Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at [email protected].
In this “Next Round,” VinePair CEO and co-founder Adam Teeter talks to NBA champion Channing Frye about the launch of Frye’s new wine label Chosen Family Wines, how his love of wine formed, and the up-and-coming wine regions that he is excited about.
In 2007, while he was still playing in the NBA, Frye was traded from the Knicks to the Trail Blazers, bringing him to Portland, Ore. It was in Portland that Frye was introduced to the world of wine (mainly by his mother-in-law), inspiring him to explore the expansive wine industry throughout the state of Oregon and sparking his interest in wine. Frye began bringing bottles on flights with him while traveling with the various NBA teams he played with throughout his career, and soon, he began talking wine with his teammates. While playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Frye and teammates such as LeBron James would even bring wines from different regions to taste and share with one another on plane rides.
After retiring from the league in 2019, Frye founded Chosen Family Wines in hopes of connecting people in different areas with the wines produced in Oregon and Washington. Chosen Family has partnered with local Oregon-based wineries L’Angolo and Hazelfern to make a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, which is not yet available.
Or check out the conversation here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a VinePair Podcast “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between the regularly scheduled podcast episodes in order to talk to movers and shakers in the industry, and give everyone a clear picture of what’s been happening ever since the Covid-19 crisis began today. I’m really lucky to be talking with Channing Frye, NBA champion and owner and operator of Chosen Family Wines, which just launched Monday. Channing, thank you so much for joining me.
Channing: Thank you so much for having me. This is a great opportunity to just talk some wine early in the morning.
A: Oh yeah. Where are you right now?
C: I’m in Portland, Ore. right now. I’ve been here 14 years. So when I got traded here from the Knicks. Shout-out to all the Knicks fans, there’s probably two or three left.
A: We’re embattled.
C: Yes. It’s hard at this point. You’re in the trenches now.
A: I think I’m going to become a Nets fan.
C: No, don’t do that. Stay a Knicks fan. You’ve got another 10 years till you’re good. I’m in Portland. I’ve stayed here. I met my wife here. I have four kids. And so we are entrenched in this community and this state and everything Oregon right now.
A: Amazing. I want to get into Chosen Family Wines. I think there’s so many people that are doing interesting stuff in wine right now. I’d love to hear about your journey to wine. We all get into this business in very different ways, and usually it’s not a traditional way. Was it moving to Portland in the beginning? I mean, that’s such a wine city. Or was it prior to that?
C: Before this, I grew up in Arizona, so I’m a big Corona beer and tequila guy — I still love me some good tequila. But my mother-in-law, she’s really into wine. She loves Nebbiolo. She likes Barolos. Big, big, big wines. Napa Cabs. We would go over to dinner, and we would be eating with her, and she’d bust out a bottle of wine. So I started becoming a little more curious and then when the weather’s nice in Oregon, everyone’s like, “Well, let’s go wine tasting.” So we go wine tasting and I’m like, “Holy crap, this is amazing. This is beautiful.” I’m a sucker for a great story. And most of these people who do stuff out here have amazing stories of how they got into the business, how they’ve been successful, how they make their wine, their process, how they’re different. Wine from one plot of land to another can be completely different. But when you start adding the human aspect of that, that’s really where it started getting me. Ever since then, I’ve been drinking wine, learning a little bit, drinking more wine, learning a little more. And then when I ended up playing for the Orlando Magic — that was in 2015 — my buddy, who’s my business partner now, started working at a place called L’Angolo Estate. It’s 20 acres out in the Dundee Hills of Oregon. He was like, “Channing, I know you’re not really into Pinot right now, but let me tell you, this is amazing.” And I’m like, “Send me a bottle. I trust you.” So he sent me four, and I opened it up, and I called him immediately. I didn’t know Pinot Noir could taste like this. And he goes, “Listen, dude, you caught the bug. Here’s what I want you to do.” So we started going back and forth. Wine started being my thing. Even when I went on a plane, on my NBA team, I’d bring two bottles of wine in my backpack and drink them on the plane and have conversations with the people next to me. And everyone was like, “Oh, you’re drinking? It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.” I go “Yeah, but we’re done with practice. I’m getting ready to go to dinner where I’m going to drink wine anyways. I have nothing else to do.” I’m bringing on different rosés from different areas, trying to discover what my palate was. And then I started reading magazines and just really caught the bug. Speed that up to when I got traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers with Kevin and LeBron and Tristan and JR, and all these other amazing players. I was bringing wine on the plane. I’m bringing my two little dinky bottles, and all of a sudden these guys are like, “Hey, you’re not going to bring more in for the rest of us?” And I said, “Look, there’s 14 of you. The way my budget is set up, I can’t do that.” And LeBron drinks ‘93 Sassicaia.
A: I know. I follow him on Instagram.
