appearances in his only season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I tried to start taking it over because I realized this is kind of my thing so I should probably be the one doing it,” said Blanton, whose education on the subject includes an online course on wine and some books. “And right now is a good time. I have three little kids at home, so in the winter I don’t really get to do it.”
The couple employ three people: a vineyard manager who oversees his own farmers, a winemaker, and Seaver’s niece, Karen, as business manager. The website is a work-in-progress, but the winery’s debut release, an estate-bottled 2014 Selah cabernet sauvignon, is slated for the fall. Blanton said it will be a small production of 200 to 250 cases.
“Just trying to make a great wine I enjoy drinking,” Blanton said, “and have fun doing it.”
Blanton will have a chance to visit in late May and early June when the Nationals spend a week in the Bay Area for back-to-back three-game series against the San Francisco Giants and Athletics. Maybe a steakhouse dinner or two with teammates will be in order. He’ll be the veteran choosing the wine.