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Vintage Dusty Baker: Solid spring preparation in hopes of payoff in fall

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Dusty Baker missed the harvest at his vineyard this year. The Washington Nationals manager was in hot pursuit of a National League East Division championship when the syrah grapes ripened in his two-acre vineyard at his home near Granite Bay, northeast of Sacramento It was another early vintage in the Golden State, but that may not have mattered for the manager of a Major League Baseball team hoping to extend his own season well into October.

“I was here playing ball,” Baker told me in a brief interview in his office at Nationals Park on Sept. 11, before the Nationals took on the Philadelphia Phillies. “But they sent me pictures . . . when they crushed it, pictures of the juice.”

Wine’s vintage corresponds loosely with the baseball season on the calendar, from pruning to get the vines in shape for the upcoming season, through constant vigilance throughout spring and summer to guard against disease, injury and fatigue. Just as a manager tries to rest his players to be in top form for the playoffs, the vintner nurtures his vines so they ripen their grapes to the optimum extent and are ready for harvest.

“The similarities are, you have to put in the time, the work and the effort,” Baker said. “You start by pruning the vines and getting them ready for the season. That’s what spring training is. But then you have to stay on top of everything. A farmer cannot rest and say, well I’ll get it next week. I go out there every day and check on my vineyard and my garden, because something can happen quickly.”

Canopy management is also important. “I have to keep the south side of the vines shady, while I want more sun on the north side,” he said. “You really have to stay on top of it.

“That’s like baseball,” Baker said. “As soon as you think we have it made and we’re playing great, suddenly we’re on a seven-or eight-game losing streak.”

Winemaking isn’t just about what’s done with the juice in October after the harvest, and baseball isn’t all about the postseason.

Both require constant adjustment to changing circumstances.

“People talk about the playoffs, but you have to get to the playoffs,” Baker said, unconsciously echoing the wine cliche that “wine is made in the vineyard.”

Baker played 18 years in the major leagues, and earned a World Series ring with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. A championship has eluded him in his nearly 20 years as a manager, however, including stints with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.

After the Reds let him go following the 2013 season, Baker spent two years learning to manage the vineyard he had planted on his home property and developing Baker Family Wines. The label debuted commercially late last year, just about the time he returned to baseball with the Nationals for a new opportunity to earn a World Series championship as a manager.

Each year brings different challenges, Baker said, some of them unexpected.

“This year, we have a bee problem. We’ve always had birds eating the grapes as they ripened, so last year we invested in nets,” he said. “Birds bug me because they eat a lot, and they pierce the grapes and move on. I don’t mind the bees so much, because I have a garden and corn, and fruit trees, and you need the bees to pollinate everything. And with all the reports I’m hearing of bees dying, I’m like, man. . . .”

Baseball, of course, has a fixed schedule. Baker knows when the regular season will end and the playoffs begin. A vintner can guess the harvest date, but Nature may have other plans.

“Chik called me and said, ‘Hey man, we have to take them off the vine today,’ ” Baker said. “I said, ‘I thought you were going to do it next week,’ but he said they won’t wait.”

Of course, there needs to be some pleasure in all that effort.

“When we planted, I told Chik I wanted something to eat,” Baker said. Chik Brenneman, his friend and business partner, is chief winemaker at the teaching winery at the University of California at Davis. “So we planted four vines of table grapes. They told me they got a whole wheelbarrow full this time, and they were taking them around. So I’m feeding the neighborhood and the family.” Recalling those grapes from the past two years, he said, “They’re so sweet.”

Baker showed me a case of wine he had bought during a visit to Virginia wine country, including several bottles from Naked Mountain and Barrel Oak wineries. He spoke enthusiastically about learning the story of the Norton grape, developed in Virginia in the 1820s, and offered me a bottle. I declined, pointing out that stadium security wouldn’t appreciate me carrying in a full bottle of wine.

“Oh, yeah,” Baker said. “They stopped me the other day, too.”

Missing this year’s harvest, he sounded more rueful about the four or five vines’ worth of table grapes he won’t be able to taste. After all, he’ll have a chance to taste the wines in the offseason and in years to come.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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