A Tour and Tasting of MLB Wines

The rather handsome cork from a bottle of New York Mets Cabernet Sauvignon. (via Brian Reinhart)

The rather handsome cork from a bottle of New York Mets Cabernet Sauvignon. (via Brian Reinhart)

Baseball and beer. It’s as American a combination as peanut butter and jelly, cake and ice cream, or Netflix and couches. Just last season, when I turned on a ballgame I had a practically Pavlovian instinct to put down the remote control and pick up a lager. But if you walk into your local liquor store today, chances are you’ll see a display of wine bottles with your hometown ballclub’s logo emblazoned on the labels

Major League Baseball has long partnered with Anheuser-Busch, the “official beer” of the sport, but now it’s getting into the wine market too. In a big way. This is the story of baseball’s new love affair with wine, and the winemakers who are helping it happen. And it’s the story of a wine tasting, when my friends and I got together to bravely try bottles from the Giants, Mariners, Mets and Rangers to determine which team will carry home the pennant.

Wine Comes to Major League Baseball

“So many people want to go, ‘baseball games equal beer drinking,’” says Diane Karle, founder and CEO of Wine by Design. “My friend told me that over drinks the other night, and I said to her, ‘Well you’re a baseball fan, and you’re drinking wine!’”

If you enjoy your ballclub’s wine at home or at the park this season, you can thank Diane Karle. MLB Wine started out as her idea, which she successfully pitched to Major League Baseball. “The regular consumer is drinking more wine,” she says, “and they’re going to baseball games.” She points out that sales of non-craft beers are eroding, but it’s not just microbreweries picking up those customers. Although hard liquor has made the biggest gain in market share since 2000, a report by Demeter Group Investment Bank has wine servings increasing by 13.1 percent since 2005. The Wine Institute, meanwhile, estimates a 40 percent growth in wine consumption per capita between 2000 and 2013, with 2013 the hardest-drinking year on record.

Karle’s Wine by Design, is a marketing company, not a winery: it collaborates with winemakers on custom labels, or uses  grapes from large growing operations. Wine by Design first got into sports with a bottling for the NFL’s New York Jets. The group also installed a wine bar at the Meadowlands and worked on what Karle calls “a wine experience at the stadium.” When Karle approached Major League Baseball with her pitch, MLB saw that experience and decided Wine by Design could help.

“We’re rolling out a lot of wines,” Karle says. She’s not kidding. When the San Francisco Giants won the 2012 World Series and introduced out a celebratory bottle of bubbly, it was seen as rare, unique, even weird. Now there are 20 teams with wines, many of them introduced this season. The MLB Wine program is still a very new business, but clearly the early returns are showing huge success.

Still, the goal isn’t just to make plonk for fans to guzzle. Karle demands “credible wines” which overcome the perception that “it has a logo, so it can’t be good.” That was one of the problems with a previous effort, Longball Cellars, in which star players appeared on wine labels, with the proceeds going to the players’ favorite charities. Jorge Posada’s “Jorge Cabernet” was, according to one user of the wine community CellarTracker, “not good. not good at all.” Johan Santana’s Select Merlot, meanwhile, “reminded me of Johan’s 2012 season with the Mets…after the no-hitter…barely passable.” The other problem with Longball Cellars was that they were not authorized by MLB, so the labels feature players wearing logo-free uniforms.

Is the new MLB Wine program creating a better experience? We’ll find out. (Spoiler alert: yes, mostly!)

Where Your Team’s Wine Comes From

Team wines come in two broad categories. Some teams get winery-specific partnerships, while others get more generic wines from certain regions. We’ll start with the latter first. “We work with one of the largest grape growers in California,” Karle says. That would be Plata Wine Partners, which has an incredible spread of grape holdings, from the mass crops of California’s Central Valley to some of the most exclusive pockets of Napa Valley (Oakville, Rutherford). Plata supplies grapes for big grocery-store brands like Beaulieu, a.k.a. BV, and more prestigious names like Duckhorn.

Most of the baseball team wines come from Plata; it’s how the Texas Rangers, for example, have Rangers Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine by Design and Plata worked to make sure that each team’s wine was different, so that, say, Yankees and Mets fans wouldn’t be served the same juice.

