Is Yao Ming big enough to clear the lane for California wine in China?
Probably not. But his new Napa Cabernet venture is certainly a big step, and likely to generate plenty of publicity both here in the U.S. and the Far East.
Yao is eminently likeable, a genuine sports hero in China and his fascination with wine is bound to have a ripple effect. How big, or how soon, depends.
I imagine there will be some sort of event that will trigger greater interest in California wine in the Far East, and this may be it.
Think what you may about the Paris Tasting of 1976, but it elevated the image of California wine nationally and internationally. By 1979, Baron Philippe de Rothschild had partnered with Robert Mondavi with Opus One in Napa Valley. Christian Moueix founded Dominus shortly thereafter. And another 40 Europe-based investors set their sights on California within the next decade. While it's true California wine has enjoyed modest success in some European markets, wine in Europe is hardly in short supply. They have not been easy doors to open. Nor will China's.
Sports celebrity vintners offer a terribly mixed bag of wines. But the guys who've done it right, such as racecar drivers Randy Lewis (Lewis Cellars) and Randy Lynch (Bennett Lane), or ex-baseball stars Tom Seaver (GTS) or Rich Aurelia and Dave Roberts of Red Stitch, show what can be accomplished.
Yao brings an added measure of star power because he's not only a sports pioneer and superstar, but also because he's intent on being an entrepreneur. He's put together a good winemaking team headed up by Tom Hinde, and I expect the wine will be excellent, though quite expensive in China. The people Yao may influence the most now might be of high school or college age, perhaps the future wine drinkers of China.
Some will consider this a publicity stunt. People scoffed at Ping Pong Diplomacy too. But it led to a thaw in Sino-American relations.