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Mariners / MLB

Thursday, October 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seaver's pitch: making wine

New York Daily News

CALISTOGA, Calif. — Dawn is breaking on what is expected to be another sunny, 100-degree day in the Napa Valley, as 61-year-old Tom Seaver, clad in blue denim, long-sleeved work clothes, a pair of clippers attached to his belt, strolls purposefully through rows of grape vines that extend some 500 feet up a gradual slope facing due south.

It is, says Seaver, about the most perfect piece of landscape a person could find on which to plant a vineyard.

"For me," Seaver says, "this is the best time of the day. I come out here every morning and get all my work done, all my cuttings, before it gets too hot. It's therapeutic. It's rewarding. Hell, it's exciting! You have no idea of the feeling from creating something like this."

To see the "little boy" joy in Seaver's face as he takes his visitors on a tour of the vineyard he personally carved out of 115 acres of dense brush, redwoods and Douglas firs, on a mountaintop that overlooks the entire Napa Valley, is to understand why he has all but divorced himself from baseball, his life's work for nearly 40 years as a 311-win pitcher who still has the highest plurality for election to the Hall of Fame, and then as a broadcaster for the Yankees and Mets. Growing grapes and making wine on Diamond Mountain is a whole new passion that certainly comes close to equaling anything he accomplished in baseball.

"When I was 28 years old and coming into the prime of my baseball career, my brother-in-law said to me one day, 'What are you gonna do when you're done?' I said to him without hardly any thought, 'I'm going to go back to California and raise grapes.' I never forgot that."

And then, eight years ago, Seaver and his wife, Nancy, enlisted the services of a real-estate agent in Napa with one simple instruction: find a piece of property where Seaver could plant a vineyard. They toured all over the area until they came across the heavily wooded Diamond Mountain property, which offered a magnificent view of the valley and beyond that, pure wilderness.

"It was the classic case of needing to see the forest through the trees," Seaver says. "I went hacking and slashing my way through all these trees and brush and had my vision. I could see where I was going to build my house and then, on a later trip, I came across this south-facing slope and I got this rush. Through all my studies of vineyards and winemaking, I knew that the best grapes came from southern exposures."

By then, Seaver had already decided to sell his home in Greenwich, Conn., where he'd lived for most of his baseball career, and take up roots on Diamond Mountain. He had also begun asking around about finding a vineyard manager and, through ex-Mets teammate Rusty Staub, the founding father of wine aficionados in baseball who has attained legendary status with the California wine industry, Seaver was introduced to Jim Barbour, who manages 20 vineyards in the Napa area.

"As I was interviewing Jim, I didn't realize that, in effect, he was interviewing me to see which direction I was going in and how serious I was about this," Seaver says. "I said, 'I'm not doing this to get my picture in Wine Spectator — I've had enough publicity.' I'd bought the property and built the house, now I needed to know if I had enough money left to build the vineyard.

"It turned out Jim's a huge baseball fan and I took one of his bottles to the dinner we have at the Hall of Fame every year and had all the Hall of Famers sign it for him."

The real convincer for Barbour to build and manage Seaver's vineyard, however, was when he saw the property.

"As we pushed our way through all the trees and brush and came across the slope, Jim looked at me and said, 'How the hell did you find this? This is what people kill for around here,"' Seaver says, with a smile of satisfaction. "I shrugged and said, 'Sometimes you win, 7-6.' Obviously the guy I bought it from didn't know what he had here. I then told Jim how much I love Zinfandel and that I wanted to grow Zin grapes and he said to me, 'On Diamond Mountain, with his piece of property, you don't plant Zin. The only thing we're growing here are Cabernet [Sauvignon] grapes."'

Once the slope was cleared, the plants went in — 3,980 to be exact. As friends of Seaver joke, he had a name for every one of them.

"I'm sure Jim will attest, I'm the biggest pain ... of all the people he manages vineyards for," Seaver says. "I'm out here every day, observing, supervising and doing a lot of my own clipping and irrigating. This whole thing has been a learning process for me. It's like gardening, which has always been my hobby. I guess it's maybe indirectly inherent from when I was a kid growing up in Fresno. My father was in the raisin business there, although the business end of it.

"Anyway, when we had our first harvest last September, I felt this eerie silence around here. They were like family to me and now they were gone. It was kind of like my own postpartum depression."

Says Staub: "Seaver has tremendous soil, an excellent winemaker and the best sun in the valley with southern exposure, which is longer than the rest of the day. He's going to have excellent, excellent wine. I get a kick out of just watching his excitement."

Seaver's Cabernet will be stored for 20 to 22 months before it is bottled and readied for 2008 release. As he says proudly, no expense was spared to make this first vintage a home run.

"You start talking to people in restaurants about all this ... how every morning you walk through those rows of grapes, pruning them, cultivating them and then they end up here in these barrels ... as this wine that you created, and they look at you like you're crazy," Seaver says. "They just don't understand. You've got to be here and see this whole process."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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