It's rare in baseball to find a catcher who can hit over .300, belt 40 homers and drive in well over 100 runs. But when you find a catcher who can do all this and also knows his stuff when it comes to Napa Valley Cabernet vintages, you know you've found a real All-Star.
Although Mike Piazza has played baseball for much longer than he has collected wine, he looks as comfortable with a wineglass in his hand as he does with a bat.
Piazza was drawn into collecting in the mid-'90s by his agent and close friend Danny Lozano, who grew up in Dixon, Calif., 25 miles east of Napa Valley. The duo traveled through California's best-known wine region a few years ago, visiting Caymus, Niebaum-Coppola and Opus One.
Piazza was born in Norristown, Pa., 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. He was drafted as a first baseman by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 62nd round (the 1,390th overall selection) of the June 1988 draft as a favor to family acquaintance and then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda (also born in Norristown). Following the 1993 season, in which he hit 35 homers and drove in 112 runs, Piazza was named National League Rookie of the Year.
In 1998, he was traded to the New York Mets. After the season, having established himself as one of the, if not the, most prolific hitting catchers of all time, he signed a seven-year, $91 million contract with the Mets -- at the time, baseball's most lucrative deal.
Two seasons later, he led his team to the World Series, and today -- appearing in numerous television commercials and broadcasts -- Piazza has established himself as a New York City and nationwide icon.
On a Thursday evening in January, the 33-year-old Piazza is not signing autographs or talking about the upcoming season. He is instead scanning the wine list of Le Cirque 2000, one of New York's most sophisticated restaurants.
"Be careful," says Lozano, 35, his partner-in-wine. Lozano himself once laced up the spikes, having played some baseball in college. Today, he is a sports agent and partner at the Beverly Hills Sports Council.
Piazza is careful, staying clear of Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild and Latour, although they seem as tempting to him as a hanging curveball. He's in the mood for Bordeaux, and is poring over the list like yesterday's box scores. With some help from sommelier Ralph Hersom, he arrives at a reasonably priced Château Lalande-Borie 1990.
With his trimmed goatee and fresh haircut, speaking as softly as he smiles, Piazza hardly appears the imposing figure that opposing pitchers fear. Seated next to Lozano, he doesn't even quite seem to be 6 feet 3 inches tall, 215 pounds, as listed in the Mets' media guide; that's only because the two are very similar in size. But when you shake Piazza's hand and stand alongside him, the source of his power becomes abundantly clear. The nine-time All-Star catcher is big.
Piazza and Lozano talk regularly throughout the year, in a friendship clearly built on mutual respect. When it comes to wine, the conversation flows even faster. Both appreciate the mystique of what's in the bottle and the path to understanding it.
"I pretty much enjoy everything," Piazza says. "Yeah, I like some wines more than others, but there's not one particular white or red that I dislike."
The easygoing and open-minded approach certainly fits Piazza's personality and his philosophies on life. It's difficult to find something that he doesn't like, except maybe a called third strike off the outside corner that puts him back in the dugout.
"Everything in life is dictated on your attitude," he says. "If you have a good attitude about something, something good is going to happen. But if you have a bad attitude, something negative is going to happen. And if something negative happens and you have a good attitude, you're going to find a positive out of the negative."
He offers a personal example: "You know what? I went 0-for-4 today, but I got the base runner from second to third and the next guy drove him in, and it was the game-winning run. ... It's really important to stay positive even if you have tough times."
But don't mistake his unflagging demeanor as undiscerning. Though still in the early stages of collecting, he knows -- and understands -- what he likes.
"You have the Pétrus and the Rothschild," says Piazza, who can't wait to travel across Europe during one of the next off-seasons and describes himself as the type who can pack a duffel bag and go. "But I think the coolest thing about loving wine is finding some obscure labels, finding the good $40 to $70 bottles of wine that are just enjoyable."
When it's for friends or family, though, he certainly doesn't mind overleaping that budget. Piazza grew up with wine on the table -- homemade wine, produced by his grandfather. Nowadays, he's supplying the wine, like a bottle of Sassicaia he recently gave to his mother. Piazza says that he enjoys being able to watch her enjoy the wine and share it with her. He spent New Year's with his parents and popped a bottle of Dom Pérignon.
Piazza has come a long way from his grandfather's homemade wine. "When I had the Harlan Estate," he says, with the freshness and excitement of someone who's just left the tasting room, "I remember it being very robust and very astringent ... with a lot of tannins," he says.
"See, I have a tendency of liking wines with a lot of tannins," throws in Lozano, but Piazza is still fixed on, and a bit wary of, his last comment.
"Would that be the right word, 'astringent'?" he asks.
Piazza isn't restricting his wine education to the table, either. He's recently found himself engrossed in a book about grape varieties that has led him to wonder, "You'll be drinking Italian wine, but -- wait a minute -- it's a Cab grape. Why does a Cab from Italy taste so much different than a Cab from California?"
Piazza and Lozano are curious -- curious about how a wine drinker becomes so adept at deconstructing what he's drinking. "You know what you like," Lozano says. "You can clearly tell the difference between what you do like and what you don't like, but it's hard to describe it because you don't have the lingo." Then one day you realize, he says, hinting that a breakthrough may not be far away, "That's black currant."
Piazza and Lozano both also enjoy entertaining and delighting their guests with great wine. "It's neat when you have friends over," Piazza says, clearly relishing the opportunity to share his enthusiasm. "I like to see them go, 'Wow, this stuff is good.'" "I think it's an incredible conversation piece," he continues. "I think it's fun, it's unlimited."
On the field, Piazza finds a common ground with wine as well. Mets pitcher Steve Trachsel will often share wines with his battery mate, and each introduces the other to his favorites. Other teammates sometimes find themselves drawn in.
"It's interesting to see because we go through the stages. We all love to drink beer; now we're drinking wine," Piazza says. "We see some guys and say, 'Hey, do you want to try some?' Then, they say, 'This is good. What is this?' It's infectious."
Piazza sends Mets Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver -- also a wine collector, who is rumored to be considering the purchase of a California vineyard -- to some of his favorite Manhattan wine shops, like Italian Wine Merchants and Union Square Wine & Spirits.
There's no denying that Piazza has developed quickly as a wine collector and consumer. "He's taken it to a different level now," Lozano says, recalling one day not too long ago when the catcher sent a gift to his house. "I go to my door, and there's a case of Spring Mountain Reserve Napa Valley."
Meanwhile, with several cases of wine in boxes around his apartment and his EuroCave pushed to the limit with at least 250 bottles, Piazza's next step is to build his own wine cellar. Among his favorite wines are Opus One, Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon, Caymus Special Select and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23. He is also loyal to Gaja, and focuses on other Italian wines as well.
Without a wine cellar yet, Piazza turns to his agent and friend for support. Lozano is building a cellar in his Marina Del Rey, Calif., home to hold his 1,500-bottle collection, which focuses on California and Bordeaux.
"He's giving me a wall in his cellar," offers Piazza.
"Yeah, that's what he thinks."
Don't be surprised if he gets that wall. Piazza is a tough hitter to retire, and too much a wine lover to be denied.
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