Launched in China in November 2011 and with U.S. distribution starting fall 2012, the Yao Ming brand sources grapes for its two California Cabernet Sauvignons, the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, from prestigious Napa Valley vineyards with a reputation for excellence. With a total production of 5,000 cases for the Napa Valley bottling and 320 for the Family Reserve, these highly sought-after selections have already begin to garner cult status.
With an extensive background in the wine industry, Tom Hinde was an ideal match for the Yao Family Wines project. From 1997 to 2005, Hinde was general manager for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates and helped develop two noted Napa Valley Cabernet programs as part of the winemaking teams for Lokoya and Cardinale. Then from 2005 to 2010, he was president, CEO and director of winemaking for Flowers Vineyard and Winery, a specialty Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producer located on the Sonoma Coast. Today, Hinde is back working with Cabernet Sauvignon on the Yao Ming brand from Napa Valley. Wine Enthusiast sat down with Hinde to discuss the project, California wine and the Chinese market.
Wine Enthusiast: What attracted you to the Yao Family Wines project?
Tom Hinde: I had the opportunity to meet Yao Ming and his associates. He is a very nice man, just talking with him and getting to know him gave me the sense of how deeply committed he would be in the project. He was looking for somebody who was independent; he was not looking to partner with an existing winery. One of Yao’s principles in his retirement-business project is that he will be the owner. It will be his product. So for many years he…sold other people’s things, very successfully, and he endorsed other people’s products. He wants his business, his products; he’s very proud of the Yao Ming brand. I wanted to be able to help him realize his vision with California wines and truly got the sense that he wanted to share the culture he had adopted.
W.E.: Why did Yao pick California as the place to start his brand?
T.H.: People ask a lot: ‘Why didn’t you pick Italy, or Australia, it’s right there, or what about France or Bordeaux?’ His answer is pretty simple: ‘I didn’t live in those places for nine years. I didn’t work in those places for nine years. I lived, worked and played in America and fell in love with American wines. I like Napa Valley, I like to go there with my wife.’
W.E.: Is there an overall style you are trying to achieve with the brand?
T.H.: We are making Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, so first we are true to the varietal and the origin. Acid should be sufficient, not hard. Tannin should be supple, not aggressive. Fruit should be forward and pure from nose to finish. Oak should not dominate, but play a supporting role. In essence we are crafting balance. Fruit, Acid, Tannin, Oak—all working in harmony.
W.E.: How involved is Yao in the development of the wines? Do you taste together often?
T.H.: Yao is very involved and drives the final wines. He’s out 3 times a year, at different stages. He works on the blends with us, he gives us direction, he advises, he has a certain taste profile he likes; it’s not aggressive, it’s not big tannins, it’s not hard, it’s a fairly soft style, it’s more elegant than it is aggressive. He has a very good palate and offers great insight to the process.
W.E.: What is the stylistic difference between the ’09 Cab and the ’09 Family Reserve Cab?
T.H.: We are selecting from the lots and the barrels the Reserve. The Reserve spends 24 months in barrel and the Napa 18 months. We also use a higher percentage of new oak, at 90% with the Reserve. The Cabernet component changes slightly downward with Merlot and Cab Franc inching up. Same vineyards, same wines, different selection process, different oak finishing. I see a deeper wine in the Reserve and the oak is more apparent.
W.E.: Do you believe your wines should be consumed young, or do they require some cellar aging?
T.H.: Aging wine is a personal sort of consumer preference, some people like their wine ready-to-go now and some people want to wait and see what develops in the future. These wines will age. I believe the Reserve will age longer than the Napa Valley wine, I think it’s just built for additional time; I would think 15 years for the Napa wouldn’t be out of the question, 20 on the Reserve. I would say enjoy the wine how you like to drink it and good consumers will find that as well. People are enjoying it now in China and some people are saying they want to put this away.
W.E.: What distinct characteristics or traits do you find in the grapes from each of the six vineyards you currently source from?
