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Swapping tip-offs for tipples, these NBA stars are hoping to hit the right notes in the wine industry

<i>C2 Photography / FOOD & WINE</i><br/>
Chris Council
C2 Photography / FOOD & WINE

By Jeremy Harlan, CNN

Through the entirety of a five-course dinner, three NBA stars said little about basketball.

There was barely a mention of an NBA title the Golden State Warriors had won the night before; no talk of which jersey they’d wear next season; hardly a word about a likely induction into the sport’s Hall of Fame next year.

Instead, conversation tended towards a different topic entirely: winemaking.

“Coming from the world we come from, we top dogs. Carmelo Anthony, ‘DWade’ — they know who we are in basketball,” said retired NBA star Dwyane Wade while standing in front of guests at an exclusive dinner celebrating Black chefs and winemakers inside the historic Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado, last week.

“Coming to this world, we’re no one.”

This world — the winemaking industry — is where Wade, 10-time NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony, New Orleans Pelicans’ guard CJ McCollum and other NBA players have staked their claim, hoping to build a legacy well beyond the basketball court.

‘What is he doing?’

Anthony’s journey as a wine lover started off as a lonely one.

“There was no wine in the NBA,” he explained about his first years in the league. “My journey had been going since [2005], not even knowing that I was on a wine journey. I was drinking wine, going to a restaurant, sitting at the bar, asking for a glass of wine with [teammates] just looking at me like, ‘Man, what is he doing?'”

Anthony recalled how most players would laugh and tell him it was not a healthy habit.

“It wasn’t valued. It was just looked down upon,” he said. “It was, ‘That’s bad for you and you’re not supposed to be drinking that.’ But you could go drink a spirit. I didn’t understand that.”

Anthony began to understand the value and quality of wines during road trips to Sacramento, California, where he’d visit wine clubs serving varieties from nearby Napa Valley and other parts of the world.

In 2011, when Anthony was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks, his appreciation for wine heightened.

“It just exposed me to a whole new world of wine lovers, different wines, different chats, different palates. And from that point on, I knew this was a genre that I wanted to be a part of.”

Slowly, Anthony said, other players around the league came around to appreciating Burgundy, Bordeaux and Beaujolais.

The most exclusive wine club

The eventual explosion of wine appreciation amongst the world’s greatest basketball players was no more evident than at the end of the NBA’s shortened 2019-20 season inside the league’s pandemic isolation bubble in Orlando, Florida.

With no physical connection to the outside world, players from several teams sat together during downtime, drinking and comparing their favorite wines.

McCollum, at the time a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, brought 84 bottles into the bubble, including his recently released McCollum Heritage 91 Pinot noir.

“I’d keep my hotel room at 60 degrees [Fahrenheit] to keep proper temperatures for the wines,” said McCollum to wine enthusiasts at last weekend’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. “I’d go to bed in full pajamas and a stocking hat with the little ball on top,” he joked.

The new winemaker

The Classic was also the event where Anthony decided to introduce the inaugural vintage blend from his wine estate brand, VII(N) — The Seventh Estate. The wine, Oath of Fidelity, is a 2017 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône region in southern France.

“I was going to France every summer. From there, I would go do a vineyard trip to Bordeaux, to Burgundy, I’d go to Champagne,” recalled Anthony.

“A friend of mine told me I needed to go to Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Man, I love CDP.

“Once I got there, I was embraced. They walked me through everything. They walked me through the whole business. They walked me through the industry. They walked me through that region. They walked me through the winemaking, just everything that you could possibly learn about. They taught me.”

Anthony emphasizes that his wine, which becomes available for purchase in the fall, has more than just his name on the bottle.

“I didn’t want to just put my name on the label. My thing is about what goes into the bottle, right? The storytelling behind the grapes and behind the winemakers and what it really took to build this wine, to create this blend. That’s what I’ll care about,” said Anthony.

“This is a new legacy for myself.”

The new legacies

Anthony, Wade and McCollum made it clear to everyone within earshot of the Food & Wine Classic that how they succeed in the wine industry will define their brands and legacies more than anything they did on a basketball court.

“I want the space to be more diverse and I want people to be more comfortable exploring wine, exploring wine regions, but also exploring the process in which a wine business is built out. More representation from top to bottom is my goal at the end of the day,” said McCollum, who this spring planted seven acres of Pommard Pinot noir grape vines on the 318-acre vineyard he purchased last September with Elise McCollum, his wife, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

“I understand the importance of my voice in this industry. All I’m trying to do is continue to use my platform, my voice to make sure this [wine industry] gets bigger and bigger and bigger. We want to start traditions,” said Wade, the co-founder of Wade Cellars in California’s Napa Valley.

“What I was able to establish in the basketball world, in the sports world, I’ve done that,” added Anthony. “I’ve put 30 years into basketball. Now, I have to establish something else in another industry would give me new energy, new light, new opportunity.”

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