ABOUT DUSTY BAKER

Most people know Dusty Baker as the baseball legend who managed the San Francisco Giants from 1993 to 2002 and 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.”

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.

The Washington Nationals have themselves a manager-vintner
By Dave McIntyre Columnist, Food December 5, 2015

Dusty Baker, left, signs a bottle of 2011 Baker Family Wines Syrah during the release of his new label at a wine store in San Francisco in April 2014. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

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.”

IN THE GARDEN

47db28d25cbeb062145b0687418a1765Just like his late father, Baker finds a comfort outdoors growing vegetables. It has benefited his healthier diet, too, something Baker had to take far more seriously following an 11-game stint away from the Reds late in 2012 — including the NL Central clincher and Homer Bailey’s no-hitter — while healing from a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat.

He is also growing mustard greens, red cabbage, romaine lettuce, leeks and onions, and had beets and Brussels sprouts specifically for Darren.

Johnnie B. Baker, Sr., who died in November 2009, introduced the therapeutic hobby. “My dad always had a garden,” Baker recalls. “My dad had a green thumb, and I got the green thumb. I don’t like grease, I like dirt.”

Take the garden. “I lost my beets, man, the frost got them,” he He is also growing mustard greens, red cabbage, romaine lettuce, leeks and onions, and had beets and Brussels sprouts specifically for Darren. Johnnie B. Baker, Sr., who died in November 2009, introduced the therapeutic hobby. “My dad always had a garden,” Baker recalls. “My dad had a green thumb, and I got the green thumb. I don’t like grease, I like dirt.”

His daughter, Natosha, designed the label for Baker Family Wines. He will open a tasting room on Treasure Island off the Bay Bridge, which separates San Francisco and Oakland. “I don’t have enough wine to service everybody,” he says with a grin. Inside his wine cellar, prosciutto hangs during its drying process.

Whether Baker will return to the top dugout step, he doesn’t know. Yet there is something still missing: He never won a World Series in 20 years as a skipper. “I have some unfinished business,” he says. Baker knows he’s not always in charge of what’s next.

821361fd97205db6f0f9928ef26456e2A NEW LIFE

Last week, Baker underwent a minor heart procedure with the goal of getting him his medications. He wore a heart monitor on the road last season; he has watched his diet and alcohol intake and exercised more.  “My doctors were trying to get me through last year,” he acknowledges. “I saw every cardiologist, radiologist, every ‘ist in the world. I’m a lot better than I was last year.”

Last week, Baker underwent a minor heart procedure with the goal of getting him his medications. He wore a heart monitor on the road last season; he has watched his diet and alcohol intake and exercised more.  “My doctors were trying to get me through last year,” he acknowledges. “I saw every cardiologist, radiologist, every ‘ist in the world. I’m a lot better than I was last year.”

But after being fired by Cincinnati last October, he is working on more than a half-dozen business projects at once out of his Sacramento-area home — not to mention helping 15-year-old son Darren and his freshman pals with their swings in the family batting cage.

Baker ventures out to the occasional college game. “I need my fix sometimes,” he says. “Games go slower in the stands. Games are a lot faster in the dugout.” The 64-year-old Baker made several inquiries about open managerial jobs over the winter but says he didn’t receive a single call back. Not that he is letting it bring him down. The family time with wife Melissa and Darren helps fill the void. “It’s been pretty cool,” Baker says, then acknowledges, “I miss the action. I don’t miss before or after games.”

He moves about his expansive property, complete with solar power, no sign of that signature toothpick he used to swish in his mouth while managing. Baker did have to deal with a cracked tooth because of all the chomping he did on ice cubes over the years. While strolling through his vineyard, which has already given him three grape harvests, Baker mentions a short bout with what he figures was depression. Having a tough time getting up in the morning, he asked a buddy what might be wrong.

“I never knew depression,” Baker says. “I’ve got nothing to be bitter about. Life’s good for me. I’m not saying I don’t wake up upset every once in a while. I make sure I don’t stay there. You’ve got to get up and realize life is good. I don’t have anything to be sad or depressed about.” He snapped out of the funk in a hurry, deciding he wouldn’t let such feelings control him or keep him from new adventures. “Baseball is not my purpose in life,” he says, “it’s an avenue to my purpose in life.”

After the recent procedure he reported some minor soreness but otherwise called it a success. “I spent this winter getting right,” he says. “I’m 64. I don’t feel 64. I’ve got to register for Social Security and Medicare. I don’t feel age.” Baker has also recovered from having his wisdom teeth out, noting, “I had had the time and I wanted to take my mind off baseball.” He spoke to new Reds manager Bryan Price a couple of months back, but says, “I let them do their own thing, it’s their ship now.”

FROM BASEBALL LEGEND TO VINEYARD OWNER

When Dusty bought five acres of land located in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento in 2007, he decided to create a “gentleman’s vineyard.” Starting a vineyard came naturally to Dusty. During his days managing the San Francisco Giants, he had joined the advisory board of the Robert Mondavi Winery, giving him access to prime grape rootstock.

While researching winemakers who shared his passion for quality, he found Chik Brenneman. Chik was then a winemaker at Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi. Now manager of the teaching winery at the University of California Davis, Chik planted Dusty’s vineyard and became his winemaker and business partner. Later, William “Bill” Matthews, a UC Davis economist, joined Dusty’s team as a second partner and business manager.

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.

THE FUTURE

Baker is building a home on Kauai, one place where he can truly relax.

Back on the mainland, mixed among his dozens of framed photos of famous people and art pieces is a print of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 holiday film that Baker watches each year as a gentle reminder. “It’s one of my favorites when you’re down and out,” he says. “There was a time I wasn’t doing real good.”

In August, his daughter will get married in the backyard. “Maybe I’m supposed to be off to marry my daughter,” he says. “I prayed for my daughter to find someone.”

And Darren, who at 3 1/2 famously ran into the action during the 2002 World Series as a bat boy and nearly was run over before the Giants’ J.T. Snow scooped him up, is growing so fast. Baker just resurfaced their basketball court, and has old bleacher seats from stadiums at all of his stops as a player lining the batting cage. The seat numbers are Nos. 11 and 12, since Baker wore 12 on his jersey.

“I’ve been blessed,” Baker says. “Baseball’s been good for me. I don’t have any regrets. They don’t owe me anything.”