Retired NBA star and Chinese sports sensation Yao Ming is one of a rapidly growing number of enophiles in his home country, where French wines are in vogue. But Yao developed his taste for wine in the United States, so his drinking habits have tended to favor Napa Cabernets instead. Now, after two years of working with winemaker Tom Hinde (formerly of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates), the 7' 6" former Houston Rockets center has unveiled a Napa Cabernet of his own under the Yao Family Wines label, with 2009 as the first vintage of the Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet. Last month, he released the wine in China and says it has been "very well-received" so far. Wine Spectator caught up with him shortly after.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine? When did you discover Napa wines?
Yao Ming: I was so fortunate to be exposed to many world-class wines during my basketball career in the U.S. While I was on the road with the Houston Rockets, the players would go out to dinner together and some of them knew a lot about wine, and I learned from them. I learned a lot from my teammate Dikembe Mutombo. He loves great wine. I remember watching him at our dinners swirl and sniff his wineglass, and it definitely encouraged me to learn more about wine so I could do the same. Now, I am lucky to be surrounded by a lot of people who continue to teach me about wine.
WS: What kind of restaurants did you go to with the team?
YM: They have many great steak houses in Houston, because in Texas they love big steak. And Cabernet goes very well with a Texas steak.
WS: Do you keep a wine collection?
YM: I have a small collection. I am still learning about wine, so as a collector I’m a bit of a beginner. Friends have given me several great bottles of wine, and I’ve saved some for special occasions.
WS: What are some of your favorite California wines? Do you have any other favorite regions or styles?
YM: Obviously I am a big fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I also like Pinot Noir. My wife and I also enjoy white wines like Riesling and drink Chardonnay on occasion when we are in the mood for something lighter than a heavy red. I enjoy sweet wines as well. In China, many people are fond of the sweet wines. That’s what we are used to. I was introduced to Sauternes and Port and enjoy those very much.
WS: Why did you decide to start a winery in Napa, specifically?
YM: I saw a great opportunity to introduce fine wines from Napa Valley to China. Napa Valley wines are the wines I fell in love with when I lived in the U.S. I not only want to share them with Chinese people, but also share the culture and beauty of Napa Valley—the traditions of enjoying wine with food, and bringing family and friends together. Napa Valley is also one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
WS: How would you describe the wine-drinking culture in China?
YM: The Chinese people are developing their taste for fine wine, and while French wines have made quite an impression already, people are starting to discover California wines. Chinese wine lovers are eager to learn about wine; they are knowledge-hungry.
WS: Chinese wineries like Chateau Changyu and Great Wall, as well as smaller producers, are getting more attention lately. What do you think of Chinese wine?
YM: There are some small boutique wineries emerging in northern China near Mongolia that are producing some really interesting and beautiful wines. Helen Mountain, for example, has emerged as a great example of the quality that can come from China.