A manager of a certain vintage
By Scott Miller
“Be right back,” Dusty Baker said on a chilly, recent Saturday morning at his home in Granite Bay, Calif. 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 did not have a lineup card in hand, nor was a general manager nearby. Instead, he came roaring down a path at the wheel of his trusty Kawasaki Mule, a small all-terrain vehicle. The cuts had come while pruning grape vines. A lockout may be pausing the business of Major League Baseball, but Baker, 72, is still managing.
His small vineyard and Baker Family Wines business require more attention to detail than even the highest-maintenance of sluggers. And, just as he has learned certain hitting and managing tactics over his 50-some odd years in professional baseball, so, too, has he learned outside the dugout.
He pauses between scooping piles of clippings onto the back of the Mule for dumping 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 is allowed more growth to shield the fruit from the afternoon sun, which, in the summertime 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 no raisins.”
He is putting into practice theories he began learning long ago, back when he was a slugging outfielder in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I’d be on first base and Willie Stargell would explain to me, hey, this was a dry year, this was a wet year, you ever try this wine, you ever try that wine?” Baker said. “He was my man.”
Now, Baker has plenty of industry friends. Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver had been something of a curiosity as he transitioned into a highly respected and successful vintner after his playing days. But in time, Seaver, who died in 2020, became a de facto grandfather to 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’s Red Stitch label. Greg Vaughn, who smashed 50 home runs in helping lead the 1998 San Diego Padres to the World Series, runs 23Wines in Lodi, California. Chris Iannetta and Vernon Wells, who had been teammates on the Los Angeles Angels, created Jack Winery and Joe Blanton, a retired pitcher, is farming for his Selah label in Napa.
“With athletes, we’re so all-in with what we do to be successful,” said Roberts, who taste-tested from chemistry beakers when Red Stitch started but now has more of an ambassadorial role. “And to have wine and food, it makes you more of a whole person. I think that’s something people crave. I know I do. When I have wine, I appreciate food, and that lends itself to travel and baseball.”
Roberts’ path started when he and his wife, Tricia, toured Napa Valley in 2002 along with Shawn Green, Roberts’ Dodgers teammate at the time, and Green’s wife, Lindsay Bear.
“Meeting vintners and hearing their stories diffused any pretense and daunting stuff about wine and the industry,” Roberts said. “It kind of simplified it to what you like and what you don’t. We became invested in the people.”
Baker’s first foray into winemaking occurred when 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 onto the board at Robert Mondavi Winery. It was a good deal for Baker: He would get paid to attend a few dinners a year and Mondavi would supply Baker and his coaches with cases of wine.
Then, when Baker built his current home on 5 acres about 15 years ago, he planned to include a fishing pond. When he was warned that a pond could flood his neighbor, Baker veered toward a vineyard instead.
“It says in the Bible to plant your outdoors before you build your house,” Baker said. “Makes sense, because you need the food.”
Through his Mondavi connections, Baker met his current partner and winemaker, Chik Brenneman, who helped pick out root stock, 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 in the wrong 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 hard at the memory, which seems like a lifetime ago. What started as a “gentleman’s vineyard,” from which they produced Syrah in the basement under Brenneman’s garage, has lifted off. In those early days, Baker would share his homemade bounty with friends, including Sacramento baseball buddies like Jerry Royster, Rowland Office, Jerry Manuel, Leron Lee and Vaughn.
“People were loving it, and that made us go, hey, let’s go commercial,” said Brenneman, who at the time was the winemaker and facilities manager for the department of viticulture and oenology at the University of California, Davis, which boasts one of the finest programs in the world.
They partnered to start Baker Family Wines in 2012 and, with Baker between managing jobs in 2014 and 2015, he had the time to help build a solid foundation. His daughter Natosha, a graphic artist, designs the labels. By the 2016 MLB season, when Baker returned to the game as the Washington Nationals’ manager, the winemaking was in full force. Brenneman left U.C. Davis to go full time at Baker Family Wines in 2019.
Baker’s lifelong friend, Henry Aaron, invested a few years back, asking Baker about a Baker label Cabernet. They didn’t have one at the time, but Brenneman went to work sourcing those grapes at Aaron’s request. Now, the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Hammerin’ Hank is nearly ready for unveiling. The 2018 vintage sold out.
Whenever the season begins, Houston’s 13th win will deliver Baker career victory No. 2,000, which should cement his eventual entry into the Hall of Fame. 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 won his 2,000th long ago if not for unwanted breaks between jobs. But the time off also allowed him to fully enjoy his daughter’s wedding, grieve at the passing of his brother and father and begin his businesses (he also has an energy company, Baker Energy Team).
“I guess I am where I am supposed to be, in my life and my career,” Baker said. “Only a couple of things are missing now, a championship and the 2,000th win. I’d be the only African American in that club, know what I mean, brother? And I’m hoping that I can help convince other owners that me and Dave Roberts shouldn’t be the last, that we should have a lot more.”
One day when they slow down, perhaps Baker and Roberts — MLB’s only Black managers working today — will enjoy it all together over a nice red.
“I’ve sent him some wine,” Roberts, 49, said. “He’s sent me some wine. We know some of the same people in the valley. I’ve never really sat and had dinner and run through wines and geeked out all night long with him. I’d love to do that at some point.”