How do they decide what team gets what? “Different teams want to get more or less involved” in their drink of choice, Karle says, but while team executives might offer opinions, players certainly cannot. The driving force is typically business-oriented: what sells well in the city’s market? What do distributors say will fly off the shelves? The Angels can’t just claim a pinot noir on the basis of pinot’s famously perfect pairing with trout. (Which is too bad. Here is the only promo text the bottle would need, on either the front or the back: “SERVE WITH TROUT.”)

The other, more interesting option Wine by Design found was to partner with pre-existing wineries and bottle pre-existing wines in shiny new baseball-themed labels. Wattle Creek Winery, in California’s Alexander Valley, was a natural fit for the Giants. Wattle Creek already had a tasting room on Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, and just so happened to have a wine called Triple Play.

“We’ve been making Triple Play for about 10 years,” says Phil Orem, general manager at Wattle Creek. The name originally referred to the blend of three grapes: syrah, petit sirah and viognier. Now, of course, it is a triple-entendre: “the three-grape blend, the triple play being a baseball play, and the San Francisco Giants winning three World Series titles.” (Paradoxically, this makes it a triple word play, for word play No. 4.) The team at Wattle Creek sounds genuinely thrilled to be making the official red wine of the San Francisco Giants. People there have plastered offices with memorabilia and stickers passed along by the team. Orem says, “It’s been really fun. It’s been exciting for the whole team.” Quick pause. “Our team, I mean.”

Maryhill Winery, up in Washington, produces red and white wines for the Seattle Mariners. These, too, were pre-existing: the Winemaker’s Red and Winemaker’s White, the former a Bordeaux-style blend and the latter a mixture of five grapes (chardonnay, Semillon, sauvignon blanc, viognier and pinot gris). Maryhill was chosen because it achieves a happy balance of prestige and size, a highly-respected independent operation able to stock the stadium and supermarkets throughout Mariners territory. In August, website visitors can look forward to bottles autographed by Jay Buhner.

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For the Philadelphia Phillies, Wine by Design creatively made a connection with a local winery, Chaddsford, situated just 30 miles from Citizens Bank Park. And the New York Yankees source a dry Riesling from Anthony Road Wine Company. Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2015 gives Anthony Road four stars (“grand, prestigious, expensive”) and says the winery makes “some of the best dry and semi-dry Riesling in the United States.” And, because this is the Yankees, their wine is the costliest in the league.

But that prestige is indicative of MLB Wine’s desire to prove itself. Karle, managing everything from Wine by Design, knows about the “it has a logo, it can’t be good” perception, and wants every team’s bottle to fight it. Orem at Wattle Creek feels the same way: “We don’t want [Triple Play] to be an on-the-bookshelf novelty item.”

The Plata bottlings will have a harder time convincing wine snobs. I drove back to my local liquor store to ask my favorite salesman about the Texas Rangers bottles. (I’ll omit his name so he won’t get in trouble.) He said that when the store scheduled an employee tasting, he skipped it. “But I heard it’s not bad. Everyone said, ‘not bad, not great.’” And early reviews on Delectable, a social app for wine snobs, are mixed. One user writes of Yankees Reserve Paso Robles Cabernet (made by Plata), “the wine was not enjoyable,” but, she adds, “way better than any Boston Red Sox wine. Lol.”

So which teams got the good stuff? Time to find out. Let’s try some wines.

Six wines from the new MLB Wine family. The Texas Rangers chardonnay is autographed by Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins. (via Brian Reinhart)

Six wines from the new MLB Wine family. The Texas Rangers chardonnay is autographed by Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins. (via Brian Reinhart)

In the Tasting Room with MLB Wines

I purchased a bottle each of the Texas Rangers cabernet and chardonnay, and one each of the Seattle Mariners red and white blends. Phil Orem sent a sample bottle of Wattle Creek Triple Play (free of charge), and Diane Karle at Wine by Design sent me the New York Mets cabernet (also free).

Next, I rounded up a group of friends to be the taste testers. We’re all wine aficionados, ranging from casual drinkers with good taste to a discerning couple who have nearly a hundred bottles stored in their dining room. We sampled the wines blind, using brown paper bags, alongside palate-cleansing cheese and crackers.

