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NBA stars taste test the wine business

D-Wade, Yao Ming, Sasha Vujacic are investing in California wineries

Fall is the prettiest season in California wine country and typically the busiest. But the end of the grape harvest this year was marred by a series of fires that swept through Napa, Sonoma and other Northern California counties. The October blazes killed more than 40 people, destroyed more than 8,400 structures and cost an estimated $1 billion in damages.

“This is truly one of the greatest if not the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown. Also sending his condolences to the people of the region was a frequent visitor, LeBron James. “I want to send my love and support to such a great place,” he said. “I’ve been … going there for so many years now, every year and getting the opportunity to tour a lot of the vineyards and be around and meet so many great people in the Napa Valley community. It definitely hits home for me and my family and friends.”

It’s hard to imagine such a statement from an NBA player of an early generation — not the expression of empathy, of course, but the intimate knowledge of the country’s most celebrated wine region.

And it’s not just James — several of the league’s elite players showed off their oenophilia on social media this summer. On July 10, Dwyane Wade posted a picture on Instagram showing Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony and himself at a Paris restaurant, where they posed in front of several bottles of France’s finest Bordeaux. (The image quality is too grainy to see the vintages, but even the current release of the Petrus in the foreground costs about $2,000 per bottle, although it would be a crime to drink it so young.) In August, James took his teammate J.R. Smith along for a wine-themed birthday celebration in Napa for James’ wife, Savannah. Butler contributed his own, seemingly professionally produced video of his summer Napa winery tour. In 2015, the Banana Boat Crew plus Anthony shared a picture of themselves toasting with glasses of red wine (Napa’s Pahlmeyer cabernet sauvignon, I’m told), and more recently Wade and James celebrated their reunion as teammates with more red wine after Cleveland’s first practice of the 2017-18 season.

It was that kinda night!!! @jimmybutler @carmeloanthony #winelovers

A post shared by dwyanewade (@dwyanewade) on

Previous generations’ drinking habits were more plebeian. Larry Bird and Charles Barkley got drunk off Budweiser. “He drank me under the table,” Barkley told Dan Le Batard. Although Michael Jordan may not, as rumored, have had a beer after every game, there are a bunch of photos showing the Hall of Famer with a light beer on hand.

Until recently, the most prominent oenophile in NBA circles was San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who is an investor in Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks, known for its high-quality, affordable pinot noir.

But in the age of $200 million contracts, it’s not surprising players’ tastes have gotten more expensive. And the players aren’t just consuming high-end wines, they’re beginning to produce them. The projects run the gamut from Chris Paul’s one-off charity partnership with ONEHOPE wines in 2015 to Yao Ming’s established Napa winery, which recently crushed its ninth vintage of grapes. Meanwhile, Wade has partnered with Pahlmeyer to produce two wines bearing his name, and former Los Angeles Laker Sasha Vujacic’s family owns a vineyard in Paso Robles along California’s Central Coast.

In the past, many athletes and celebrities lent their names to wine producers as a gimmicky cash grab. More than a decade ago, the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy devoted a column to poking fun at Larry Legend, a notorious cheapskate, lending his name to an $80-per-bottle Meritage produced by Napa’s Cosentino winery. “This is a guy who wouldn’t know oakey from Charles Oakley,” Shaughnessy quipped.

But some current efforts are serious, long-term endeavors, which is why I recently traveled through California for a firsthand inspection.

Yao Family Wines

Yao Family Wines’ tasting room occupies a coveted spot along St. Helena’s Main Street, only a few hundred yards from the town’s iconic Gott’s Roadside burger shack, where James and Smith were spotted this summer. “Tasting room” is industry parlance, and it makes the building, which was partially bankrolled by a roughly $3 million crowdfunding campaign, sound more modest than it is. There are several rooms featuring long bars and a private tasting area with a patio. Memorabilia from Yao’s playing days, including a Chinese national team jersey and an All-Star jersey, dot the walls, as do paintings from local artists.

