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The NBA’s Secret Wine Society


“I’m playing the best ball of my life and drinking wine pretty much every day.” – LeBron James DWIGHT ESCHLIMAN FOR ESPN

AT THE CAVS’ morning shootaround before their loss in Sacramento, Wade, sitting along the sideline, about six weeks before being traded back to Miami, is asked who on the Cavs knows the most about wine. Without hesitation, he points at James, who stands across the court. “He knows a lot. It’s just something he don’t want to share,” Wade says. “But when we go out, it’s, Bron, what wine we getting? You ask most of the guys on the team who orders the wine, we leave it to him to order.”

Indeed, among the Cavs, the legend of LeBron’s oenophilia is large.

As Love says, when it comes to wine, “Bron has a supercomputer in his brain.”

“LeBron,” Griffin says, “has instant recall. If he’s driving on vacation and he passes a field that has lavender and seven other scents in it, LeBron can literally put his nose in a glass of wine three years later and say, ‘I smell lavender.'”

And now, as James begins shooting around the 3-point arc, drawing conspicuously within earshot, he halts his routine to look toward Wade. “See,” Wade says, “he heard ‘wine,’ so that’s why he stopped.”

James laughs. Wade is right. LeBron was creeping on us. He’s also right that when it comes to wine, the world’s greatest player is as tightly corked as a bottle of Château Latour. One need only peruse James’ Instagram account to see how deep his passion for wine runs. But ask LeBron today about his favorite wine? Not going there. A specific region? Producer? Not going there either. Who knows the most on his team? No comment. Around the league? He’d rather not say. Was there a specific wine he was looking forward to trying on his pre-birthday Napa trip? “Yeah,” James says, finally. “Every last one of them.”

He’ll admit he believes in wine’s purported physical benefits: “I’ve heard it’s good for the heart. Listen, I’m playing the best basketball of my life, and I’m drinking some wine pretty much every day. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.” Still, James knows he’s a Worldwide Brand. And surrendering certain details will affect The Brand. (“I know how genuine I am about it,” James says, “I just don’t talk about it.”) But he is willing to spill a few drops of his origin story.

As recently as a few years ago, James, by his own admission, “was not a wine guy. I didn’t drink wine at all.” But as he neared 30, his curiosity piqued — and it helped that business partner Maverick Carter was a wine aficionado.

So he began sampling wines, learning more about vines, regions, reds, whites, blends. During a visit to a Napa winery with Chris Paul last August, James squeezed his frame into the back of a 1980s Toyota Land Cruiser, retrofitted to look like a safari buggy, and they explored the property, asking about what makes Napa unique, about the soil, sunlight, how to know which grapes to plant and where. James was especially interested in the business elements. How much does it all cost? How much time does it all take?

At one point, he let his now-3-year-old daughter, Zhuri, sip a high-end label. “Ooh, it tastes like rocks!” she told him. “It’s nasty.” (Although rocks, let it be known, are a tasting note, so perhaps Zhuri James was actually right on the nose.)

On another recent visit to a Napa winery, James wandered the vines, tasting grapes, asking about the business side. He tried two cabernet sauvignons, grown in different areas but made by the same producer. “I really want to know why they’re different,” he said. He was shown the dirt each was grown in — one featured more gravel, the other more iron. Smell that, he was told, then go smell the wine. He did, and understood.

That, at least, is part of his origin story. But there exists another chapter — and one that involves a famously fruity inflatable form of flotation.

Now on Dwyane Wade’s table: his own wine, with notes of cured tobacco, dark chocolate and blueberry pie. BOB METELUS

HERE IS THE dilemma: They have rented a yacht, and they have ordered food for said yacht, but they do not yet have wine to pair with said food on said yacht. It is the very definition of a First World quandary, and it is taking place in the Bahamas during a July 2015 vacation. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade must decide on a wine.

In the weeks, months and years to follow, this afternoon will be remembered for an altogether different thing: A photo of James, Wade and Paul perched atop a banana boat, along with Union, will go viral, and nothing thereafter will ever be the same. Never mind that the idea was Union’s. And never mind that Anthony himself wasn’t there. Wade, James, Anthony and Paul will become known as Team Banana Boat, a foursome as iconic as history will ever know.