For extra super-scientific rigor, I included a control bottle: A to Z Pinot Noir, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A to Z, and its sister label Rex Hill, are also sports-affiliated: the winery is part-owned by wine connoisseur and San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Sure, baseball might make great wine, but can it beat the NBA’s finest?

Below are excerpts and highlights from the comments my friends said aloud or wrote down about each wine. (They demanded legal pads to jot down notes.) Before the tasting, I asked my interviewees from Wattle Creek, Maryhill and Wine by Design to give me tasting notes on their bottles, using only baseball terms. The general reaction to this was confused laughter, panic, and awkward pauses, plus one “can we get back to you?” However, their answers are included below for your sincere or ironic enjoyment.

The Judges (alphabetically)

  • Ariel, Cardinals/Rockies fan and former high school baseball player
  • Brian, Nationals fan (and the author of this article)
  • Evangeline, Rangers fan
  • Lindsay, alas not a baseball fan
  • Michelle, Astros fan
  • Todd, Rangers/Royals fan

Wine No. 1: Maryhill Seattle Mariners White Blend 2011

Baseball-lingo tasting note from Cassie Courtney, Maryhill Marketing Director: “It’s a home run!”

Notes from our judges:

Brian: It’s like a lemon drop. Wait, are lemon drops bitterer than I remember? Because this is a tiny bit sweet, not bitter.

Lindsay: It’s like a lemon drop cocktail.

Michelle: Yes! It has an alcoholic aftertaste, like there’s vodka in it.

Todd: It has an apple finish that lingers in the mouth a really, really long time.

Lindsay: For my tasting note I wrote, “meh.” Is that okay?

Brian: I like it better than you did, but that’s eloquent in a way.

Would you buy it? A 3-3 tie (including one “yes, if under $12)

Wine No. 2: Texas Rangers Sonoma County Chardonnay 2012 (bottle autographed by Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins)

Baseball-lingo tasting note from Diane Karle, Wine by Design CEO: “This Sonoma County Chardonnay hits the sweet spot to nail down a perfect evening.”

Notes from our judges:

Brian: This smells gross.

Lindsay: This smells really, really strange.

Todd: It’s not corked. It tastes like the grapes rotted on the vine. They left them on too long and the grapes rotted, or they had a production deadline and they thought, “Oh no, we have to get it in bottles as fast as we can.”

Evangeline [after finding out which wine this was]: The label says it “leaves an impression.” Doesn’t say it’s a good impression! Hah.

[Brian and Michelle could not finish their tiny sample pours]

Todd’s handwritten note: “Um – NO!!”

Would you buy it? No 6, yes 0

Wine No. 3: A to Z Pinot Noir 2013

Notes from our judges:

Ariel: This tastes watered-down. It’s too mild.

Todd: I don’t know, this is a good summer wine. This is what I want when it’s hot. I would drink this by itself, without any food, by the pool.

Lindsay: A table wine?

Brian: Yeah. Drink it with spaghetti or a pork chop or something.

Would you buy it? A 3-3 tie (one “yes, if less than $15)

Wine No. 4: Wattle Creek San Francisco Giants Triple Play 2011

Baseball-lingo tasting note from Phil Orem, Wattle Creek GM: “It tastes as good as winning three championships in a row [sic?].”

Notes from our judges:

Lindsay’s handwritten note: “Wonderful smell; I like! Well-rounded, not special.”

Ariel: It’s a little generic. It’s good, but it tastes like lots of other things that are probably about the same price.

Todd: This is the classic Sonoma, Napa smell. Classic California cabernet.

Michelle’s handwritten note: “Deep red color, Northern California nose, balance of jam and tannin.”

Todd’s handwritten note: “YES YES!!”

Would you buy it? Yes 6, no 0

The Giants' and Mariners' red wines were the judges' favorites. (via Brian Reinhart)

The Giants’ and Mariners’ red wines were the judges’ favorites. (via Brian Reinhart)

Wine #5: Maryhill Seattle Mariners Red Blend 2011

Notes from our judges:

Ariel: This is definitely my favorite so far. This is more interesting than No.  4.