While wine is increasingly popular in China, Yao came to enjoy it while frequenting the steakhouses of Houston when he played for the Rockets and on trips to Napa with his Bay Area-based agent, Bill Duffy. “My interest in wine started in California,” Yao told The Undefeated by email. He poked around Napa about the possibility of producing wine.

“He went around a lot of wineries and found that there was interest in collaboration,” said Tom Hinde, president and director of winemaking for Yao Family Wines, who hosted me at the tasting room. “But he didn’t want to just do a Yao Ming label by Robert Mondavi, Beringer or another of the big players.”

Yao was already an entrepreneur — he owns an eponymous Chinese restaurant in Houston — so he thought about going out on his own. “When I decided to get into the wine industry, it was very important to me that [it was] something that I could help grow,” Yao said. “I wanted to learn about the process and participate in it. I wanted to build a team of people that I could work with for many years to come. We needed to share a vision and work through the process of building a respected winery. If I partnered with an established winery, I would have simply been putting my name on a label.”

“Napa is a collection of wineries that were mostly started by people successful in other businesses, not trained oenologists, ” Hinde said, providing a few notable examples. “Robert Sinskey was an eye surgeon, Joseph Phelps was a construction guy and Jean Phillips, who founded [cult favorite] Screaming Eagle, was a real estate agent. So why couldn’t someone who’s successful in sports and has resources start his own?”

There were precedents in Napa. Former NFL coach Dick Vermeil, a Calistoga native, started the Vermeil Wine Group in 2007 with experienced winemaking partners. A year later, NASCAR driver Danica Patrick bought land on Napa’s famed Howell Mountain, planted a 24-acre vineyard and established Somnium with winemaker Aaron Pott, who had spent many years working in Napa and Bordeaux.

Hinde, who had worked in the industry for nearly three decades when Yao approached him, poured tastes of each of the winery’s current five offerings — a sauvignon blanc, a rosé, and three cabernet sauvignon-heavy red blends. The winery buys grapes from a few vineyards (a common practice) to produce about 8,500 12-bottle cases each year. These are not inexpensive wines, ranging in price from the $28 bottle of rosé to the $225 bottle of 2014 Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Why couldn’t someone who’s successful in sports and has resources start his own winery?

Professional critic Robert Parker, whose opinions carry outsize weight in the market, wrote of the $85 cabernet sauvignon and the $225 reserve, “I am aware of all the arguments that major celebrities lending their names to wines is generally a formula for mediocrity, but … the two Cabernets are actually brilliant, and the Reserve bottling ranks alongside just about anything made in Napa.”

If you call the winery, you’re greeted with automated menu in English and Mandarin. While I was on the premises, a group of Chinese tourists came in and spoke with a bilingual host. Most of Yao’s wine is sold in China, which is the fourth-biggest importer of wine (behind the United States, United Kingdom and Germany), even though stiff import duties mean American wines retail for twice as much in China as they do here.

Yao visits the winery four times a year. And while he’s not involved in the daily vineyard operations, he is involved in the blending process, when the winemakers taste different grape varietals and decide upon the desired mix to go into the bottles. He hopes to pass the winery on to his daughter one day. “That is why we called it Yao Family Winery,” Yao said. “The great wineries are generational. We hope to be generational as well.”

D Wade Cellars

From Yao’s winery in St. Helena, it’s only a 15-minute drive south to the city of Napa, where I was invited to taste the two current offerings from D Wade Cellars. Whereas Yao owns his winery outright, D Wade Cellars is a partnership between Wade and Pahlmeyer, a celebrated Napa winery that produced its first vintage in 1986. A few years ago, Wade approached founder Jayson Pahlmeyer to discuss a potential partnership.

“I am passionate about wine and my love of the great wines of Napa Valley was fueled years ago,” Wade said. “Who you partner with is incredibly important and the Pahlmeyer’s have a longstanding reputation for excellence in Napa Valley. Jayson had personally invited me to witness a harvest several years ago. This was a very special moment for me as it first sparked my dream of Wade Cellars.”

