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No crying in baseball, but wining is just fine

Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 9:42 p.m.

PHOENIX -- Down here the talk is all baseball. The other day, I was chatting with A's batting coach Chili Davis and we discussed hitting to the opposite field and the position of the top hand, stuff like that. But after a while, the vocabulary changed.

I introduced a new subject, introduced it while Davis and I sat in the home dugout at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Pretty soon, we were using words like “terroir” and “nose” and “vintage.”

Chili Davis, you see, is a wine lover, a wine expert, an oenophile. I covered his whole career with the Giants, 1981-87, and he was one of the best switch hitters in history, and he always was outspoken and smart and funny. Who knew he also was a wine connoisseur?

Here's how it all started. Oh, I'll let Davis tell it:

“I always drank like white wines, chardonnay. When I look back, Mike Krukow was the guy who initially got me interested in red wine. I'd gone to his home for dinner. He and his wife cooked a nice meal and had a bottle, I think it was either a Grgich or J. Lohr cab. I remember saying, 'Krukie, I'm not a red wine drinker. You got any white wine?'

“He goes, 'Hey, big boy, you're not a red wine drinker because you haven't had good red wine. Taste this.'

“And I drank it. It didn't have that tart, kind of bitter finish I was used to in the cheap red wines I'd tasted. It had a smooth long finish to it. And it was just nice, velvety.”

As Davis narrated how he fell in love with wine, he drew out his syllables. The “long” in “long finish” came out “looooong,” as if Davis was tasting that initial cabernet all over again. He was 25 when he had that bottle at Chez Krukow. It's fitting that Krukow, the older man who had mentored Davis as a player on the Giants, also mentored him in this. Traditions get passed down in many ways. FYI, Krukow is mostly a pinot noir drinker.

After experiencing that good red, Davis started going up to Napa. It's where beginners tend to begin. He visited some of the big-name places like Mondavi. He went to Opus One and tasted there and loved the stuff, but was blown away by the price, this man who, until recently, had been drinking Boone's Farm. “I wasn't going to buy a $200 bottle of wine,” he said.

Because he was THE Chili Davis and because he's overwhelmingly likable, people started recommending other, smaller wineries — Mi Sueño, Revana, Caymus.

“The wines were excellent, just excellent,” he said. “As a matter of fact, Mi Sueño is served at the White House. I got into Adrian Fog, a pinot. There are vineyards I haven't named.”

When he'd visit a winery, he'd ask to meet the winemaker. He talked. He learned. He made friends. When he'd go to a restaurant, he'd ask to meet the wine steward. He talked. He learned. He made friends.

Davis branched out to Washington wines and Australian wines and Italian wines.

“I don't know anything about French wine,” he said. “Someone would have to pour me a nice French wine, a Bordeaux. They're different, a different nose to them. If you ask me what my favorite wines are, I'm going to tell you I like my California wines. I like my big, fruit-forward, heavy, tannic cabs.”

“Do you ever go to the Sonoma side, taste some of those great pinots?” I asked.

“I've gone over there,” he said. “There's a winery in Healdsburg, Unti Vineyards. Mick Unti is a friend of mine. I love their Sangiovese. And the Adrian Fog is in Sonoma. I need to start going to Sonoma more. I enjoy every time I go up there.”

Davis has a home in Arizona, but he doesn't keep most of his wine in Arizona. He's away during the summer with the A's and he's concerned about the Arizona climate. If there's a power outage while he's gone and the temperature shoots up to 118 degrees, his wine would cook, corks popping all over the place, red stains on the walls with only the spiders to enjoy it.

He had lived in Seattle 12 years and found a wine storage facility there, a big cavern under a supermarket.

“Seattle's already cool as it is,” he said. “This is a beautiful space, a constant 55 degrees. They've got wine lockers. I leased one of the biggest lockers in there. I bought racking and I had them rack the locker for me.

“I've got all my large-format bottles in there. I have an 18-liter bottle of Mi Sueño. I've got six liters, nine liters, three liters — probably 40 or more large-format bottles — and all my specialty wines, my Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow. I just didn't trust it in Arizona. And I paid that price in advance, five years. In case I ever go broke, at least I know my wines are taken care of.”

Davis has about 2,000 bottles underground in Seattle, and another 20 cases in an Arizona facility. He has everything arranged by wine growing area, varietal and vintage. When he's in the Bay Area during baseball season, he'll call the Seattle place and have them ship wine to him. Of course, he needs to plan his menu a few days in advance to make sure the wine arrives in time.

“I think I have, for the last year or so, one or two glasses of wine every night,” he said. “I don't overdo it. I don't allow anyone to overdo it. Sometimes, people want me to open one more bottle and I say, 'This is enough.'

“You don't drink wine to get drunk. You drink wine to socialize. You drink it with meals. It's not to be abused. It's a sipping thing. It's not something to pound.”

I looked at him. I smiled. “Imagine you and I talking about wine,” I said. He smiled back, a smile that drew me back three decades.

And I thought, with some emotion: Life improves with age — what am I searching for here? — like a good merlot. Except, I don't like merlot.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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