Napa's Tallest Winemaker: Yao Ming

The NBA star has launched Yao Family Wines; his Napa Cabernet could elevate American wine in the Chinese market
Nov 28, 2011

In China's rapidly growing market for luxury wines, Bordeaux has symbolized greatness for several years now. But Napa Valley now has a new ambassador in the premium market—a very big ambassador. Yao Ming, the recently retired eight-time NBA all-star and the most prominent sports legend in his native China, tells Wine Spectator he is launching his own wine label, Yao Family Wines. Yao will release the inaugural vintage of Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet in China on Nov. 28.

The 7' 6" Houston Rockets center became a fan and a booster of California Cabernet during his time in the NBA. "Napa Valley wines are the wines I fell in love with when I lived in the U.S.," Yao, 31, told Wine Spectator. "While I was on the road with the Rockets, the players would go out to dinner together and some of them knew a lot about wine, and I learned from them."

Two years ago, Yao and his management team decided to act on his enthusiasm, hoping to create a fine wine to represent Napa Valley in the growing Chinese market. This week, the winery will release the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon in Beijing, Guangzhou and Yao's hometown of Shanghai. A Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon will debut next year. The winery will also begin sales in the U.S. market next year.

For America, the wine's biggest impact could be as a symbol of Napa Valley in the growing Chinese wine business. "China is the priority market" for the wine, according to Con Constandis, president and managing director for Pernod Ricard China, which is importing the wines into the People's Republic. "California as a wine region enjoys quite high awareness among the Chinese consumers, and, in particular, premium Napa Valley wines have a pretty good image and are gradually becoming well-accepted by sophisticated wine lovers in China."

According to company officials, the Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet will be sold at $289 a bottle, in the "ultra prestige" segment of the market, where the status labels of Bordeaux and Champagne reside. When China's new wealthy class began to drink imported wines, classic French regions like Bordeaux, Champagne and, more recently, Burgundy, were their early acquisitions. Napa producers have worked to gain a foothold in China in recent years, but it can be a daunting market to enter. According to data from China customs, France owned 47 percent of the market for imported bottled wine in 2010. The U.S. came in sixth, with a 6.4 percent share.

Yao has observed the vigorous growth of Chinese wine culture in recent years and sees potential for a greater awareness of California among drinkers. "While French wines have made quite an impression already, people are starting to discover California wines," he said. "California has a good reputation in China for its lifestyle, as a great place to vacation and for fun. I not only want to share [the wines] with Chinese people, but also share the culture and beauty of Napa Valley."

To that end, Yao hired winemaker Tom Hinde to oversee production. Hinde previously worked as general manager of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, as well as president of Sonoma’s Flowers Vineyard and Winery. (Yao is the principal shareholder in the project, while Hinde and four other investors have minority stakes.)

The winery currently sources grapes from several Napa Valley vineyards, including Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, Tourmaline Vineyard and Broken Rock Vineyard. "We have farming input with these ranches, so we’re not simply buying these grapes," said Hinde. The 2009 Napa Valley is a blend of 82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It is aged about 18 months in oak. According to Hinde, Yao Family produced about 5,000 cases of the Napa Valley Cabernet and fewer than 500 cases of the Family Reserve for the 2009 vintage. The latter is aged 22 to 24 months in oak before release. (Wine Spectator has not had the opportunity to review the wine yet.)

Yao, who said he counts big reds as a favorite style (he also enjoys sweet wines), has tailored his wines to his tastes. "Yao drives the style of the wine," said Hinde, and he has active input in the blending. "He’s not a wine expert—he'll tell you that—but he’s a very passionate wine aficionado. Yao is very conscious of textural subtleties in the wine, mouthfeel and seamlessness, fruit and oak."

Now, some grapes for the 2011 vintage are still in fermentation vats, and the coming months will continue to be busy. After the launch promotions in China, there will be more celebrations tied to the Chinese New Year in late January. Beyond that, Hinde hopes the venture can buy or build a permanent winery in Napa. Production will remain level for the 2010 and 2011 vintages, but there could be many opportunities for expansion. For right now, said Yao, "Our goal is to make world-class Napa Valley wines."

Winery Purchases and Sales China United States California Napa News

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