“I love to meet celebrities like anyone else,” Pahlmeyer told me. But initially he was wary of a celebrity partnership. Unlike, say, Nike, which needs sports stars to move its sneakers, a well-established winery such as Pahlmeyer has no trouble selling its wines across the world. If the partnership was merely a marketing gimmick, it might diminish the Pahlmeyer brand, he worried.

But over a series of boozy dinners, Pahlmeyer and Wade came to agree on a vision for the wine. “He’s a class guy, and if you look at some of the other brands he endorses, they’re high-class,” Pahlmeyer said. Wade, like Yao, isn’t involved in the daily operations of sourcing grapes and production, but he weighs in during the blending process. “We make blends for him to try, we refine and we work together,” Pahlmeyer said. “We have fun. The first hour our palates are sharp, but then you get to a point that you don’t spit [out the wine] anymore and we drink and get to know each other.”

D Wade Cellars doesn’t have a tasting room, so instead I found myself in the Napa law offices of Gaw Van Male, a boutique firm that specializes in wine law. I was met by two of the firm’s partners, Jamie Watson and Nick Donovan, who are more directly involved in the daily operations of D Wade Cellars as Jayson Pahlmeyer now spends most of his time in Hawaii. (Earlier this year, Pahlmeyer’s daughter, Cleo, who is married to Watson, took over as president of Pahlmeyer.)

Wade’s wine project began with harvested grapes from the 2012 vintage; the first release was in 2015. “It’s a three-year turnaround from picking grapes to selling wine,” said Watson. Currently, D Wade Cellars offers two bottles, a $35 Malbec-heavy blend called “3 by Wade” (“designed to be approachable and gummy,” said Donovan) and an $85 cabernet sauvignon. Annual production is modest: 2,100 12-bottle cases of the Malbec and 110 cases of the cabernet. They soon may begin producing a rosé.

“The first hour our palates are sharp, but then you get to a point that you don’t spit anymore and we drink and get to know each other.”

Thanks in large part to his shoe deal with Li-Ning, Wade is popular in China, and it’s currently the biggest market for his wine. “We’re at a pivot point,” Donovan said. “Our original concept was to sell in China, and we also have a strong presence in Miami — but then Wade left the Heat. Now, we’re talking about how to attack the U.S. market.”

Whether that will mean establishing a propriety vineyard, rather than buying his grapes from other properties, or opening a tasting room remains to be seen. But to do so, particularly in Napa, would be a significant capital investment – even for an NBA star who has earned more than $200 million in salary and millions more in endorsements.

“In Napa today, you’re looking at paying up to $400,000 an acre, and an acre of vineyard might yield you about 150 cases of wine,” Watson said. Owning rather than renting production, storage, bottling equipment and a tasting facility (which can face tough zoning hurdles) requires additional millions of dollars.

There’s an old joke in the wine industry: “How do you make $1 million in the wine business? Start with $10 million.” Once the province of scrappy, small-time growers, Napa is increasingly home (or third home) to the über rich, industrial heirs and tech magnates such as Kenzo Tsujimoto, who made his fortune in video games and in 2010 opened Kenzo Estate after a $100 million investment.

“I look at my competition now, and it’s folks that have $200 million yachts, Picassos on their walls, chateaus in Southern France and penthouses in New York,” said Jason Pahlmeyer. “They’re not in it for a profit. They’ll build a $25 million winery and make 200 cases of wine. Do the math.”

“For Dwyane and ourselves, this isn’t a vanity project,” Watson said. “We’re mainly concerned with running a profitable business. That’s why we’re sitting in my office sipping wine and not in a fancy tasting room.”

