As tension built before the heated deliberations, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers—known as much for his off-the-court silence as for his on-the-court excellence—approached Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum and pulled him aside. “Hey, that wine you gave me was good,” McCollum recalls Leonard telling him. “A lot of people don’t know I drink wine, and I don’t know a lot about it, but I know that shit was good.” This wasn’t some random bottle they were discussing. Leonard, like other select VIPs inside the bubble, had received the first vintage of McCollum Heritage 91, the Pinot Noir he was about to release in partnership with Oregon’s Adelsheim Vineyard.
“I’m just sitting there, and Kawhi is going into detail about my wine, telling me how he likes that it’s dry and fruit-forward,” McCollum says over Zoom, pausing to apologize to his dog Fiona for the whirring noise made by the electric wine opener uncorking a bottle. “This was happening all the time throughout the bubble. I shared it with people, and our GM shared it with other GMs, and then sometimes someone would randomly stop me and say thanks for the wine.”
Players and coaches arrived in Orlando with prized bottles, and whether they were unwinding after games, having dinner or just relaxing, gatherings revolved around wine. “If it was my off day, I’d get the ice bucket and the bubbly by the pool, and I’d send some to other players and they’d send something back,” McCollum says. “We had some elite grapes there. One night, Dame [Damian Lillard], Melo [Carmelo Anthony], Terry [Stotts, the Blazers’ head coach] and our trainer Geoff Clark had some heavy hitters over dinner, including a 2014 Screaming Eagle.”
“This is a safe wine space,” said Master of Wine Vanessa Conlin as she introduced the day’s coursework. Conlin, the Head of Wine at the wine curation site Wine Access, was speaking to the recipients of NBA player Josh Hart’s Diversity In Wine Scholarship Program. They had all gathered over Zoom for a class to prepare for the Level 1 exam of the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust).
Hart, a shooting guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, formed this scholarship with Wine Access in an effort to make the wine industry more welcoming and inclusive—particularly for members of the BIPOC community who have historically been left out. Hart is a wine lover himself (he even has an Instagram dedicated to sharing his favorite bottles), and he’s one of the more recent players to become an outspoken member of the NBA’s unofficial wine club—a club that’s still going strong, as demonstrated by the hundreds of bottles that were shipped to the league’s “bubble,” the sports complex in Orlando that safely housed teams for the 2020 season.
Other players, like Dwyane Wade, share this goal. “One of the reasons I got into the wine industry was to change the common misconception of wine as pretentious,” Wade said. “I didn’t grow up knowing what wine is. Wine was perceived in this really uppity kind of way and I wanted to be a part of showing that it’s not that—of respecting what goes into making one simple bottle of wine.” In 2014, Wade created his own wine brand, Wade Cellars, in partnership with Napa’s Pahlmeyer winery.
The parent company behind snacks like Oreo, Ritz, Sour Patch Kids and more, Mondelēz International, announced a new mulityear partnership with the National Basketball Association and USA Basketball to be the official partner of the NBA, the Women’s National Basketball Association, the NBA G League, the NBA 2K League and USA Basketball.