In his early 20s, when other NBA players were indulging in traditional libations of young professional athletes, Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum was introduced to wine by the woman who would later become his wife.
Lemonade had been his drink of choice, he said. But a tasty glass of vino piqued his interest. Then, a visit to a winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, known for its pinot noir, turned him into a wine enthusiast.
That simple introduction came full circle when he and his wife, Elise, purchased 318 acres of land last month to construct their own winery in Oregon.
“I’m fortunate that basketball brought me to Oregon, just a short drive from one of the top wine regions in the country, taking my existing passion for, and knowledge of, wine to new heights,” McCollum, 30, said. “Playing in Portland has given me the opportunity to immerse myself in the Willamette Valley, and pinot noir has earned a special place in my heart.”
McCollum is the embodiment of a movement among NBA players who enjoy wine beyond a glass at dinner. All-Stars such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony of the Los Angeles Lakers, Chris Paul and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns, and notable players such as the retired Channing Frye, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Josh Hart, the Sacramento Kings' Moe Harkless and Seth Curry of the Philadelphia 76ers are all immersed in the wine culture. Hall of Fame guard Dwyane Wade has had his own brand, Wade Cellars, since 2014.
Their involvement speaks to another level of socialization in an evolving industry that has long carried a snobby reputation. These Black athletes are studying to be connoisseurs, investors, owners—all with the underlying purposes of enhancing the wine access and opportunities for Black people.
According to a 2019 survey of 3,100 industry professionals by SevenFifty, an online marketing survey company, only 2 percent identify as Black. Less than 1 percent own wineries, according to another study in July.
“This is a different approach by NBA players now,” said Gary Mortensen, president of the Stoller Wine Group in Oregon. He consulted with McCollum and Anthony on wine and McCollum’s vineyard purchase. “It really signifies a leadership role for CJ, by going out and carefully finding that right piece of property. Purchasing it now, he gets to plan exactly what he wants, and that’s really exciting. And so this is going to be his process all the way through. He bought the piece of prime land that is ideal for pinot noir. It was a very shrewd purchase.”
Beyond that, Mortensen said, “What I love about what I’m seeing from people like CJ is they understand their leadership role, and what they can bring to the wine industry in terms of bringing opportunity and visibility for people of color, and the underprivileged in general. They’re making an industry that hasn’t been that accessible in the past, accessible, and that’s really, really important.”
Last year, McCollum launched his own brand, McCollum Heritage 91 — a pinot noir that sold out in 45 minutes — and immediately participated in the One Barrel Challenge, described as “a collective dream of making Oregon’s wine industry more accessible and inclusive, regardless of color, class or creed.”
Seven wineries — including McCollum’s and former NBA player Channing Frye’s Chosen Family label — make up the challenge, in which they use the proceeds from 300 donated bottles per brand toward efforts to break down racial barriers in the wine industry, from consumer and employee standpoints.
“Since announcing my label a year ago, I’ve learned more and more about the lack of representation in the wine industry,” McCollum said. “I want to ensure wine is more approachable for everyone, particularly those who may not see people who look like them leading the profession.”
Frye said the intention of the challenge is “to incite change and increase diversity amongst those seeking careers in our beloved craft, and our commonality in giving back is wine.”
Hart, 25, got into wine when his Lakers teammate James would bring and share vintage bottles on road trips. Hart’s interest grew quickly, and he partnered with Wine Access, an online wine retail shop, to establish the Diversity in Wine Scholarship Program, which sponsors Wine and Spirit Education Trust Level 1 certification for 100 people with the goal of discovering and developing Black, Indigenous and people of color in the wine industry through the Napa Valley Wine Academy.
Angela McCrae, a creative director for an entertainment company in New York, earned a Diversity in Wine Scholarship in 2020. Because of the pandemic, the certification took place online instead of in Napa, but “it deepened my knowledge of wine a great deal.”
She created the Uncorked and Cultured wine group on Facebook as a vehicle to elevate Black people’s education about wine. “And having that certification through Josh Hart and the Napa Valley Wine Academy,” she said. “I was able to take a group of 15 Black wine enthusiasts and professionals to Napa for Juneteenth. It really changed the way the attendees experienced wine as novices and as consumers. That’s all through a Black NBA player making a commitment.”
Travis Stanley, the president and CEO of the Napa Chamber of Commerce, who spent 25 years as an NBA executive, said he is impressed by today’s players who are breaking the barriers around wine consumption in Black communities and creating opportunities. “I don’t recall seeing any players being big — or even social — wine drinkers during my 25 years in the league,” he said.
“And if you look at the ages and maturity of the players that have really committed themselves, it’s not just about consumption. It’s about using their influence to meet the winemakers and industry leaders and getting behind the scenes to learn all there is to know about the industry.”
Stanley, who plans to release a wine project of his own in 2022, said he regularly hosts or encounters NBA players in Napa, which is no longer an anomaly. “I look forward to the day when someone makes the leap and becomes a full-blown owner of a winery here in Napa,” he said. “You hear chatter of current and former African American players having aspirations to own their own sports team. But I guarantee they’d have a much better time owning a magnificent winery in the greatest wine region in the world.”
Harkless embraced the wine world as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers from 2015-2019. He began by attending wine tastings on off days with teammates. Eventually, he hosted “Wine Wednesdays” on James’ Instagram platform, Uninterrupted.
A member of the Sacramento Kings now, Harkless partnered with The Prisoner Wine Company in Napa, whose parent company, Constellation Brands, committed more than $1 million to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group that advocates to fix the criminal justice system. Harkless' platform, Black Lives Now, partnered with The Prisoner to impact systemic change.
“To me, both basketball and wine represent business opportunities, requiring a great deal of study, understanding the complexities, learning the various strategies, dissecting the competition and investing time to learn the ins and outs,” McCollum said. “But the most incredible thing about wine is the way it brings people together.
“Being involved in the NBA, I have a platform to not only create awareness, but also change. I’m proud that my fellow players have made a similar commitment.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 8, 2021, 12:35 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Constellation Brands’ financial commitment to the Equal Justice Initiative. It was $1 million, not $100 million.