T.H.: Broken Rock and Tourmaline provide the core and the power/structure of the wines. These are higher vineyards and show dark fruits like plum. The acidity and aromatics come from Sugarloaf Ridge and Circle S vineyards. Wollack has the ripest tannins, being the most northern in Napa Valley.
W.E.: Are the wines labeled differently in the U.S. and China?
T.H.: We do a Chinese label. The front label is identical in both countries, and then the back is in Mandarin. The interesting feature of this back label is that we partnered with Kodak film and we put a security code into the back label for authenticity purposes, so with a very simple piece of plastic, this Yao character appears underneath in the magenta layer of the digital process of this back label. Very easily you can go into a store with a plastic card and verify. They’re using this technology in immigration and in currency as well. We needed something we could protect the product with, and we think we’ll change the character each vintage and we’re also looking at some alternative features.
W.E.: Do you think the Chinese market is ready to embrace high-end California wine?
T.H.: I think it is. Each market will embrace quality first. I have to admit that Napa Valley is a little behind the French and Australians when it comes to consumer awareness. The French are masters, they’ve been there for 20 years setting up shop. Their industry is subsidized by their government and they are master exporters. And they have institutes and all sorts of ways to support them. The French have been there, they’ve convinced the consumer that only great wine comes from great French chateaus and domains, and this is common. When consumers see and experience the quality that California wines provide, they will migrate to them. The market is still very much developing; the Chinese consumer will need that sort of epiphany California moment, but instead of taking 25 years like it did here we think it’s going to take seven.
W.E.: How do you bring the idea of California wines to the Chinese?
T.H.: We’ve been training the trainers, so to speak. We’ve only been in the market since November, but we are going to launch programs and we do use anecdotal information like the Judgement of Paris tasting because we have to show that we do belong. The Chinese don’t understand the California, or the US, wine business in that it was interrupted. As it started out, as we built 800 wineries in the late 1800s early 1900s, it was devastated by prohibition. So now the 1940s come along and we have to sort of restart the industry but then we do it at a quality level. We want them to understand that once we had the chance to restart in Napa, we chose to restart at the highest level and then we went and tasted in Paris and lo and behold, we fit in. The Paris tasting, and then the re-Paris tasting [30 years later] to see what happened [to the wines], really allowed Napa to belong with Bordeaux. Bordeaux is an interesting area; it’s a big area, they make a lot of wine, not all of it is from these five denominated growths. Whereas Napa, I think you have a higher concentration of much more quality wineries in Napa Valley than you do in Bordeaux at large. People say Bordeaux, they’re really talking about the names they know and the growth. I get questions often about what are your [California’s] classifications? Which are your ones and twos and threes? I explain how we carve up our geography but I also explain that being from the New World we pick our own number ones and number twos, we’re not slave to a chart that was written in the 1800s by a bunch of guys on horse.
W.E.: You have spent a lot of time recently working with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Are you happy to be back working with Cabernet Sauvignon?
T.H.: I am thrilled to be working with Cabernet Sauvignon and of course Merlot, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. You can take the boy out of the Cabernet but you can’t take the Cabernet out of the boy! Napa is home to the world’s finest Cab Sauv. When I did work with Chard and Pinot Noir, I did it in their respective signature range from the Sonoma Coast. So as a winemaker, vineyard location trumps.
W.E.: What are the future development plans for Yao Family Wines?
T.H.: We are actively thinking about more wines. China is on the radar, [so are] other selections from the U.S. and New World locations first. You know the spirit of the New World, the spirit of Napa or Sonoma, is you can start a winery. Yao Ming did it. People come from HMOs and appliance store chains every day to Napa, to think about starting wineries. So it’s common for successful business people to then take their entrepreneurial spirit to the next level and start a winery. The model in France is you kinda sorta have to buy someone else’s project and then you have to make those wines that the particular chateaux or Burgundy domaine makes. You’re very limited to that move so to speak. So we are talking about Yao Family Selections. Ultimately, we’ll buy some vineyard land and potentially some from our current sources as they become available. But the reason we call the project Yao Family Wines is he sees it as generational. He believes that the wine business isn’t something you get into for 10 years, you get into it for 300 years.