Tucked in between centuries-old Napa Valley legends like Beringer Vineyards and Grgich Hills Estates, there’s a new kid on the block: Yao Family Wines. Unlike its cousins dating back to the 18th century, NBA All-Star Yao Ming’s first wine was released in 2009.
What could a basketball legend possibly have to do with age-worthy wine? After string of 90+ rated vintages, Yao Ming has proved that Yao Family Winery is not your average celebrity wine. We decided to pay a visit to his new tasting room, opened just last year in summer 2016, to share a closer look at Yao Ming’s namesake wine.
Three things to know about Yao Family Winery:
1. Yao Ming is an extremely humble man. His goal is not to have “Yao Ming” on store shelves across the US (or China, for that matter). It’s simply to create extremely high-quality wine that all can enjoy drinking. Under the guidance of president and wine director Tom Hinde, Yao Family Wines has quietly built up a portfolio that speaks for itself.
Hinde was the former winemaker for Flowers Vineyard and Winery, whose Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay received critical acclaim. Prior to that, he built two highly successful programs for Kendall Jackson winery, Lokoya and Cardinale, as well as the now ubiquitous La Crema. Today, Hinde is creating extremely small-production, artisan wines for Yao Family Wines. He sources from select low-yield blocks across the Napa Valley AVA, all of which are harvested by hand.
The end product: a highly handcrafted, boutique wine. It’s clear that with Hinde and Yao Ming, the goal is to achieve quality, not simply sell cases. For example, the 2015 Yao Ming Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon had only three barrels produced.
2. Yao Ming likes Bordeaux-style wines. Yao Family Winery’s signature style is a Bordeaux blend, with an elegant balance between integrated tannins, acidity, and red fruit. Although the Rutherford and Napa terroir is unmistakeable, the flavor profile is decidedly softer and more delicate. So if you’re looking for a big, bold, powerful Napa Cab that packs a punch of tannin and dark fruit, you may find that in the ’15 Howell Mountain release, but don’t expect it elsewhere.
3. Expect more hits (or should we say slam dunks?) to come. The team behind Yao Family Wines is on top of their wine game, and they’re not stopping at Cabernet. Yao Family Wines has already rolled out a new Brut Sparkling Wine and a rosé, and plans are in the works for a Port-style wine and a dessert wine in 2018.
Now, on to the tasting room. Similar to its wines, Yao Family Winery offers a highly intimate experience that will have you leaving feeling much more familiar with both Yao Ming’s wines and the thought that went into them.
We started with the entry-level Access Tasting experience, going through the Napa Crest and Napa Valley tier of wines. However, as we tasted, we were so pleased that we upgraded to the Reserve Tasting. This gives you access to highly allocated releases such as the 2013 and 2014 Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. All are incredibly nuanced, complex, and beautifully built wines that we would highly recommend for any Cabernet aficionado.
2013 Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: Our favorite from the lineup. Earthy dried cherry, red plum, and cranberry aromas on the nose turn into lush blackberry and plum compote on the palate, framed by supple, integrated tannins. It’s no wonder this one nabbed 92 points on Wine Enthusiast.
2014 Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: The Rutherford terroir truly sings out of this one. Dusty cherry and red plum aromas signature to the region leap from the glass, balanced by nice acidity and medium tannins. The 2014 fits a slightly more elegant profile than the 2013, with hints of floral and violet.
2014 Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the flagship for the portfolio. Unlike its Reserve tier cousins, the Napa Valley tier consists of pure Cabernet Sauvignon. It is also slightly less acidic and not as dry on the palate, making it more approachable now and reducing the need for extended aging. Supple blackberry, black cherry, and plum mingle with vanilla and cassis.
2016 Napa Crest Napa Valley Red Wine: For those looking for a big, bold California red brimming with dark fruit, the Napa Valley Red Wine is your go-to. Aromas of dark chocolate, blackberry, black cherry, and vanilla along with hints of mint immediately strike the nose. While it’s all too easy to drink now, it could also benefit from a few more years of aging to soften the bell pepper/pyrazine notes.
2011 Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: This beauty is all sold out. Hinde managed to make the most of a challenging year, coaxing dried blossom, dusty red plum, and rich earthy aromas out of the wine. This would make a lovely companion to a rich chicken marsala with sautéed mushrooms.
New Additions to the Portfolio
2016 Yao Ming Napa Valley Brut Sparkling Wine: A bright, crisp, fruit-forward blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was sourced from the Napa Valley floor. It manages to strike a nice balance between toasty, creamy brioche and more fresh green apple and citrus notes. A perfect crowd pleaser and a smart addition to the Yao Family portfolio.
2015 Yao Ming Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: This is Yao Ming’s first Cabernet Sauvignon made in the California style, rather than the Bordeaux style. The high altitude of Howell Mountain allows the fruit to attain a concentration and intensity not seen on from fruit the valley floor. The 2015 Cabernet has a firm core of wild blackberry, boysenberry, and black cherry, with nice minerality and tannins on the long finish.
Since Yao Ming’s wife doesn’t drink red wines… the team decided to create two more wines this year that have been rapid sellers.
2016 Napa Crest Rosé: This Merlot- and Cabernet-based rosé is fuller and creamier than your typical grenache-based rosé. Fresh notes of strawberry, watermelon, and cranberry make this an easy-drinking choice for summer lunches and picnics.
2016 Napa Crest Sauvignon Blanc: This is your classic California Sauvignon Blanch. Fresh, crisp tropical and pear notes make this a wonderful aperitif to stand on its own, or or companion to a fig and arugula salad.
Don’t let the celebrity status deter you. We left convinced that Yao Family Wines’ presence will continue to grow and gain respect as an icon of handcrafted Napa Valley wines. To learn more about Yao Family Wines or book a tasting, visit YaoFamilyWines.com.