Aleksander

One way to lower the costs of owning a winery is to look past Napa, which was what Sasha Vujacic and his family did when they entered the business. The longtime Los Angeles Laker, who played for the New York Knicks last season and currently plays in Italy, had a peripatetic early life. He grew up in Slovenia and as a teenager moved with his family to play basketball in Italy, where he and his stepfather, Goran Bjekovic, “familiarized ourselves with the wines of the Friuli region [of Italy] and quickly became aficionados,” Vujacic wrote in an email. “We decided that we would one day produce our own wine, one that would perfectly blend and incorporate both of our palettes.”

In 2004, the Lakers drafted Vujacic and the family moved to Los Angeles, which remains the family hub: Vujacic’s brother works in marketing and his sister is pursuing a doctorate in Italian literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. The family began searching for wine properties. “Napa was too expensive, plus it’s far from Los Angeles,” Bjekovic said. Closer to home were the wine regions of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, where vineyard prices top out at about $50,000 per acre — much more affordable than Napa. In 2009, the family purchased a 30-acre property, about a third of which already had grapevines, a few miles east of Paso Robles. They renamed the property S&G Estate, for Sasha and Goran, and branded the winery “Aleksander” in a nod to Vujacic’s true first name. (Sasha is a nickname.)

Goran and Ksenija Bjekovic, Sasha’s mother, met me at the estate, which normally isn’t open to the public. A few restaurants carry the wines, but most are sold as part of Aleksander’s club program. It’s a standard business model in the wine industry, allowing direct-to-consumer sales that are more profitable than selling at a discount to distributors, restaurants and retail stores. A member of the Aleksander wine club commits to buying four bottles per year and is entitled to a private tour and tasting. (Yao Family Wines has a similar program, though it’s also open to the general public.) The Paso Robles region is best known for Rhône-style red wines, blends using grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes, but Aleksander Wines produces Bordeaux-style reds that emphasize merlot over cabernet sauvignon, which distinguish the wines from the cabernet-heavy reds of Napa. The wines range in price from $75 to $95, and about 1,200 cases are produced each year.

Before we sat down to taste, Goran Bjekovic gave me a tour of the estate. Along with the vineyards, there are 650 olive trees, and S&G Estate also produces and sells extra-virgin olive oil. Bjekovic has hired a wine consultant and employs a few workers, and he lives and works full time at the estate. Vujacic lends a hand when his schedule allows.

“Having the opportunity to get away and escape to a place like our estate, especially after a long and strenuous basketball season, learning about the business side of things is particularly fascinating for me because it reminds me of just how far we have come,” Vujacic said. “I am almost always present for the harvest and processing stages, but I usually have to leave for training camp right after. Still, I am always in the loop about things and get daily updates from my family about how things are developing and evolving.”

Goran Bjekovic poured several wines from different vintages as we nibbled on hors d’oeuvres prepared by Ksenija Bjekovic. The wines were a welcome departure from the Rhône-style blends more commonly found in Paso Robles and have been received well by professional critics. Wine Enthusiast magazine rated the 2011 red blend 95 points out of 100. When Vujacic, who is 33, retires, he’ll likely become more involved in the winery, although it’s unlikely that, as a bachelor, he’ll relocate from Manhattan Beach to sleepy Paso Robles.


Recalling his decade-plus in the NBA, Vujacic said he’s noticed “an increased interest in wine amongst players over the last few years,” although it remains less a fixture of team dinners than in Italy, where he’s currently playing and “where wine is an integral part of the culture.”

Of course, it’s a significant step from sipping pricey Barolos to opening a vineyard, and it’s unclear how many more NBA players will join the ranks of Yao, Wade and Vujacic. Wineries are riskier investments than stock index funds. And at least one prominent former player saw his wine-related investments sour: Earlier this year a U.S. district judge ordered a financial adviser and winery manager to repay Tim Duncan $7.5 million for defrauding the former San Antonio Spurs star. Natural disasters such as the recent fires can also prove devastating.

But for those with the resources and the passion for wine, opening a winery will always be an attractive idea. And the buzz in California winemaking circles is that the next player to do so likely will be a certain Cavalier who has plenty of both.

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The Atlantic. He lives in Visalia, California.