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Uncorked: Yao Ming transitions from basketball to wine

Published: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Yao Ming introduced the world to Chinese basketball players. 

A 7-foot-6-inch center, Yao was selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Rockets in the 2002 NBA Draft. Yao spent five years in the Chinese Basketball League before he became a five-time NBA All Star. He was a dominant center that opened doors for other Asian stars to bring their game to the US to compete against the best players in the world. 

Yao retired in 2011 and wanted to carry on another introduction. With his own wine label, Yao Family Wines, he aims to bring Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to an emerging Chinese middle class and show American connoisseurs his skills extend beyond the 94 feet of a basketball court. 

Winemaker spotlight

The impetus for Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may have started after the 2002 NBA Draft. 

Houston provided Yao with exposure to the country’s premiere steakhouses. Steak and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a natural pairing, and a wine for which Yao developed a serious passion.  

“Yao is dedicated to small craft production,” said Tom Hinde, president and director of winemaking at Yao Family Wines. “He understands sports was a springboard to his wine career. Yao has been great. He sits in on the meetings and on the blending process and helps drive the style of wine that is made.”

Yao and Hinde patiently sought out the vineyards with fruit that represented the style of wine he favored. They set up long-term contracts and farm their own vineyards. It’s a time-consuming endeavor as the Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($625) spends 24 months in French oak barrels and the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($170) spends 18 months.

“It’s like preparing for the birth of a child,” Hinde said. “You paint the room. Buy the clothes. There’s a patience factor involved. It’s a lot less than a scotch maker’s plan. Winemaking takes a lot of patience so when the release finally arrives it’s a very exciting moment.” 

What to buy

Yao Family Wines, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 ($170): There’s a huge nose of black cherry and violets in this wine. It isn’t overly ripe or super extracted. A crisp acidity and notes of hot rock and anise nestle around a hint of cedar and firm tannins. It finishes very dry.

“There was one premise and that was to make a balanced wine,” Hinde said. “We didn’t want to make a pushy wine or an over-extracted wine. We framed the tannins with the use of oak and good acidity. Those components worked together in harmony.”

Wine 101

The wait was finally over. 

Harvested in late October 2009, the wine spends 18 months in French oak barrels and is finally released. Winemakers and owners must be incredibly patient as their business model gradually unfolds.

“Like the building of a jetliner, it takes years,” Hinde said. “But when the moment arrives everyone is excited.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at news@daily-chronicle.com.

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