"Chinese people are becoming more interested in wine every day," says Yao Ming, the five-time N.B.A. All-Star. Retired from basketball in summer 2011, Yao is now shooting to bring fine Napa Valley wine to his Chinese homeland where wine consumption doubled from 2005 to 2009. He has launched Yao Family Wines, which released its inaugural Yao Ming 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) in early December 2011. The wine will be distributed primarily in China where it sells for the equivalent of $289/bottle. Yao discusses his transition from hoops to barrel staves with Wine Enthusiast.
Wine Enthusiast: What aspects of Chinese culture fit with a food-and-wine lifestyle?
Yao Ming: To me wine and food evoke a feeling of friends and family having great times and making memories together. It slows people down and helps them appreciate each other’s company.
WE: Describe your first wine encounters.
YM: I first experienced fine wines when I lived in the U.S. playing in the N.B.A. One of my teammates, Dikembe Mutombo, is a fan of great French and California wines. Being around friends who knew the producers and understood California wine made me interested in tasting more of them. Eventually, I developed an appreciation of Napa Valley Cabs.
WE: What are your favorite wines?
YM: I am a big fan of Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition, I enjoy lighter reds like Pinot Noir, and my wife and I have Chardonnay when we are in the mood for white wine. Still a student of wine, I like to try wines from different places.
WE: Why did you decide on the Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon for your first release?
YM: I fell in love with Napa Valley wines while living in the U.S. I want to share a wine I am proud of and introduce to China what the Napa Valley has to offer. I also think the Napa Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
WE: What are your favorite pairings?
YM: I don’t follow traditional rules. I drink good wine with good food and good friends. That’s it.
WE: Are you involved in the winemaking process along with winemaker Tom Hinde?
YM: I give my input on the wines and blends all along the way, but I fully trust in Tom to make the final decisions. Tom understands our vision for Yao Family Wines. He wants to share these wines with the Chinese people as much as I do.
WE: Why do you think the Chinese are becoming interested in wine? Is wine a part of urban culture now in cities like Beijing and Shanghai?
YM: I think it is very natural that the Chinese people are becoming interested in wine. For Chinese people, meals are often memorable gatherings for families and friends. We like to get together at a nice restaurant and have a nice long dinner together. Instead of ordering our own individual meals, we order many dishes served on large platters to share. Family style as you call it. Wine is very much the same, one bottle for many people to share together. Also, many people feel wine has health benefits, and it is lower in alcohol than some other drinks. So I believe wine fits into Chinese lifestyle very easily.
WE: How have Chinese consumers reacted to your wines?
YM: People are excited and curious about our next steps. They also ask [about] when I started to enjoy wine and if I have been to the Napa Valley.
WE: Do you think you can have an impact on the interest of wine, both domestic and international, for Chinese consumers?
YM: I have really enjoyed learning more about wine. Not only do I like drinking it, but I also like the way it is made. The vineyards are beautiful. The production process is like an art form. I first started by tasting many wines, and I soon discovered what I liked and enjoyed most. From there, I wanted to know the process of how it is made and grown and where it comes from. I fell in love with Napa Valley, and that is why I wanted my wine to be from there. I think many Chinese people who are new to wine may have the same interests as I do. I hope to spark some interest in Napa Valley wines.
WE: Other than Napa, what wine regions are on the radar for Chinese consumers?
YM: French wine is very popular in China, but you’ll find Italian and Australian wines as well. Napa Valley is not as well-know yet. I think that California wines have huge potential to be a favorite among Chinese people. The lifestyle and traditions of Napa Valley lineup very well with the traditions and family values we have in China.
WE: Any similarities between playing basketball and making wine?
YM: They both take hard work, dedication and passion. And with both, it takes a long time before you are ready for the big leagues. We’ve committed long-term to our wine company and are a true team—like on a basketball team. We all have our own skills and knowledge that help us succeed.