Editor’s Note: Don’t miss “Nomad with Carlton McCoy” on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
It’s not often an NBA star can quietly make his way through a crowd unnoticed. But with celebrities like William H. Macy, Martha Stewart, and Guy Fieri roaming the grounds of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado last month, Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum figured he had a decent chance to quietly taste wines, meet vineyard owners and avoid attention.
“It was a combination of business and pleasure,” McCollum says. “I’m only 6’3”, not that tall or muscular, so I could blend in. But when you’ve played a certain team from Colorado a few times in the playoffs, some people will notice you.”
Wine in the NBA
Most in the wine industry shouldn’t be surprised to run into an elite NBA player at a wine tasting in a tiny mountain town. McCollum is one of many players in the league who are well-documented enthusiasts of Pinots, chardonnay and cabernets.
“There’s a huge emphasis on chemistry building in the NBA,” the nine-year veteran explains to CNN Sport. “And there’s a lot of dinners and situations where you’re breaking bread with teammates, family and staff – and wine is associated with that.
“I go out to dinner with certain teammates, Dame [Lillard] and Melo [Carmelo Anthony] for example, and I know Melo is going to bring a white burgundy. I’m going to bring a super Tuscan or something from Oregon. JJ Reddick may give me a chardonnay I’ve never tasted. Josh Hart, Seth Curry, KD [Kevin Durant], you have all these friends in the wine space.”
Some former players like Channing Frye and Dwyane Wade, who attended the Classic in 2019, now have their own wine labels. But McCollum, who debuted his own McCollum 91 Pinot Noir label last year, has taken it one step further.
A wine Trailblazer
The day the Wine & Food Classic opened for tasting, CJ and his wife Elise McCollum closed on the purchase of a 318-acre vineyard-to-be in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The couple’s new property – which includes a reservoir, multiple micro-climates and a nursery operation – borders the vineyard where McCollum’s Pinot noir is currently produced.
“As far as players, I think I’m the only one,” McCollum says when asked if any others in the league own their own vineyard. “My love for wine has continued to grow, to being interested in all phases of wine – from the process of making it to the business side. And we now have a blank canvas. We can build it out the way we want.”
The McCollums’ plan is to start prepping the land on their vineyard in late December 2021, before planting roughly 8,800 Pinot grape vines in spring 2022.
According to the 2020 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Census report, 70% of the Willamette Valley’s vineyard acreage is dedicated to growing Pinot noir grapes.
“It takes about three years to turn grapes around from vine to bottle … especially when it’s from unplanted soil,” explains McCollum. “I would say sometime between 2025 and 2027, we’ll be able to say that we grew our own wines from our own land. And that’s really cool to say out loud.”
‘We’re building a dream team’
Regardless of when the first bottles from the yet-to-be-named vineyard land in consumers’ wine vaults, McCollum believes the barometer for his and his wife’s winemaking success will come years earlier.
“I’m in a position now as a Black male who has influence. My role is to continue to figure out ways to make this approachable, to make it diverse and create equity and inclusion. We need to figure out ways to expand and bring in new backgrounds from new places.”
The McCollums’ initial goal is to hire a diverse and talented staff to help them get the operation growing while Elise focuses on her dentistry practice, CJ on his NBA career, and both on their first child due in a couple of months.
“In basketball, you need coaches, you need staff, you need players. And the same goes for the vineyard,” says McCollum. “You need a farm manager, you need operations, you need all these people who specialize and can be stars in their roles. And that’s what we’re doing, we’re building a dream team.
“But we also have talked about ways to provide opportunities and channels from a mentorship and internship standpoint to learn about all aspects of the wine business, not just physically making the grapes, but learning all the behind the scenes of the business.
“There’s a lot of people out here in the Willamette Valley aligned with trying to make this space more diverse. They understand the bottom line is that, not only will you bring more people into the wine space, but you’ll get a better product from it.”
Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, agrees. “I can only imagine there’s going to be a lot of people who want to be part of that team,” she tells CNN Sport.
She says the McCollums’ investment into the valley, along with CJ’s work with former teammate Channing Frye on the One Barrel Challenge, a fundraising effort to promote accessibility and inclusivity in the Oregon wine industry, will have an overwhelmingly positive effect.
“Black people having ownership roles is really important. As a White person, it’s hard for me to say we’re trying to diversify the wine industry and get more people drinking wine. But it’s much different when it’s coming from someone of that caliber and that visibility.”
Through it all, McCollum hopes his legacy will be more than just as a great basketball player that learned how to make a great Pinot noir.
“It’s more about how we treat people, empower people, put people in a position to succeed. I think all those things are more important than me just shooting a basketball.”