Joe Blanton's career as a major-league baseball pitcher introduced him to a passion that would become his next one: winemaking.
"It was honestly baseball that got me into wine," Blanton said. "I know that sounds a little weird, but when I was a younger player and we used to travel a lot, the older guys would pick up the dinner and we would usually go to steakhouses and they would always order wine."
In 2015, the Blantons moved to California and released their first wine — the 2014 Selah Cabernet Sauvignon — last November. The wine received a rating of 93 points out of 100 from wine critic Antonio Galloni, founder and chief executive of the wine publication Vinous and is available to buy through the vineyard's website for $110.
A native of Kentucky, Blanton, now 37, said Napa Valley became important to him and his wife long before he owned property there. The heart of California's wine country was where they got engaged and married, and the two of them spent two weeks vacationing there after every baseball season, he said. They used the trip as an opportunity to "pause and reflect" between the months when Blanton was training and playing.
While searching for a name for their wine, Blanton and his wife discovered that the Hebrew word "Selah" is often translated as "to pause or to reflect," he said. "We thought it was perfect to take what Napa meant to us when we vacationed here and put it into the wine."
Blanton said a little over three acres are planted at Blanton Family Vineyards, which does not have an accompanying winery to actually make wine. Instead, the Blantons hired winemaker Thomas Brown, named Food and Wine's winemaker of the year in 2010, to work with them, among many other clients. Blanton said they also have a vineyard manager to maintain the vines and a business manager who helps small brands get up and running, but he does most of the day-to-day work such as wine tastings and business transactions.
The process of creating a wine, Blanton said, was more complicated than he anticipated. Aside from buying the vineyard, hiring a winemaker, and choosing a name for the wine, he and his wife had to figure out what kind of market they wanted the wine to fit into.
Blanton, who retired from baseball after the 2017 season, said they knew immediately that they wanted the wine to stand on its own, separate from his time as a pitcher. "We saw our wine as something that really didn't have anything to do with my previous career in baseball," he said.
Blanton is not the first member of a Philadelphia sports franchise who transitioned to a career in winemaking. In 1999, former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil launched Vermeil Wines in Napa Valley and released the Jean Louis Vermeil Cabernet Sauvignon, named after his father. The winery now makes 11 different wines.
Selah is considered a boutique wine, generally meaning it comes from a small vineyard that prioritizes quality over quantity. Blanton said he and his wife are "very happy with our wine" and focusing on marketing their first bottle before thinking about their next one. Boutique wines are often not available in restaurants or stores, he said, so a lot of their sales come through wine tastings.
"The first year is basically getting it out there, telling the story, and really trying to develop your brand," he said.
Blanton was able to promote his wine in Philadelphia when he returned to the city for the 2008 Phillies' 10-year reunion celebration, which he called "an amazing experience." The day after he and his teammates were honored at Citizens Bank Park, Blanton had dinner with Club 21, a wine group made up of Philadelphia business people, to discuss his journey into the winemaking business and his first bottle.
"I've basically had a great few days of being there where I had a couple of days reliving my baseball career and another day focusing on my next career as a winemaker," he said.
Michael Logan, president of environmental engineering company Compliance Plus Services in Horsham, first met Blanton and tried his wine when he visited Napa Valley in April. Logan said he thought Blanton's wine was "spectacular" — showing "the grape qualities of a big Napa wine" — and invited him to share his story with his wine club back in Philly.
During the visit, he said, Blanton signed a bottle of his wine for everyone at the dinner and spent all night answering questions about baseball and winemaking. "There was a lot going on over the weekend, a lot of us were watching the games and the ceremonies, and it really reminded us of how the city felt after the 2008 World Series," Logan said. "Having Joe come out the day after those events was just the icing on the cake."
Club 21 member Vince Schiavone, chairman of Akuda Labs, a San Jose technology company, and a principle of Prioratus, LLC, a consulting firm, said he was most impressed by Blanton's commitment to his wine. "Other sports people have put their names on wines, whether they're good or not, but Joe has taken a different approach," Schiavone said.
He said it was good to see Blanton pursue another passion after baseball and succeed at it. "It's an excellent, excellent wine," Schiavone said. "And that's rare for anybody's first wine."