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Former Cubs Manager, now Wine Maker

March 14th, 2017 by Dean Ricker

Filed under: Skolnik Newsletter, Wine

Most people know Dusty Baker as the baseball legend who managed the San Francisco Giants from 1993 to 2002 and the Chicago Cubs from 2003 to 2006. He is currently managing the Washington Nationals. Dusty was the first National League manager to earn “Manager of the Year” honors three times. What people might not know, however, is Dusty’s deep love for growing things. His father, Johnnie B. Baker, Sr., introduced Dusty to gardening. “My dad always had a garden,” Baker says. “He had a green thumb, and I got a green thumb from him. I like working in the 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. At first growing grapes and making wine was a hobby, and Dusty gave his premium wines away to friends and family. When people started asking where they could purchase his wine, Dusty decided to sell it. He enlisted his daughter, Natosha Baker Smith, a graphic designer, to develop his label, which evokes a close-up rendition of baseball stitching. Because lot sizes are small, Baker Family Wines are sold online, at the Treasure Island Wines tasting room in San Francisco, and a few select restaurants. When Dusty is in town, he enjoys walking through his vineyard and helping with pruning and harvesting. Dusty and Chik also enjoy hosting winemaker dinners at select restaurants. Before starting a vineyard, Dusty had a backyard garden, which included assorted fruit trees and a plot of summer vegetables. In between seasons, he was often found tending his plants. “I was doing a lot of physical work — I found it interesting and rewarding,“ says Dusty. In 2015, 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. 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.

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