China’s Tallest Winemaker

 Here’s a story that many of us (myself included) wish we could ignore:Yao Ming

Yao Ming, a 7’6” basketball player from China, recently retired after nine seasons with the Houston Rockets. During his time in the NBA, he says he developed a fondness for wine when he and his fellow players went out for dinner together. He has launched his own wine label, Yao Family wines, and will release his first effort (a 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet) later this month—in China, of course, where wine is booming and Yao Ming is a huge star. His first wine will retail in his native country for 1,775 yuan, or $289 per bottle.

Yao Ming’s qualifications to be a winemaker can be summed up this way: he is a tall Chinese guy. Even better, he’s a tall Chinese guy with money, since experts estimate it will take between $2 and $5 million to get his venture off the ground. If I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to play in the NBA, it would be more ludicrous than Yao Ming starting a winery, but sadly no amount of money by itself would enable me to fulfill my dream.

Is Yao Ming’s $289 Cabernet sourced from Napa’s most desirable vineyards? Not hardly. His winery owns no vineyard land, and the grapes for this wine were purchased from Sugarloaf Mountain, Tourmaline and Broken Rock—respectable sources, but not raw material that adds up to $289 (even including hefty import duties and sales taxes). One blogger reported that there was a good deal of bulk wine in the blend, although this can’t be substantiated. Of course, $289 seems like a paltry sum in a land where collectors are paying $90,000 for a case of Lafite—but just wait until the Yao Family Reserve comes out.

Predictably, the tall Chinese guy is receiving unqualified support from the Wine Spectator. “For America, the wine’s biggest impact could be as a symbol of Napa Valley in the growing Chinese wine business,” the magazine noted in a recent full-page story. They remarked in passing that they hadn’t tasted Yao Ming’s wine yet, but no matter: it will help sell the products of their advertisers in the burgeoning Chinese market.

A fool and his yuan are soon parted.



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