It’s the kind of story you hear again and again when you interview people in the wine industry. “My grandfather made wine in Italy, not professionally but like most people there, in his house. When he moved to the U.S., he did the same thing. It’s what he’d serve to people who came over to his house … I was too young to do more than taste it, but I remember it.”
But one thing did make this telling unusual: It wasn’t in a vineyard or in a gleaming tasting room, but in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse.
For most Mariners fans, the free-agent signing of catcher Chris Iannetta this offseason was welcome news because he promised a level of competence and stability in a position that in recent years had lacked those qualities. What those fans likely didn’t realize is that he was also bringing an active love of wine. With former Los Angeles Angels teammate Vernon Wells, Iannetta launched JACK Winery with the 2012 bottling of a cabernet sauvignon. Given that the baseball season and grape-growing season overlap, Iannetta is able to do little more than sample his product—and promote it, of course. That is why he took time away from the team’s current playoff hunt to talk about his other passion.
There’s a bit of an underground wine culture in baseball, Iannetta says. While most of us probably think about players drinking beer, Iannetta says that on each team there are at least a few wine lovers and collectors. Most gravitate towards the highly-rated and sought-after wines from California, perhaps a natural response from a group of extremely competitive (and well-compensated) folks.
Iannetta and Wells are not the first athletes to get involved with wine, though most have waited until retirement. (While Wells has hung up his cleats, Iannetta is 33 and under contract with the Mariners through next season.) Right here in Washington, former NFL and Washington State star Drew Bledsoe has been making wine under the Doubleback label for years, while fellow quarterbacks Damon Huard and Dan Marino recently launched their own winery, Passing Time, in Woodinville. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Doubleback was the first Washington wine Iannetta mentioned when I asked if he’d tried something local, though it wasn’t the only one.
I also wondered if he’d ever been back to Italy; unfortunately, baseball has largely gotten in the way. “Every time I’d plan a trip to visit, the Rockies would have me in winter development,” he says. His grandfather hailed from near Naples, where grapes are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Vesuvius, a poignant parallel to the vines his grandson is now planting. While little of the aglianico grown there shows the polish of most Napa cabernet sauvignon, they share quite a few qualities: dark fruit, firm tannins, and a long aging curve that makes them well worth collecting.
That heritage might have instilled curiosity in Iannetta, but it wasn’t until the late aughts, when his baseball career took off with the Colorado Rockies, that he truly embraced his legacy. “When I got to the major leagues I was a total novice,” he admits. “The Rockies had their own plane, and for longer trips [pitcher] Glendon Rusch would bring a few bottles with him and we’d try them. On the road we dined out at a lot of steakhouses, so I was exposed to a lot of really good wine, and that brought back some nostalgia for me. I started to collect wines and learn which wines were highly rated.”
Iannetta might have remained just a collector, but after being traded to the Angels before the 2012 season, he suffered a fractured right wrist in May, keeping him out for several months. Shortly thereafter, Wells also suffered a serious injury. “We were both on the disabled list at the same time, so we got to know each other pretty well, and we both really enjoyed going out to dinner and drinking wine,” Iannetta says. “The winery started as a cool idea to maybe get some property, but we realized that a joint business would be a way to keep in touch as our careers continued.”
Living in California, both had developed contacts in Napa Valley, so when the discussion turned from theoretical to practical, that was the natural place to look. They met winemaker Grant Long Jr., whose experience and existing operation allowed JACK—derived from the initials of Wells’ and Iannetta’s four children—to get off the ground quickly.
Long still serves as the winemaker, overseeing the production of just 100 cases of sauvignon blanc and 50 cases of cabernet sauvignon the first year, with those quantities reversed the following year. Befitting Iannetta’s early exposure to wine in the big leagues, he describes the cabernet sauvignon as “a big steakhouse cab. I wanted a wine that you could lay down for 15 or 20 years.” Quantities are obviously limited, but the wines have recently been offered at Safeco Field’s “First Base Vine” wine bar, and can also be ordered online at JACKWinery.com.
While the winery is a small operation now, Wells has purchased land on Napa’s famed Atlas Peak, which will accommodate more vines and a tasting room and cellars. Iannetta beams when he talks about the view and the experience they hope to create, yet he’s realistic about the challenges. “I had an idea of how hard it would be to turn this from a hobby to a business, but I’m getting to experience it first-hand,” he says. “It’s a lot of work.”