Running a formerly famous Russian River Valley winery is Jeremy Baker's fourth career, and he's only 37.
Baker, a Toronto native, started out as an extreme skiier, taking people heli-skiing. But he hurt his back, so he started a restaurant. He had access to financing because his father Thomas Baker is a successful acquisitions lawyer in Canada, but it was Jeremy who grew the business from a food-court bistro to a nine-restaurant chain.
He sold that and worked in wine distribution and sales for five years, all the while thinking about buying a winery.
"I love Sonoma County. I couldn't think of a better place to live," Baker says. "So I started talking to wineries. That's the whole thing for buying wineries. Nothing's for sale, but it 'might be' for sale."
Eventually he was introduced to Davis Bynum, who had already sold his wine brand to Rodney Strong Vineyards owner Tom Klein. Bynum, in his 80s, had hung on to his winery, but after a few months of trying to launch a new label, he was finally ready to retire. And no wonder; Bynum hadn't been keeping up the winery toward the end.
"It was in pretty bad shape," says winemaker Chris Russi. "You could smell vinegar and brett in here."
Baker spent more than $25 million buying the property, which included the Starr Ridge vineyard where Bynum had been living, and renovating it. That was when Russi stopped by to see what was going on.
"This was an old hop kiln," Russi says. "Davis got it in the early '70s, put a roof on it and made a winery. The hippie-commune feel was what got me out here in the first place. Jeremy was here in cutoff jeans on a 100-degree day. He said, 'I'll give you a tour. I only have about 15 minutes.' We ended up talking for about two hours. We hit it off. We like the same kind of wines."
What Russi didn't know at the time was this: "I interviewed 30-plus winemakers, a lot of names you'd know," Baker says.
What intrigued Baker about Russi was that he had been a vineyard manager for three years before working as winemaker for Christopher Creek for 8 years. That, and the light-bodied, low-alcohol Viogniers he was making, because it turns out that Viognier is Baker's favorite grape.
"Chris has developed a really interesting style, with a backbone of acidity," Baker says. "There's a freshness to them. No funny business, no enhancing."
But Baker didn't spend $25 million to make Viognier (although the winery makes three.) "We very much run a business, and we fully expect to make money," he says. In the Russian River Valley, that means Pinot Noir. Not content with Bynum's vineyard, he also bought Gary Farrell's Cresta Ridge vineyard in October 2008.
Baker and Russi have strong opinions about Pinot Noir: They like it with good acidity and a minimal oak profile. They're making 24 different wines right now, with most sold to the crowd drawn by the fact that the tasting room is in a cave. The best are the Pinot Noirs and Viogniers, along with an excellent one-off brut rosé they made from Starr Ridge Pinot Noir in 2009.
Russi is doing one unusual-for-California winemaking tactic with the Pinots. "A lot of people are doing cold soak. I do some heat soak," he says. "You're doing an aqueous extraction, pre-alcohol. It's used in other countries where they're not able to extract a lot of color. Jeremy says, 'Let's try everything. Let's try new things'."
You might not have seen Thomas George wines yet. The winery has ramped up from 2,500 cases in 2008 to 10,000 in 2010, but most haven't yet been released. Moreover, of those that have, 60% are being sold through the tasting room.
But this is a guy who turned a bistro into a 9-restaurant chain, and the winery and vineyards have excellent pedigree; Farrell helped with the winery redesign, and Bynum visits often. Chances are you'll see these wines in a restaurant near you soon.
So why the name? "Thomas is my father and George was my grandfather," Baker says. "I don't think Jeremy looks good on a wine label."
Baker is a vegetarian who regularly cooked meat. "I don't eat meat because I don't like to chew it," he says. And he still gets offers to get back into the restaurant business.
"Just today a proposal came across my desk," he says. "But I will never open another restaurant as long as I live. I would rather make three Viogniers."