Yao Ming is arguably the most famous basketball player to be making wine in California. Certainly, as a 7-foot 6-inch Chinese athlete, he is unique to the Napa Valley. After an astonishing career in professional sports, the charismatic Yao Ming chose Northern California as home base for his winemaking venture.
In October of 2013 he explained why to Katie Bell of Forbes.com. “When I realized I might not be able to play basketball much longer, I began to think of things I might enjoy when I was done playing. At the same time, China was just discovering fine wine, mostly French wine like Bordeaux. I knew about Napa Valley wine because of my time in the United States, so I felt I could help introduce people to something new. When I was presented with 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 a good opportunity.”
Hinde explains that Yao Ming, “has a passion for wine. His father drank Bordeaux with him and helped him develop a palate. Ming spent a lot of time in California and fell in love with California wines. He owns a restaurant in Houston called Yao and, being in the food and wine business, developed even more of a passion for wine.”
His passion for red meat also played a role. On November 28, 2011, Yao Ming explained to Jason Chow of e Wall Street Journal that his interest in wine was sparked by his love of Texas steaks. “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. is is when my passion for wine first started.”
Part of Yao’s incentive to start a winery in Napa, as opposed to buying an established vineyard in Pauilliac or Saint-Émilion, was to bring the flavor and ambiance of Northern California to his native China. “I saw a great opportunity to introduce fine wines from Napa Valley to China,” says Yao. “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 I’ve ever been, and that is also why I wanted my wine to be from there.”
The venture has been a great success. Within 39 months, Yao Family Wines sold more than $8 million of wine while receiving stellar reviews from critics. e June 2013 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine gave the 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 95 points and rated the Family Reserve a 97. Wine critic Steve Heimo , wrote that “Yao’s Family Reserve bursts with upfront, delicious blackberry, crème de cassis, and dark chocolate flavors that are wildly sweet on the mid palate, but then finish thoroughly dry. It immediately establishes itself among the elite Cabernets of Napa Valley.”
Even the ultimate judge of wine tasting, Robert Parker, praised Yao Ming’s wines. In e Wine Advocate, October, 2013, Parker wrote, “I am aware of all the arguments that major celebrities lending their names to wines is generally a formula for mediocrity, but that is not the case with Yao Ming. These are high-class wines. e two Cabernets are actually brilliant, and the Reserve bottling ranks alongside just about anything made in Napa.”
And the wines have won enthusiastic fans from around the world. When the Yao Family Wines made their first appearance at a charity auction for the Special Olympics East Asia last November in Shanghai, the inaugural bottle sold for 150,000 yuan (or $23,499).