What do major league baseball players do with their time when they finally hang up their spikes? Some turn to coaching, some find work as broadcasters, and in at least a couple of cases, some start making wine.
Rich Aurilia and Dave Roberts, who met while teammates on the San Francisco Giants in 2007, are the principals behind Red Stitch wine, a limited production (200 cases) cabernet sauvignon made from Napa Valley fruit. Along with partner John Micek and winemaker Rolando Herrera, the former ballplayers are slowly expanding their production portfolio and learning more about the intricacies of viticulture and winemaking.
Aurilia, who now does some broadcasting for Comcast in the Bay Area, was a popular Giant from 1995 through the 2003 season, when he was released to free agency. After spending short stints with Seattle, San Diego and Cincinnati, the Giants re-signed Aurilia in 2007 where he played until he retired after the 2009 season.
Roberts, currently first-base coach for the San Diego Padres, spent nine years moving through the big leagues playing for the Indians, Dodgers, Red Sox and Padres before spending two final seasons with the Giants in 2007 and 2008.
As the story goes, Aurilia and Roberts were already big fans of wine when they became teammates in San Francisco. During road trips, the pair would take some prime bottles on the plane (they both profess a fondness for Schrader, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Shafer Hillside Select, and other big Napa cabernets) to enjoy while flying cross country.
One day teammate Barry Bonds, knowing their appreciation of wines, gave them a bottle of Herrera cabernet to try, which he had been given by winemaker Rolando Herrera during an on-field meet-and-greet session. Thinking the wine was “fantastic,” that bottle eventually led to a visit with Herrera in Napa and the ballplayers became customers — and friends — of the vintner.
When Roberts was forced to retire due to injury, and Aurilia still playing, the pair did not want to give up their association with the grape. Wanting to do something wine-related, Aurilia says “we kicked around some ideas and finally said ‘Why don’t we make some wine?’ So we interviewed different winemakers, and one day I called Rolando to pick his brain and he drove into the city and had dinner with us and John and his wife, and by the end of the dinner Rolando said ‘I’d be honored to make your wine.’”
Now five years later, Red Stitch (so named for the red seams on a baseball) has released three vintages of cabernet, has three more in barrel, and is expanding into pinot noir. A 2011 vintage of pinot from the Soberanes vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands will yield 150 cases upon release, and 200 cases each of the 2012 Soberanes pinot and a Sierra Mar vineyard pinot (also from Santa Lucia) will also join the lineup. A very small chardonnay production will also be produced from Sierra Mar this year.
The duo doesn’t harbor ambitions of being the next Ernest and Julio, but they do anticipate some growth. “By this time in 2014,” Aurilia says, “we should be right around 600-700 cases of wine, all told.”
Aurilia says they are more concerned with quality over quantity. “We aspire to be one of those companies that has a great brand and a great name and people know we will produce a great quality wine. Now we are seeing repeat customers, and our marketing and branding are getting out there a little bit and we’re in more restaurants, and when you combine all that with this new pinot offering I think we can bring in a whole new realm of customers.”
Although they profess not to be driven by wine scores, the partners are competitive athletes, after all, so scores are a great way to measure one wine against another. The first three vintages of Red Stitch have received scores of 92, 90 and 91 points for the ’07, ’08 and ’09 cabernet, respectively, which is uniquely blended with small amounts of malbec and petit verdot.
The malbec is a fairly unusual addition to a Napa Valley cabernet. Roberts explained that the three main partners originally met over a malbec tasting at John and Noelle Micek’s home in San Francisco after they had honeymooned in Argentina. According to Roberts, when the partnership was made official, they agreed to “add a little bit of malbec into every vintage of Red Stitch to tie in our story.”
Winemaker Herrera already had a full plate when he met the Red Stitch team, being the winemaker of his highly-regarded Mi Sueño wines as well as winemaker at Baldacci Winery. He also has several consulting clients he makes wine for, all while also running his own vineyard management company. But he was very receptive to working with the former ballplayers, because of their passion for wine.
“It was great having them here from day one; it was like family,” Herrera said about meeting the ballplayers the first time. As things progressed and the team said they were interested in making their own label, Herrera jumped at the chance to be their winemaker. He notes that all the partners have great palates and are very knowledgeable when it comes to blending the final wines.
As for as involvement in the Red Stitch operation, Herrera says “they get very involved in the blending and ask a lot of questions. And as busy as they are, they are one of the most involved clients I have.”
Just as baseball players play different positions, the Red Stitch team members each have defined roles in the operation. Roberts and Aurilia handle the sales, marketing and distribution functions. Dave’s wife, Tricia Roberts, is a certified specialist of wine and manages Red Stitch’s operations. John Micek handles the legal and contractual details, while his wife Noelle handles social media. Herrera does the heavy lifting of the winemaking and vineyard management, but all the partners are involved in producing the final blend.
While the Red Stitch team is in this for fun, they do take the business quite seriously. Instead of competing with other Napa producers, Aurilia says “Really we are competing more with ourselves. Not to make a better product year in and year out, but to keep the standard of what we make. If you ask any former athlete what they miss the most, it’s that competition. So if you aren’t competing against someone, you can compete with yourself to come up with a product that’s going to be on par year after year, and I think that’s what drives us and keeps us going.”