Winemaking in the Russian River Valley: Jeremy Baker of Thomas George Estates

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Jeremy Baker. Photo courtesy of Carl Mindling
Jeremy Baker. Photo courtesy of Carl Mindling

Looking for a steady acid level in your favorite glass of Pinot Noir, possibly served up by one of the most eligible bachelors in the Russian River Valley? Hit the Wine Road and make Thomas George Estates your first stop. There, a team led by President Jeremy Baker along with Winemaker Chris Russi are producing wines that are made by hand in small batches. Their reds are made using a basket press, and Baker opted for Bordeaux-style concrete eggs instead of barrel fermentation for Thomas George Estates’ Chardonnay and Grenache wines.

Part of the fun of drinking wine is learning about who makes it and how and why they do it. Bonus if you are chillaxing in a setting that includes a wine cave with antiques and comfortable yet stylish furniture. On a recent group visit to Thomas George Estates with other writers, I noticed that most of us became prone to smiling and giggling. As he led a tour, Jeremy Baker seemed to intrigue us all: the Toronto (Canada) native and his family have spent 25 million dollars to build a successful wine business. Jeremy’s dad is the attorney Thomas Baker and the winery name is an homage to him and Jeremy’s grandfather. Jeremy Baker is single and admittedly easy on the eyes. All the more so because he gives off a mellow and decidedly humble vibe.

On our Wine Road tour, one San Francisco female writer whispered, “What can’t he do?!” after we discovered Baker’s background included working in wine marketing, creating a successful restaurant group with nine locations, and before a back injury, did extreme heli-skiing. Oh yes, he also knows his way around the kitchen and garden. Add event cook and fruit preserve maker to his list of redeemable qualities. Baker is also a longtime vegetarian who happens to adore the sheep and animals that populate Thomas George Estates. Bay Area Bites interviewed Baker in person and via phone interview.

Tell us about the concrete eggs you use for Chardonnay and Grenache.
Concrete has been used for centuries in the old world. A lot of wineries in the mid-1900s have gone a long way in putting them back. It’s an old technique. Concrete gets micro-oxidation without any oak influence. Because there aren’t any corners, and you get a very thorough and tight, precise fermentation. Wines show a little more maturity and there are heightened aromatics. We were the first in the area to take possession of those eggs from Sonoma Cast Stone. A similar version is used in France but it’s roughly a fifth the size. We wanted to add another layer to our Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs and started to bottle in 2010 fifty cases of “concrete only” Chardonnay. In 2011, we did 250 cases.


Group with Jeremy Baker at the Baker Ridge Vineyard Picnic L to R, Adrienne Donnelly, Club and Events manager; Chris Russi, Winemaker; Sean Tevik, Operations Manager; Jeremy Baker. Image courtesy of Thomas George Estates.

Two of Thomas George Estates staff are sommeliers who you recruited from Arizona. Food also plays an important role with your operations. What are you looking for when you hire?
We have zero turn over in our tasting room for a reason. I’m most proud of that. Sean and A.J. were two of my best customers in Arizona. They had long since aspired to be here in the wine country. When people come to taste, whether it’s their first time or they’re experts, we want to offer them something.

I come from restaurants and we really love food and wine here. Doing food pairings is our passion. Sean and I always chef for events of up to 100 people. Today we have a picnic on Baker Ridge, and we’re planning pork soaked in Pinot Noir leaves for two days then roasted on a spit and served with corn on the cob. Our food pairings have allowed us to attract a lot more wine club customers.

Compared to running and building a restaurant group, what’s it like building your estate winery?
We farm, make wine and sell wine. We have a wine club, our tasting room and so many moving parts. I like it better than the restaurant industry because we’re able to get a motivated and dedicated team. They really do love to get up and come to work. The challenge is finding the right employee and yet that’s true for any business. We’re a small winery so getting folks to try our wines is a challenge.

What’s an average day like?
So far for July I’ve been on the road: New York, San Francisco, Calgary and Los Angeles for sales and marketing activities. Today I’m cooking for 100 people in Baker Ridge, and tomorrow I’ll be in the office doing admin. It’s 100 miles an hour. We’ve hired a new GM (General Manager) and that means I can focus on sales and marketing.

How involved is your father in the operations?
He lives in Toronto and is not involved in our daily operations. He’s involved in key decision making and planning. Our business is very plan driven and he’s involved in macro ways... during harvest he comes and sorts fruit for a month.

Who is your mentor?
Davis Bynum, who we bought land from, is one of my very best friends. I have lunch with him every Friday. He’s visiting my family in Toronto. He’s 89, and tells me what’s worked and what hasn't for him. He’s second to my dad for advice.

Why do you live and work in Russian River Valley?
For the Pinot Noir. If you’re going to make Pinot outside of Burgundy, it’s probably one of the most physically beautiful places to work.

Do you have any recommendations for fellow vegetarians?
I’ve been a vegetarian for 21 years. In Healdsburg, I always go to Zazu restaurant. Duskie [Estes], the chef-owner was a veggie for 20 years or so. Whenever I go there I’m guaranteed a great meal. She’s a wine freak herself. Everything on her menu meshes with wine and we make a wine under her label called Black Pig Pinot Noir.

What’s it like having chickens and sheep on the property?
For the chickens, we use the eggs, which we put in our guesthouses. We have farm fresh eggs and locally produced bread and estate jam that Sean and I make. Our sheep are for grazing our vineyards and we use them on certain blocks that are tougher to get into. We love the sheep and it’s a green thing. They’re just adorable.

More Info:

Thomas George Estates
8075 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, Sonoma County, CA 95448
Phone: 707-431-8031
Tasting Room Hours: 11-5, seven days a week
Tasting Fee: $10.00, refundable with wine purchase
Twitter: @TGEWinery
Facebook: Thomas George Estates Winery


Wine Road
Twitter: @TheWineRoad
Facebook: Wine Road, Northern Sonoma County