But in the backdrop of this now-hallowed gathering, another photo will emerge, a photo that shows all four players on a yacht toasting with glasses of red wine. This photo was snapped on the yacht’s top level, just hours after the banana boat excursion, as sunshine fell into night. It remains unclear what wine they imbibed; all Anthony remembers is telling his friends that he’d bring his own; he didn’t trust, at this point, their palates. Wade remembers ordering Pahlmeyer as he broke the news to his friends that he’d agreed to partner with the winery. But attendees agree that this marked the moment when their personal wine journeys truly intertwined.

“That was, like, the beginning for them,” Anthony recalls of that day’s bottles. “They would [dabble], have a glass here, have a glass there. But that was the beginning of really starting to open up.”

“It started there and went from there,” Wade says.

The Banana Boat Tasting Group had set sail.

IT’S NEARLY MIDNIGHT on Oct. 25 when James, Wade and Isaiah Thomas enter a cozy restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village after a five-point loss to the Nets. Brick walls constitute one side of the eatery, along with midcentury decor and turquoise tile — a subtle tropical vibe with vintage glassware lining the bar’s back wall. Though this restaurant comfortably seats only about 14, close to 25 will fill it tonight, thanks to friends and associates.

James, Wade and Thomas are sitting together, and soon heavy portions of red-sauced Italian dishes — spicy rigatoni, chicken Parmesan — sit before them. And to drink? Well, the establishment is known for its craft cocktails, so one staffer expects that they’ll bring out Don Julio 1942 and that will be that. But no. Oregon pinot noir is ordered off the menu, and one member of their party unveils bottles of old Barolo from his private cellar. Over the next three hours, perhaps half a dozen bottles are opened, and each time, the mood turns serious: Players swirl the glasses, taking in whiffs, sipping the wine, discussing. Out come the phones, as they snap away at the labels — and log on to something called Vivino.

Launched in 2011, the Danish application was created to help non-wine experts navigate the intimidating universe, largely by allowing users to snap a picture of a label and be fed instant insight: tasting notes, food pairings, average retail price. Billing itself as the world’s largest wine community, Vivino allows users to buy wine — and if you enjoy a bottle, offers recommendations for others you might also like.

“Shoutout to my Vivino app,” Curry says. As Love says, “It’s like Netflix for wine.” For Blazers guard CJ McCollum? “It’s life-changing.”

One need only hold a phone 6 inches from a bottle and snap away, then Vivino shoots back a rating based on thousands of user opinions. It organizes scanned wines, creating pie charts that show users’ taste profile. Users can follow their friends and study their wine selections — friends like, say, the Banana Boat Tasting Group. But if those users happen to play in the NBA, they can find so many more.

Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore credits his wife first for introducing him to reds, namely pinot noir, but also praises veterans he has teamed with: Korver, Paul Millsap, Richard Jefferson. “It’s smooth, hangovers aren’t there,” he says. “It helps you settle down before bed.”

Rockets forward Ryan Anderson and his wife honeymooned in New Zealand last August just because he enjoys the local sauvignon blanc so much.

For Lakers forward Luol Deng, it started in 2013 when the Bulls were playing a preseason game in Brazil. He went out with Butler, Nazr Mohammed and Joakim Noah, and they enjoyed Argentine malbec.

Shaun Livingston wasn’t into wine before he joined the NBA but spent his early years with the Clippers, around veteran forward Elton Brand and guard Cuttino Mobley — “big wine connoisseurs,” Livingston says — and today professes a love for cabernet. “More fruity, more bold, a little aged,” he says. He’s hardly alone on the NBA team that resides less than an hour from one of the great winemaking regions of the world; Livingston, Curry, Durant, Nick Young and Draymond Green also indulge.

Philadelphia 76ers guard J.J. Redick started drinking wine early in his NBA career, dabbling with cabernet and chardonnay. Now he prefers Barolos and burgundies, and for his birthdays, Redick’s wife procures him a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, “DRC” as the sky-high-priced wine is known. On a recent 76ers road trip, Redick looked around the team plane. Back when Redick was drafted in 2006, he often saw, say, a bottle of vodka, Hennessey, or a 12-pack of Coors Light on team flights — and that was basically it. Now? Says Redick: “It’s pretty much exclusively wine.”

Then there’s McCollum, who today likes pinot noir (“We’re going to have a lot of pinot tonight!” he declared after a 50-point performance in January) and has a cellar that holds 500 bottles. His backcourt mate Damian Lillard enjoys a good riesling. Forward Evan Turner is such a fan that, McCollum says, Turner spends his off-days going to local wineries. “I didn’t even know,” McCollum says. “He told me, and I was like, ‘You’ve been doing this all year and you didn’t tell me?’ I was a little upset.”

