Exclusive: Yao Ming joins 2016 Napa harvest

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Retired basketball star Yao Ming and his winemaker spoke exclusively to DecanterChina.com about the latest harvest season and the winery’s plan to launch its first white wine.

*In association with the California Wine Institute

Image: Yao Ming walking one of the vineyards that grows grapes for his Cabernet Sauvignon with President and Director of Winemaking Tom Hinde. Credit: Avis Mandel, for Yao Family Wines
Image: Yao Ming walking one of the vineyards that grows grapes for his Cabernet Sauvignon with President and Director of Winemaking Tom Hinde. Credit: Avis Mandel, for Yao Family Wines

Falling for wine

Yao Ming, at 7 ft 6 in (2.29 m), is one of the most well-known Chinese players to have played in the NBA.

And the 36-year-old basketball star fell in love with wine during his time with Houston Rockets in 2002 to 2011.

‘My love of wine started with Cabernet Sauvignon,’ Yao told DecanterChina.com in an exclusive interview.

‘When I was in the US, I had many great steak dinners in Houston. Napa Valley Cabernet was always a part of those meals, so that is where we started.’

It was Bill Sanders, Yao’s veteran sports manager, who introduced him to Tom Hinde, former Director of Winemaking for Flowers Vineyard and Winery.

‘We hit it off immediately,’ Hinde told DecanterChina.com. ‘We have a common wine passion and an insistence on quality.’

The duo set off to establish Yao’s own wine company, Yao Family Wines, in 2008. In November 2011, soon after Yao’s retirement from NBA, they launched the first range under the Yao Ming brand.

Image: Yao Ming in the vineyards of one of his Cabernet Sauvignon growers with Jay Bemke, a board member for Yao Family Wines. Credit: Avis Mandel, for Yao Family Wines
Image: Yao Ming in the vineyards of one of his Cabernet Sauvignon growers with Jay Bemke, a board member for Yao Family Wines. Credit: Avis Mandel, for Yao Family Wines

The 2016 harvest of Yao Family Wines

The former NBA star is actively involved in the winemaking operation during his several visits to Napa every year, said Hinde.

‘Yao is involved in the blending process and drives the wine style. He is involved in the harvest, the business and the Tasting Room.’

As of this year, Yao was hands-on with sorting the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, said Hinde.

‘I like to come in spring and again during harvest,’ Yao told DecanterChina.com, ‘I really enjoyed being there during harvest this year, and as always it is really special to see the winemaking process at this time of year.’

Hinde describes the 2016 vintage as an ‘excellent’ vintage. ‘We are very excited by fruit quality and have had good hang time to develop flavour and resolve tannins.’

Image: Yao Ming and President Tom Hinde together sampling grapes. Credit: Ed Aiona for Yao Family Wines
Image: Yao Ming and President Tom Hinde together sampling grapes. Credit: Ed Aiona for Yao Family Wines

Moving towards the more affordable range

After launching the initial Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon range featuring the flagship wine—Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in 2011, the basketball star went on to release a more affordable range, the Gold Peak, in 2015, using grapes sourced from Lodi.

The range is sold under 200RMB (25 pounds) per bottle in Yao Family Wines’ online store on Tmall.com, as opposed to the ‘Yao Ming’ range, which is priced over 1500RMB.

The Chinese government’s austerity drive was behind the decision, the winemaker said.

‘When the government sentiment towards consumption changed a few years ago, we needed to offer a more price conscious value range,’ said Hinde.

Lodi became the region of choice because of ‘the climate and soil for red varieties’.

Besides the already released Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends under the Gold Peak label, the Yao team is also making a Zinfandel from Lodi, according to the winemaker.

First white wine

The first white wine named ‘Napa Crest Sauvignon Blanc’ is the new addition to the portfolio.

The brand proprietor and the winemaker are both ‘excited’ for the first white wine.

The Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend was sourced from Oakville and St. Helena, and released earlier this year.

The production of the 2015 vintage was merely ‘234 cases’, according to the Yao Family Wines website, where consumers can buy a bottle for 32USD.

‘I’m really proud of it. And my wife likes it too!’ said Yao.

Image credit Yao Family Wines
Image credit Yao Family Wines

Targeting online shoppers

Despite the ‘positive effect’ on the image of California wines in the Chinese market brought by Yao, ‘we still have a lot of work to do (to promote the region),’ said Hinde.

‘Less than 4 million cases of the wine consumed in China came from California,’ a number much smaller than many of the region’s New World peers, added the winemaker.

Online shops may be a way to push sales to the millennials, as Yao launched his Gold Peak range on his flagship online store with Jack Ma’s Tmall.com last year.

Yao Ming showed up in person at the launch ceremony of the widely reported Tmall 99 Wine Festival last month.

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Despite a less satisfactory sales result for the many lesser-known brands during the online sales festival, Yao Ming found it a ‘fun event’.

Image:Yao Ming in Yao Family Wines Tasting Room. Credit: Ed Aiona for Yao Family Wines
Image:Yao Ming in Yao Family Wines Tasting Room. Credit: Ed Aiona for Yao Family Wines

‘It was nice to see the continued growing enthusiasm for wine in China,’ said the basketball star.

‘We are focusing on some of our newer wines like Gold Peak and Tmall is a great place to launch and promote our entire line of great wines.’

Yao’s wine collection

As a wine collector himself, the basketball star has ‘great respect’ for wines from France, especially Bordeaux.

‘I have a nice collection of wines from France and other regions, but I’m especially a fan of Napa,’ Yao Ming told DecanterChina.com.

‘I will always be most proud of the 6-liter bottle of our first vintage (2009) that sits in our home.’

‘Every shared bottle of great wine becomes a treasured memory,’ concluded the basketball star.

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