Wine Talk: From Angel Stadium to Atlas Peak

Major League Baseball vets Chris Iannetta and Vernon Wells team up as Napa vintners
Wine Talk: From Angel Stadium to Atlas Peak
Courtesy of Jack Vernon Wells' (left) and Chris Iannetta's field of dreams is a Napa vineyard.
Oct 19, 2016

This article appears in the Nov. 30 issue of Wine Spectator.

The wine stars must have aligned over California in May 2012. On May 2, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim catcher Chris Iannetta was behind the plate for pitcher Jered Weaver's no-hitter, but Iannetta sustained a wrist injury in the process that required surgery. A few weeks later, fellow Angel and center fielder Vernon Wells injured his thumb sliding into second base, also requiring surgery.

While rehabbing together, the two discovered a shared affinity for Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon, and soon they made the decision to take a swing at winemaking together. (Wine is a not-uncommon interest among baseball players and fans—there are even now official MLB-licensed wines for all 30 teams.)

Wells and Iannetta have released their first two wines under the Jack winery label (the name is taken from the first initials of their respective children, Jayce, Ashlyn, Christian and Kylie): a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (2013: 88 points, $100) with substance and depth, and a complex, stylish Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (2013: 90, $50), for which Wells' wife, Charlene, helped assemble the blend. Beyond their California adventures, the pair has been exploring Old World gems like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Barolo as well. WineSpectator.com assistant managing editor Robert Taylor talked to Iannetta, 33, who now plays for the Seattle Mariners, and the now-retired (from baseball) Wells, 37, about getting into wine, deciding to start a winery and their new estate vineyard in Napa's Atlas Peak.

Wine Spectator: How did you both get interested in wine?
Vernon Wells: For me, wine has always been about sharing. My first wine experience was sharing a bottle with teammates and swapping funny stories.
Chris Iannetta: Being a first-generation American from an Italian family, wine was always part of our lifestyle. Whether it was Sunday dinner or at family parties, growing up, there was wine on the table with every meal. My grandparents from both sides of the family made their own wine in their homes in Rhode Island. They would go to the farmers market in Providence and purchase Ruby Cabernet grapes.

I distinctly remember going with them as a kid and watching my grandfather sample grapes and hand-select the bushels he wanted. I watched him as he set up his press and barrels, crushed the grapes and watched them ferment, while my grandmother complained about the fruit flies in the house. I loved sitting and listening to him tell stories about life and his love for wine, which furthered my connection to him and my love for wine. I was young and I never had a chance to really understand or appreciate his wine, what it was all about or how it tasted. However, I always remember everyone asking him for a bottle. It was highly coveted among family and friends, and everyone always praised him for how good it actually was, considering that it was "garage wine."

The complete intersection of my grandfather, wine and baseball culminated in 2007. It was my rookie year with the Colorado Rockies, and team dinners are a tradition in baseball, usually at very nice steak houses where we almost always order a bottle of wine. I was just starting to be introduced to fine wines when my grandfather passed away from cancer. There is always one thing that lets me reconnect with him: a glass of wine.

WS: How did you two meet and decide to make wine together?
CI: In 2012 we became friends as Los Angeles Angels teammates. Unfortunately, we both got injured and spent three months on the disabled list.

We had a lot of time on our hands between rehabbing and watching games—which can get kind of boring after a while—and we started talking about wines, and how we'd both been to Napa and we loved the laid-back lifestyle, which is pretty divergent from [the ballplayer] lifestyle, traveling all the time, one plane to the next, one city to the next, playing games, working out—pretty demanding. So to be around that [wine-country] culture, to take a breath and relax and be around such good wine was fun for us and seemed like a cool idea. We kicked around some post-baseball business ideas, and we thought we could do something small that could grow into something special, and I think we're on our way to doing that.

WS: Are there any ballplayers in particular that taught you a lot about wine?
CI: One of the best experiences I had was in 2008 [with the Colorado Rockies]. [Pitcher] Glendon Rusch came over and he has such a great personality. Every plane flight we had, he would bring three or four bottles of awesome wines—Cabs and Pinots—and he has such a vast knowledge of wine. He would really explain them to me.

WS: Have you considered planting your own vineyards?
VW: I actually just purchased property on Atlas Peak which has 12 acres of Merlot vineyards, and we're converting them to Cabernet now, which will allow us to have our own estate-grown grapes. The views [from the property] are unbelievable. It's going to be one of those places where people want to come there and be a part of it.

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