Former NBA Star Yao Ming Opens Wine Tasting Room In St. Helena

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Yao MingPhoto Credit: Ed Aiona

Former NBA star Yao Ming was in the Napa Valley for the Feb. 19 opening reception of the beautiful, new Yao Family Wines’ tasting room and hospitality center in St. Helena. The following day, the 7-foot-6 ex-Houston Rocket center caused quite the stir when he stopped by the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena for Premiere Napa Valley’s barrel tasting and auction, which raised $5 million for the Napa Valley Vintners. We sat down with Ming at his new sure-to-be haute spot at 929 Main Street, the old space Bello Family Vineyards tasting room.

Ming played nearly a decade in the NBA and shortly after retiring in 2011 announced his plans to establish Yao Family Wines in the Napa Valley. It was while Ming lived in Houston that he developed a taste for wine. “That place is never short of a steak,” he told Haute Living. “Red wine is probably the best combination with it. That’s how I got involved with it. I’d enjoy wine and casual time with family and friends.”

Yao Ming, the flagship wine, is a quintessential Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and there is also a limited production Cabernet Yao Ming Family Reserve. Also in the Yao Family Wines portfolio is Napa Crest, an approachable blend of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Verdot crafted to reflect the unique growing environment of each vintage. Robert Parker gave a 95 to the 2010 Yao Ming Family Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ming was quick on his feet (and amused) when we asked him what NBA player his Reserve would be. “What player?” he asked with a laugh. “If that’s so, I probably need to sign him and represent him.”

Ming does, after all, own the Shanghai Sharks, the professional basketball team in the Chinese Basketball Association that he played for in his youth. We still wouldn’t let him off the hook and asked Ming to describe his wines in terms of NBA players, such as are they finesse like a Michael Jordan or aggressive like a Patrick Ewing. “You probably know I’m a big fan of Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton,” he replied. “They are very gentle. They are very aggressive on the court.”

You can check out Ming’s wines for yourself and decide. The Tasting Room and Hospitality Center is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Yao Family Wines features three tasting menus, starting at $35 to a Reserve Tasting for $50 and a Library Tasting of the limited edition Family Reserve for $80. Choose your seating area from one of the three private tasting rooms, an outdoor patio area or a large oval bar beneath a dramatic lighting display. Guided Tastings require an appointment and are also available in Mandarin. Contact John Taylor, Tasting Room Manager, at [email protected] 707-968-5874.

The Napa Valley wine market may be diluted with all of the wineries but people still want in. Asked why people should buy his wine, Ming replied, “because it taste good. From my understanding, wine is not only about tasting. It’s more about who you share it with and [the] quality of time you… spend [with that person]. That is what our wine provides for the wine lover.”

The humanitarian—he serves as a global ambassador for the Special Olympics and Wildaid— who lives in Shanghai with his wife and daughter, comes to the Napa Valley a few times a year to check on his wine business. As much as he enjoys his time in the region, he said, “I wish that Napa had a bigger airport so we could fly here directly instead of transferring from San Francisco. Unfortunately there is no direct flight from my hometown of Shanghai.”

Ming was late arriving to the late afternoon reception due to his flight from Shanghai being late and then getting caught in heavy traffic from San Francisco International Airport to Napa. The packed house of wine enthusiasts waited patiently as they enjoyed tasting Yao Ming Family Wines and noshing on charcuterie from Harvest Table by Charlie Palmer.

Before he departed for SFO, Ming had a chance to meet some other vintners when he popped by the Premiere Napa Valley barrel tasting and auction, which is open to licensed members of the trade who procure wines on behalf of discerning customers and collectors and is the longest-running regional barrel auction of wine futures in the U.S. Ming Tweeted, “We had a wonderful time at #PNV16 today. It was great to meet so many distinguished vintners!”

The $5 million Premiere Napa Valley raised for NVV was the third-highest amount raised in the event’s 20-year history. Of the 226 lots sold, 199 were from the 2014 harvest, the third in a string of some of Napa Valley’s most critically acclaimed vintages.

“The collectability of Napa Valley’s rarest wines was on dramatic display today,” noted Emma Swain, chair of the NVV’s board of directors and CEO of St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery. “We are grateful to our friends and colleagues in the wine trade who join us year after year, seeking out the excellence and endless possibilities of our winemaking.”

With more than 1,000 wine professionals in attendance, the 2016 Premiere Napa Valley event showcased both long-established brands and newcomers to the Napa Valley winemaking scene.

“We’re thrilled with the results and we had a great day sharing our wines with our partners in the trade,” noted Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, this year’s Premiere Napa Valley Steering Committee chair. “Over the past 20 years, Premiere has helped Napa Valley’s vintners to really push the quality envelope. Because of this event, I believe we’re all making even better wines.”

The wines sold at Premiere Napa Valley are unique, crafted in micro-lots as few as 60 and never more than 240 bottles. Each bottle is hand-labeled, individually numbered and signed by the winemaker, creating additional cachet and collectability for the limited-production offerings. Top lots at the auction included Italics Winegrowers, Memento Mori, Nine Suns, Realm Cellars, Rombauer Vineyards, Shafer Vineyards, TOR Kenward Family, Duckhorn Vineyards, Silver Oak Cellars and ZD Wines. New this year was the introduction of the E-Premiere Napa Valley Online Auction, where 26 of the 226 wines sold were available exclusively online for qualified wine trade bidders from around the world.

For those of you consumers who are interested in obtaining Premiere Napa Valley wines for your own cellar, you can find information on the successful bidder for each 2016 lot, as well as past Premiere Napa Valley wine offerings, at premierenapawines.com.

Photo credit: Ed Aiona

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