Editor's note: Hank Aaron died on Jan. 22 at age 86. The baseball great was a legend on the diamond and a passionate voice for civil rights. This story was published one week before his passing.
When Dusty Baker joined the Atlanta Braves in 1967 at the age of 18, legendary slugger Henry "Hank" Aaron took him under his wing. Aaron went on to surpass Babe Ruth's career home run record of 714 in 1974 and ended his career with 755. He held the record for most home runs in Major League Baseball history for 33 years. Now, Baker, who built his own legendary career as a manager, has honored his longtime friend and mentor with a special-edition wine.
Baker, who currently manages the Houston Astros, launched his wine company, Baker Family Wines, in 2013. But he started making wine in his backyard outside Sacramento, Calif., in 2005. He spends his off-seasons working his vineyards, planting Syrah with winemaker Charles "Chik" Brenneman, who taught wine education at U.C. Davis for more than a decade and recently retired to focus on Baker Family Wines full-time.
A few years ago, Aaron tasted Baker's wines and said he wanted to invest in the company. He also said he wanted to make a bold Cabernet Sauvignon. Brenneman sourced the grapes from the Fair Play AVA, a subregion of the Sierra Foothills AVA. According to Brenneman, the area's long growing season and unique soils yield bold flavors and high acidity.
To honor the baseball great, Baker dubbed the wine "Hammerin' Hank." They made 70 cases of the 2018 Hammerin' Hank Cabernet, released at $60 per bottle. (The wine is available on the Baker Family Wines website.) Baker took a break from prepping for the upcoming baseball season to speak with Wine Spectator assistant editor Shawn Zylberberg about his biggest wine heroes, planting his own vineyard and Aaron's influence.
Wine Spectator: When did your passion for wine start?
Dusty Baker: It started when I was in college, because I went to school with some kids whose dads worked in Napa, so I'd go there all the time.
But the guy that really got me involved was Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates, once I got into pro ball. I'd be on first base and he'd ask me about this new wine and if I'd tried this one and I'd say no and he'd bring me a bottle the next day. Later on, when I was manager of the San Francisco Giants, the owner at the time was good friends with Michael Mondavi and asked if I'd like to be on his advisory board. But whenever I have some wine I think of Willie Stargell.
WS: How did you start making your own wine?
DB: I built a home in Granite Bay, Calif., and I had an extra 2 acres. I was gonna build a pond but my insurance man told me I was gonna flood my neighbors. So I didn't know what to do, and my good friend Rodney Williams [president and CEO of Belvedere Vodka] turned me on to Chik Brenneman in 2005.
Chik helped me pick out my rootstock, put my drip system in and wiring. I wanted Cabernet Sauvignon, but Chik said Syrah would grow better in this Sierra Foothills region. We started growing grapes that year and we processed them and I was giving the wine away to buddies in Sacramento. Everybody told me that the wine was really good, so we started to think, 'Can we make a business with this?' That's how we got started.
WS: How would you define your relationship with Hank Aaron?
DB: Hank Aaron was like my dad away from home when I was with the Braves. He kept me straight. [Before I signed] he met my mom and I at Dodger Stadium and he told me that if I had the confidence in myself I could be in the big leagues by the time my class would've graduated from college. He promised my mom he'd take care of me as if I was his son, which he did.
I had prayed not to go to the south to play because it was '67 and a very tumultuous time, but he made me eat right and go to church and not hang out late and kept me focused. Because of him I met the civic leaders of our time.
WS: How did the wine partnership start?
DB: I let Hank taste our wine. Then he and Tom Moorehead, one of Hank's best friends, came to Opus One with myself a couple years ago. Hank out of the blue asked me, "Hey man, we'd like to be part of your company." He said he'd want to make a bold Cab. It evolved to where we are today.
He called me recently and I've never heard him that emotional, because he's not a very emotional guy. He said he loves it. He liked the label and he liked the wine.
WS: Have you seen wine and sports grow over the years?
DB: When I first came into the game, I was 18 years old and I didn't even drink. I've seen a lot more drinkers in the game than when I first came in, but now the kids are young players that are more responsible drinkers and there are a lot more wine drinkers now than there are beer and spirits drinkers.
Guys are a lot more knowledgeable about the difference between good wine and bad wine. Before, we always thought that price point was the mark of good wine and later we learned that a lot of times that's the mark of marketing and the price point doesn't necessarily mean the wine will be better.
WS: What do you hope baseball fans get from this partnership?
DB: I hope that people learn about entrepreneurship, because Hank was involved in business. I'm hoping that this can also help motivate some kids to be involved in wine since there aren't many Black winemakers out there.