Yao Ming used to play in NBA…now he makes wine


yao-wineYao Ming makes wine, but he doesn’t really fit in the cellar. This probably isn’t a surprise to those who know him best as the 7’6 former Houston Rockets basketball player. In fact, during his final season he was the tallest player in the NBA.

Yao played 8 years in the NBA – all for the Houston Rockets. He holds career averages of 19 points per game, 9.2 rebounds per game, and 1.9 blocks per game. He appeared in 486 NBA games (476 started), and was selected to the NBA All-Star team 8 times.

Retirement has kept him busy pursuing an economics degree in his native China and making wine in Napa, an interesting combination to be sure. Ming credits Texan steaks for inspiring his wine passion, explaining that, “In Texas, they are famous for their steaks, which are usually paired with great wine. I tried some excellent Napa Valley wines at dinners with teammates and friends, charity events, and other get-togethers. This is when my passion for wine first started.”

Ming took his passion and ran with it, setting up a winemaking team, led by winemaker Tom Hinde, in Napa and starting Yao Family Wines. It’s tempting to label this wine as just another celebrity bottling—and on the face of it, that’s true. But the real truth is always, always in the bottle.

Yao agreed to do an interview with Katie Kelly Bell of Forbes, via email, where he kindly shared his thoughts on his wine, basketball and more.

INTERVIEW

Was there a particular moment when you knew that you wanted to make wine?

Yao Ming: When I realized that I might not be able to play basketball much longer, I began to think about things I would enjoy when I was done playing. China was also discovering fine wine at that time, but mostly French wine like Bordeaux. I knew about Napa Valley wine because of my time in the US, so I felt I could help introduce people to something new. When I was presented the opportunity to have my own wine, it was very exciting. I was introduced to a lot of great people, including my current team and our winemaker Tom Hinde, and I felt it would be an interesting opportunity.

Why did you decide to make wine in Napa Valley specifically?

YM: I saw a great opportunity to introduce fine wines from Napa Valley to China. Napa Valley wines are the wines that I enjoy the most, and I wanted to bring a taste of that back home to China. I want to make wines I am proud of, and to share them with Chinese people, but also share the culture of Napa Valley; the traditions of enjoying wine with food, and bringing family and friends together. Napa Valley is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve been, and that is also why I wanted my wine to be from there.

What did you have in mind when you were making this wine? Did you want to create a cult classic or were you seeking something else?

YM: The Chinese people are developing their taste for fine wine, and while French wines have made quite an impression already, people are starting to discover California wines. Chinese wine lovers are eager to learn about wine, they are knowledge hungry. To be given the opportunity to help people in China learn more about Napa Valley is very exciting for me. For me, wine has been about discovery and enjoyment. Chinese consumers have an eagerness for knowledge when it comes to wine. Not only do they want to enjoy wine, but they want to understand it.

I am the same way. I first started by tasting many wines, and I soon discovered what I liked and enjoyed most. I wanted to know the process of how wine is made, how the grapes are grown, what makes one location different from another. I hope I spark an interest in Napa Valley and in wine in general. To me wine and food invokes a feeling of friends and family coming together; having great times and making memories together. It slows people down and helps you to fully appreciate each other’s company.

How has the wine been received in China?

YM: It has been well received. The Chinese wine writers, trade and wine community have had very positive things to say about our wines. People are excited and think the wines are tasting beautifully. People have also been very curious about some of our next steps, and are eager to taste more.

Why are your wines so expensive?

YM: We feel that our wines are competitively priced with the global wine market. We want to offer people the best quality possible, so we seek out prestigious Napa Valley vineyards with a reputation for excellent fruit. The grapes are hand-sorted and de-stemmed and each lot from individual vineyard blocks is tracked and fermented separately. Artisan winemaking techniques are used throughout the entire process. Although costly, we know we are making the best wine possible. We then benchmark the wines with quality Napa Valley Cabs, Cab blends, and 3rd- and 4th-growth Bordeaux and set the price accordingly. Keep in mind that wineries only receive half of the retail price of any bottle of wine and even less when selling to restaurants.

Why did you decide to make another wine (Napa Crest)?

YM: At Yao Family Wines we want to offer diversity and quality, as well as great value. NAPA CREST is meant to represent the hallmark of this world-class wine region. By blending from many top hillside vineyards we can capture the variety and completeness of the Valley. We make our wines for everyone to share with family and friends and with the addition of NAPA CREST to our portfolio, we have introduced a first-class product at an affordable price, offering a new group of wine drinkers the chance to enjoy our wine.

Do other NBA players enjoy wine as much as you do—or were you considered the team wine geek?

YM: One of my teammates, Dikembe Mutombo, is a fan of great French and California wines. I remember watching him at our dinners swirl and sniff his wine glass and it definitely encouraged me to learn more. Being on the road with him and going to dinners, I ended up learning a lot about wine. They have many great steakhouses in Houston, and we often enjoyed a great Cabernet Sauvignon with a big Texas steak.

Can you name a few Asian dishes that might pair well with your wine?

YM: We started with Cabernet Sauvignon because it goes well with many Chinese dishes. Of course it is great with beef, pork and lamb, but I think it is versatile and works well with other dishes too. Our new wine, NAPA CREST blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a little Petit Verdot making it approachable and a wonderful food wine. I don’t follow the traditional wine pairing rules. I drink good wine with good food and good friends. That’s it.

What are you planning to do with your degree in economics?

YM: I am involved in several businesses. In addition to Yao Family Wines, I am also the proud owner of the Shanghai Sharks, the team that I once played on, and several other interesting ventures. I find business fascinating. I am attending school and taking classes to learn more. I believe my studies will help in the success of my businesses and my foundation which is very important to me. The more knowledge I have, the more I can contribute.

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