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Wine Talk: Tom Hinkle

Professional baseball scout keeps his eye on the ball in the stadium and in the cellar

Eric Arnold
Posted: April 7, 2006

Tom Hinkle, 63, has been a professional baseball scout since 1981, working for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays and now the Milwaukee Brewers. After playing baseball in college, he signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1963, spent a few years in the minor leagues and then taught and coached at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Baseball keeps him on the road much of the year, but he's rooted in California's Central Coast. In 1996, he and his wife, Carol, established Rio Seco Vineyard and Winery, a 64-acre property in Paso Robles planted mostly to Rhône varieties, along with 1,000 olive trees. Just as baseball has broad appeal, Hinkle tries to make wine that is as enjoyable for beer-swilling baseball scouts as it is for connoisseurs.

Wine Spectator: How did you get into wine?
Tom Hinkle: We've lived in this area since '71. A lot of our friends were in the agricultural part—growing wine grapes. We had a few friends that had wineries. I felt early on that Paso Robles was going be a new wine area comparable to Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa, to a lesser degree. I've always liked the farming aspect, so I said this would be a good retirement, since we wanted to stay in the community. At the time we were the 34th winery. Now there are 110.

WS: How do you manage to do both scouting and winemaking?
TH: It's very difficult. Our assistant winemaker, Eric Bauer, is an unsung guy. He pitched for me in 1972, '73 and '74 at Cal Poly. I couldn't do it without him. I'm down in Anaheim watching the Angels, and the next morning I may call Eric, and say I want you to do this, this and this. And [my wife] runs the tasting room and handles our two brokers. I go for 12 days and come home for three. When I'm home, I'll jump on our ATV or check wines.

WS: How did you decide what grape varieties to plant?
TH: We spent a good year investigating that. There are seven varieties in our vineyard. The area I'm at [has similarities to the] Rhône. So we planted Roussanne and Viognier as our whites. I only planted 1 acre of Merlot for blending. So we have Cabernet, Zinfandel, Syrah—I have [clones of] both French Syrah and Australian Shiraz. … The Australian is really big and bold and fruity, and the French Syrah is really earthy and picks up a lot of the minerals from the soil, so it's very different.

WS: Have you introduced your wines to other scouts and players?
TH: For six or seven years I was [making wine] and not telling anybody in baseball. A lot of my friends are into Scotch. I'd tell them, "Do your wife a favor and buy her a good bottle of wine." They laughed at me, then a few of them tried it. We've done wine tastings for scouts and tried to explain.

WS: Did you convert them?
TH: It's a hard sell, but once you convert them, they are rabid. I had to start with a wine I call Clubhouse, which is basically a blend of whatever I have the most of that year. It could be a Cab-Zin. My baseball people love it—I always make sure I put enough Merlot in there so non-wine-drinkers will like it. I also have MVP, which is a Bordeaux-style cuvée. There are colleges here that have scouts' days, where they showcase all their players. Four years ago, I said, "I'll throw you all a big barbecue," and so the first year we had six guys come. Second year we had 19, then 22, and this last year we had 28. I've had guys say, "Next year, I hope there's a player I can look at just so I can come up for the party."

WS: How long will you continue to scout and make wine?
TH: I have friends who are 70-plus scouting. I won't be scouting at 70. Over the last 26 years, I've been in hotels 100 to 150 nights a year. I've met great people over the years in baseball, but the travel just wears you out. But the wine business I really enjoy. I've got a nice transition from scouting and big egos to people who have a singular focus, which is good wine and good food.

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