The year 2016 has been a gratifying one for retired basketball legend Yao Ming. Despite a career cut short by injuries, the 36-year-old former Houston Rockets center—and eight-time All-Star—was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in September. It is also the year the Shanghai native’s California winery, Yao Family Wines, put itself squarely on the map of Napa Valley by opening a chic visitor’s center in the wine-tourist mecca of St. Helena.
Bankrolled in part by $2 million raised on CrowdFunder, Yao’s tasting room provides new public visibility for his small-production, luxury-priced Cabernet Sauvignon blends, which are already a hit with the wine press. International market-maker Robert Parker, of The Wine Advocate, wrote, “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.” Parker gave the 2012 Reserve an all-star ranking of 96 points.
Yao himself, reached on a fall afternoon in the midst of harvest, keeps it in perspective: “We are still very young, and we have so much still to learn,” he said of his operation, which produced its first wine from the 2009 vintage.
But Yao and his team are humble only to an extent: The current 2012 Yao Ming Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $225 a bottle from the winery (Sherry-Lehmann in New York City offers the 2010 Reserve at $645). The nonreserve 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $100. The prices of these flagship wines–there is also a less expensive Napa Crest line–pits them against a world-class competitive set. (In the U.S., for example, $225 would be more than enough to buy a bottle of 2012 Sassicaia from Tuscany, and with a little shopping two bottles of 2012 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou from Bordeaux.)
Given his ambitions, Yao was fortunate in hiring California veteran Tom Hinde as president and winemaker. Hinde had previously made wine at the top-notch Flowers, in Sonoma County, and for various high-end Jackson Family Wines projects. Yao knew exactly what kind of wine he wanted to make–the kind of rich-but-balanced luxury reds he’d come to enjoy in Houston steakhouses. “That’s how my drinking history started,” he explains. “Wait,” he adds, laughing, “does that sound bad? My ‘drinking history’ ” And Hinde had the on-the-ground knowledge to source the grapes for just such a wine: a little from here, a little from there.
Buying grapes from six vineyards with differing characteristics, from the San Francisco Bay-cooled south to volcanic hillsides to the warm northern part of the valley, Hinde takes a “ spice box” approach to constructing the flagship wines. In the end they are, he says, classic Napa Valley Cabernets. But Yao, who flies in from Shanghai for all the key decision making, very much directs the nuances of the style. While basketball fans may remember the 7’6″ center crashing the boards, away from the court he is apparently a man who appreciates delicacy.
“These wines are very much driven by what he values,” Hinde says. “They are all about harmony. You won’t find overuse of oak or purposely high alcohol or overextracted fruit. There is an elegance you might not find in other wines.”
It is a style the Yao family team hopes will continue to find favor in China and in Asia generally, where the company sells about 30% of its production. This is no small feat given that the premium wine market in China has slackened along with the economy. Tariffs, VAT and generally higher markups at wholesale and retail essentially double U.S. retail prices for wine inside China, meaning that Yao Family’s entry-level Napa Crest Red, $48 at the St. Helena tasting room, climbs to about $80 in China. The Yao Ming Napa Cabernet, at $250, and the Reserve, at $450, are very much high-end luxury products.
Still, Hinde believes that Yao Family is selling more fine wine in China than any other Napa producer, though like all American wineries it faces a market long dominated by French labels. “Obviously,” says Yao Ming, “Bordeaux is more famous than Napa Valley in China. But we are catching up.”
If so, Yao himself may be a big factor. A major celebrity in China–it was Yao, after all, who carried the 2008 Olympic torch into Tiananmen Square–he is, as Hinde puts it, “a huge door-opener. He gives us the ability to start those conversations and get people to taste the wines.”
So, of course, does the new Napa Valley tasting room, where about a third of the visitors so far have come from the burgeoning numbers of Chinese tourists. “We run into my countrymen a lot in our tasting room,” Yao says proudly. And more, many more, are likely to come. For Yao Ming the good news in 2016 was just a beginning.
Wine for wildlife:
NBA Hall of Famer Yao Ming, who has been making wine under the Yao Family Wines label for several years now, opened a St. Helena tasting room last spring. Now he’s using that wine for wildlife conservation efforts.
This week, we head back to Napa Valley for the story of Yao Family Wines with Tom Hinde, President and Director of Winemaking. Learn how the five-time NBA All-Star got his start in wine then launched his own winery on Main Street in St. Helena.
September 24, 2016
For some people in the wine biz, the pursuit of a perfect bottle is a lifelong work. When you’re an athlete, it’s more like a second career.
But you have to wonder—just because you can score a touchdown, stick a landing, ace your opponent, or hit a three pointer at the buzzer does not necessarily mean you can do much else. Here, Vivino looks at the top seven athlete-owned wineries to find out if their wine game is as good as their glory days.
Imagine being really tall, like, you know, 7 foot 6 inches. Then imagine being the only Chinese dude in the entire NBA. Fish out of water? No, because Ming not only excelled at hoops—like being an 8-time All Star, and 3-Time All-NBA Team player—but was also one of basketball’s best ambassadors.
Ming played for the Houston Rockets averaging 19 points per game, but decided to attempt a three pointer at the buzzer by starting a Napa winery. Are the wines are a slam-dunk?
Well, Yao’s wines are restrained and sensitive, like they have been crafted by a gentle giant with a good soul. “After several vintages I think people know we make very high quality wines and I am happy we have been accepted in both China and the U.S.,” Ming tells Vivino.
September 12, 2016
SPECIAL YAO MING WINE - Last week, legendary basketball player Yao Ming was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, where The Republican newspaper and Masslive.com are based, for those of you from out of state reading this column.
To commemorate the event, Yao Family Wines in California created a limited edition "Hall of Fame Bottling" of its 2014 Napa Crest Red Wine. Only 1,000 bottles were created, according to the winery.
The first bottle (number 1 or 1,000) was recently auctioned online. All the proceeds from the auction benefited the Basketball Hall of Fame.
So how much did Bottle Number 1 sell for? When the bidding was finally closed earlier this month, the winner paid $1,100.
Pretty impressive, just like Yao's career.
From Yao Ming to Sting, hundreds of celebrities have decamped to California and Europe to try their hands at winemaking. But just because a famous guy is willing to emboss his name on a bottle, it doesn’t mean the stuff inside is any good.
NBA Hall of Famer Yao Ming has a winery that’s better than you think, and a new tasting room where you can judge for yourself
Yes, as in Yao Ming, former Houston Rockets NBA star turned winery owner. Yao recently debuted a hospitality center in the former Bello Winery space, spanning three private tasting rooms for sit-down adventures, an outdoor patio area, and general tasting space at a big oval quartz bar glowing with LED underlighting.
NBA to Napa:
Professional sport celebrities, from Joe Montana to Mario Andretti, can’t seem to resist the allure of the wine business. And that includes former NBA sensation Yao Ming, who launched Yao Family Wines when he retired from the Houston Rockets in 2011. Last month, he opened the doors to his new St. Helena wine tasting room, where visitors can sip the Yao Ming and Napa Crest cabernet sauvignons and red blends at a marble-topped bar, in the cozy lounge or on the patio. Psst: The tasting room is next to Gott’s Roadside burger stand. Details: Open daily, tastings $35 and up. 929 Main Street, St. Helena; www.yaofamilywines.com
In 2011, 7-foot-6-inch-tall Yao Ming retired as a professional basketball player. He had played in the NBA for the Houston Rockets for more than 10 years, and during his career he’d been widely regarded as one of the superstars of the game.