Gregg Popovich, it must be said, is revered in the world of wine, with a reported 3,000-bottle cellar highlighted in Wine Spectator. But Pop has a head start on many players who are new to the gilded grape; so who among them now knows the most? Answers vary, unless you ask Anthony. “I’d probably be that guy,” he says, proudly and without hesitation.

But what of Kobe “Vino” Bryant? The Lakers icon doesn’t live up to the sobriquet he embraced in 2013 after hearing that his game aged as such. “I’ve heard that red is better with steak,” Bryant says with a laugh. “That’s about as far as I know.”

So when Bryant and Anthony go out to dinner, Bryant slides the wine list across the table: “Melo,” he says. “Do your thing.”


Jimmy Butler brought bottles of pinot noir to the 2016 Olympics in his wine case. DWIGHT ESCHLIMAN FOR ESPN

IT’S JULY 2015, and Chris Miller is at his day job, working at a tech firm inside a downtown Los Angeles warehouse where it so happens that a charity commercial starring Chris Paul is being shot.

Someone mentions to Paul’s wife that Miller is also a master sommelier — a remarkably exclusive title. (Consider that 279 coaches and players have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame; 236 human beings are master sommeliers.) “Oh my god, Chris loves wine,” she tells Miller, explaining that they had a very good bottle just the night before. She turns to her husband. “Show him your app.” Paul opens Vivino and shows Miller a photo of wine.

Miller says this sort of thing happens to him from time to time, typically to poor effect. Imagine you were a chess grandmaster and the passenger next to you in coach wanted to talk chess strategy. It’s like that. But then CP3’s photo loads — and it’s a Domaine Marquis d’Angerville Volnay Taillepieds.

Miller pauses. The premier cru red Burgundy is smooth and graceful but hard to find, made by a small producer that isn’t exactly a household name, a wine some sommeliers Miller knows don’t even know. But it’s excellent, a wine you’d be drinking only if you really knew what you were doing.

“Nobody talks about cars or jewelry. It’s who can bring the best bottle of wine.”

– ACTRESS GABRIELLE UNION ON HUSBAND DWYANE WADE’S NEW OBSESSION

There exists in the oenophile world a class of wealthy drinkers who can best be classified as “trophy hunters” — those who pursue only break-the-bank bottles such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or Screaming Eagle but aren’t really interested, otherwise, in understanding wine. But as Miller says of Paul’s bottle: “It’s not a trophy. It’s something a knowledgeable wine lover drinks because it’s delicious, not because they’re showing off.”

If Miller is impressed by Paul, Paul is all the more impressed by Miller. (“You ever seen Somm?” Paul at one point asks of a documentary on four sommeliers’ near-crippling effort to pass the notoriously brutal master sommelier exam, with a pass rate of lower than 10 percent. “That was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.”) So Paul scrolls through the app, allowing Miller to see the Banana Boat Tasting Group’s selections, each one delicious and well-thought-out.

Over the next year, Paul and Miller stay in touch. Miller helps arrange an anniversary wine-tasting trip to Santa Barbara for Paul and his wife. Then Paul calls Miller in the fall of 2016. “Hey, are you in Napa this weekend?” he asks.

“Oh, I’m supposed to go up tonight,” lies Miller, who is in the midst of waxing bottle tops at a winery where he works in Marina.

“Why don’t you come have dinner with us?” Paul asks. Miller, naturally, drops everything and makes the three-hour drive from Marina to meet Paul at the Press Restaurant in St. Helena, where the general manager greets him at the door.

“What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you in a year.”

“Oh, just meeting some friends for dinner.”

The general manager searches Miller’s face, trying to read whether he’s part of a private party or not, but not wanting to give away who is attending that party. Soon in walks Paul … and LeBron James. They head to the restaurant’s private back room, about eight people, including James and Paul and their wives.

Over the next few hours of a lavish dinner, they open about six bottles, ranging from $50 to $1,000, each one discussed and savored. “I was kind of blown away,” Miller says. “I mean, their breadth of knowledge and comfort with the wines was greater than I’ve seen from some major wine collectors.”

Because you are, after all, the company you keep …

“I KNOW YOU don’t know me,” the phone call begins, “but I’ve got a group of guys that I’m taking around the country, and your name has come up, and we’d like to have a dinner in your wine cellar.”