Evangeline: Yeah. My favorite too for sure.

Lindsay: Okay, I really wanna know which teams made No. 4 and No. 5.

Todd: This has a more complex flavor. I’d pair this with steak or wild game. Would be great with food.

Brian: It’s a little wilder. No. 4 was smoother, jammier, easier-going. Is this one a little spicy?

Todd: Yeah, it is.

Would you buy it? Yes 6, no 0

Wine No. 6: Texas Rangers Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Baseball-lingo tasting note from Diane Karle: “An ace of a cabernet and a good pick to enjoy anytime.”

Notes from our judges:

Lindsay: This is really dry.

Michelle: This doesn’t have a lot of fruit at all.

Todd’s handwritten note: “lot of alcohol taste 🙁 ”

Brian: I’m not a cabernet fan, so I shouldn’t really say anything about this.

Lindsay: Well, I am a cabernet fan, but I don’t like this one.

Would you buy it? Yes, 1; yes if it were cheap, 1; no. 4

Wine No. 7: New York Mets Club Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Notes from our judges:

Lindsay: It feels like it hasn’t come together yet. Like, there are good things going on, but it’s still too young.

Todd: This would be really good in 10 years. I would buy this to cellar it. I would buy it and put it in a cool dark place for a long time.

Michelle: Even a few years.

Brian: Just curious, we all can definitely tell the difference between this one and the last one?

Everyone else: YES. Definitely.

Would you buy it? Yes, 2; no, 4

Conclusions

Without a doubt, the Giants and Mariners red wines from Wattle Creek and Maryhill are the big winners of our tasting. They tied 3-3 on a vote for our favorite, so this contest would require a Game 7. The Giants and Mariners reds would be excellent bottles of wine even if they had nothing to do with baseball, and we finished them quickly. Todd almost single-handedly took care of the Mets cabernet (I helped), and we treated the Mariners white wine like a dessert drink. I’ll be using the two Texas Rangers bottles for cooking only.

The MLB Wines in our tasting are batting .500 (3-for-6), not a bad average for drinks that carry the “sports team logo” stigma. If you’re a Giants or Mariners fan, you’re especially lucky.

The marriage between baseball and wine is here to stay, both as a business relationship and as a cultural shift. The Rangers’ home stadium has wine for sale at nearly every section, and from what I’ve seen, people are drinking it. At home, I’m popping refreshing rosés or white wines when my Nationals broadcast a weekend ballgame. Our panelist Michelle, however, still refuses on principle: “You can’t drink wine and watch baseball. You just can’t.”

But a few years ago, nobody would have argued against that. Now the fight to be baseball’s drink of choice has begun, and it’s being carried out in the supermarket aisles, the ballpark concessions, the hipster bars, and the world of online shopping. Some of baseball’s wines meet your most cynical expectations, but some are a whole lot better than that. Greater choices in ballgame drinks, a few of them legitimately terrific: even if you stick to beer, this is a fight everybody seems destined to win.

Unless the Angels start selling Serve With Trout Pinot Noir. Then I think we can all agree that the Angels will win.


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Brian Reinhart is the Dallas Observer restaurant critic, a classical music writer for MusicWeb, and occasional Banknotes Industries correspondent. You may also know him from FanGraphs as the "Well-Beered Englishman." Follow him on Twitter @bgreinhart.
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tz
Guest
tz

You will now forever be known as “Well-Wined Englishman”! I thoroughly enjoyed the article.

Sounds like ballpark wine has crossed into the “I’d buy it if it’s cheap” category, which is actually ok for what you should expect in that environment. We’ve sure come a long way from “Sultan of Swat Sauvignon” (noted for its tell-tale hints of margarine and underwear).

Carl
Guest
Carl

“hasn’t come together yet. Like, there are good things going on, but it’s still too young.” What a perfect description of both the Mets and Mets wine.

Bryce H
Guest
Bryce H

The A’s have been selling their own private label at the Coliseum for a long time. Next time you need to try theirs. In fact the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine columnists had a “wine competition” comparing the A’s and Giants wine selections about 7 or 8 years ago across 7 different categories and the A’s won 4-3.

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