Devinder Bhatia, a Houston-based heart surgeon, isn’t surprised. He has received calls like this one before. His cellar — featured in Wine Spectator — boasts 7,500 high-end bottles, worth well into seven figures, with wines dating to 1898. Such is the cellar’s notoriety that he has hosted two Texas governors, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, NFL legends Jim Brown and Ronnie Lott, acclaimed chef Wolfgang Puck and rapper Ludacris. On the other end of this July 2016 phone call is Kamal Hotchandani, CEO of Haute Living, a luxury media platform and the point of contact for several NBA stars for luxury goods, including wines, watches, exotic cars and more.

And so a month later, on Aug. 1, at 9:30 p.m., Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Carmelo Anthony arrive at Bhatia’s Victorian redbrick home in Houston’s Museum District.

All three are with Team USA, which on this night trounced Nigeria to complete a 5-0 exhibition record. In a few days, the team will head to the Rio Olympics, but first Anthony wants to visit Bhatia’s cellar.

Wine became Bhatia’s passion in 1990, when a 1989 Châteauneuf-du-Pape paired perfectly with his steak. It started a fixation that would help serve as a respite, a way to decompress after work, where, he says, “if you miss by a millimeter, someone dies.”

No one will die tonight. In fact, not long into the night, Durant, Jordan and Anthony enter a pool house, descend a wooden staircase, duck through a curved stone entryway and feel the chill of 55-degree air — the temperature and humidity controlled by an app on Bhatia’s phone. Inside the 30-by-35-foot space are wall-to-wall, two-bottle-deep, handmade stained mahogany racks that can hold up to 14,000 bottles. Through another stone entryway, Anthony admires the 200-plus bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — considered among the world’s most sought-after wines — in various vintages, a collection worth more than half a million on its own.

Over the next several hours, during a five-course meal with two wines per course for a party of about 20, the players discuss characteristics of each wine. Durant and Jordan, relatively new to wine, favor California wines, but Anthony professes his love for old-world bottles, Burgundies and Bordeaux, among other more esoteric wines. “He gets it,” Bhatia says. “He really gets it.”

The players stay until well into the early morning, shooting hoops on Bhatia’s driveway goal with his 14-year-old son, Drake, around 3 a.m. And the next time the Knicks are in Houston, for a New Year’s Eve matchup against the Rockets, Bhatia is in his usual spot — center court, behind the Rockets’ owner, a few rows from the floor, where he has four season tickets. As Anthony runs out for warm-ups, he stops and heads over to Bhatia.

“Hey! I’m coming over after the game,” Anthony tells him. “We’re gonna drink some wine.”

After the game, Anthony leaves not with the Knicks but with one of Texas’ most acclaimed wine collectors.

THE MORNING AFTER the Cavs’ wine-filled tour through Napa Valley, they gather for practice at nearby St. Helena High School before heading to Salt Lake City. Sitting to the side of the gym court, James is jovial. “We had one heck of a time,” he tells a small group of reporters. He thanks local wineries for their hospitality — for “literally opening their bottles for this organization, for myself.” In mid-October, when the fires had burned, James had posted a video with his condolences and prayers to those affected in the area. Mention the NBA to Napa winemakers these days and that video will come up. “That meant a lot,” Paul Roberts says, “to all of us.”

Roberts, a master sommelier, is the COO of Colgin Cellars in St. Helena, and though the winery isn’t open for public tours, James visited with friends last summer. When he arrived, James was studying clips of Michael Jordan on his phone. Roberts tucked the image away: the greatest basketball player on earth, not satisfied, still focused on becoming greater by watching the player who held that title before him.

Throughout a two-hour visit, James sought to understand every element of what was before him, how it all translated into the bottle. And Roberts reached an epiphany of sorts. James reminded him of others at the top of their fields — all fascinated, if not obsessed, with high performance. “When you look at LeBron and Chris Paul and a lot of these other guys,” Roberts says, “they’ve spent thousands of hours not only honing their body but also their mind. And this is why the wine world to them, I think, is fascinating.”

And so, at Colgin, they can look out from the hillside property at 20 acres of cabernet sauvignon vineyards, so meticulously farmed they look like a bonsai garden. They can gaze from the patio where tastings occur at the sweeping views across Lake Hennessey. They can savor Napa’s picturesque blue sky. They can admire its saturated light, all the better to grow some of the world’s premier grapes. They can pace through the vines, picking the grapes, asking about the sunlight and soil, probing ever deeper, perhaps understanding better than most the quest to grow and create something beautiful.

Prop styling by Arianne Gelardin

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The inside-the-bottle story of the intense love affair between NBA stars and the gilded grape. by Baxter Holmes 2/13/2018 A versio