C: What we agreed, without saying it, is each person would bring wine from a region that they liked. So me being from Oregon and that’s what I knew, I was bringing rosés. I was bringing bubbles on a plane. I was bringing whites, different Chardonnays. And guys would be like, “I don’t like white wine.” I’d be like, “Dude, listen, you don’t know what you like, let me tell you what you like.” Now this was 2016, I was like, “Oregon Chardonnay is going to blow up. They’re making amazing, amazing wine.” And then I was giving guys Pinot and they were like, “What kind of wine is this?” I was like, “This is Pinot Noir from Oregon.” And so we’re just going back and forth. So we have Napa Cabs, and we had guys from Washington bringing in Syrahs, we have guys bringing in Italians, Burgundies, Bordeaux. It became a real camaraderie thing. And that is when the fire turned into a volcano of wine. So then when I retired, my best friend Jake came up to me and actually asked my wife first, “Hey, would Channing be interested in maybe doing wine a different way?” And she was like, “Yes, absolutely.” Well, he actually asked, “Would you mind if I borrowed him?” Because once I get something I’m like a torpedo. It just motivates me. I’m seeing something that I’m passionate about being successful. It’s the greatest feeling of all time. Then, it became what we want this one rant to be about: Who we want to work with; what do we want it to taste like; and who do we want to get into the wine gang? Not only do we want to impress people and have people say this is a good wine, but we also want to get a new demographic into the wine game. We feel like there are so many people that have been told what they like instead of just getting options from somebody that they trust. That’s where Chosen Family’s business model came after. It just comes from trust and understanding that a wine bottle is like a connector throughout my career. I’ve had so many ups and downs in basketball, and then in life everyone has ups and downs, and so what I’ve learned and what we all agree on is when I sit down with my family and friends that wine bottle, with all of us, with all my family — people bring wine bottles, whether they’re $20 or $2,000 — they just don’t bring it to impress, they bring it as a sign of gratitude. I want to share this with you. I want to share memories with you about something that is important to me or that excites me. How often do we give something to somebody to say, “I appreciate you. I appreciate this time.”? That’s what we want our wine to be about. You have this Chosen bottle, here’s the story of Channing and Jake and Chase, and they’re not saying that they’re better than anybody else, but they’re saying that these people who we work with and who make our wine inspired us to put good juice in that bottle for you.
A: That’s an awesome story. I have some questions for you based on what you’re saying. One of the ways that wine gets a bad rap is that it can be extremely elitist, that it can be a very hard thing to get into. When we were thinking about starting VinePair seven years ago that was one of the biggest reasons. It was to try to break down those barriers and create something that everyone could find interesting and find access points to. How do you do that as a wine brand? What are you trying to do? Are there things you think you’re doing differently that more traditional wine companies haven’t done and what could they learn from what you’re doing?
C: We are learning from nobody. We decided to start a wine brand — 18 months in the making — but we are a mobile-first company. We are social media-driven, e-commerce. We don’t have a tasting room. We also don’t have a single vineyard that we work with. I hate using this word, but we’re not confined to just one vineyard. The way we’re set up is we find vineyards and winemakers in places that make good wine and we say, “Hey, we’ll give you a clean slate. We already love your wine and what you do. Let’s see where we could take it. We want a cousin of this, we want you to express your creativity, your imagination.” Right now, our winemaker for Pinot and Chardonnay is Chase from L’Angolo, because we love him. We love what he does. And then we have Syrah coming from Hazelfern, which is down the road, and he makes amazing Pinot and Chard, but we really felt like we wanted to see where he could take Syrah. So we got a great one from Walla Walla, and he’s in the process of making them now. And I went over there, it is such an amazing thing to be able to dive into like different varietals with a guy that you think is an expert on it but that also has a great story and is a great dude. And then, right before the fires out here, we picked our blanc de blancs grapes for bubbles in three years. I am so excited. I brought my youngest daughters out there and they had handfuls of grapes just crushing them. That is why we’re different. Everything we do has to be social media-driven. We don’t have a tasting room. Obviously, we would like one in the future, depending on how much we make. But right now, we don’t make enough for that to justify. And so we’re constantly evolving with this. We’re constantly trying to reach people. And give props to other winemakers and other vineyards that have inspired us to be amazing. We’re not saying ours is better. We’re saying we’re just like the cousin of somebody you already liked. I use it as collaborations. If you like a Jordan, the regular Air One Michael Jordan shoe, but all of a sudden you’d like it in a different colorway, that’s exciting. You may have two new pairs of shoes in your closet.
A: Was it always your desire to do Oregon first? When did you decide, “OK, I want to start a winery and a wine label?”
C: It happened after I retired, I sat down with Jake and Chase. And I think for me, Chase, as a winemaker, I wanted to get his perspective. “Hey, is this exciting to you? Is this something that you think other winemakers would want to do? If I asked you over a great meal, what kind of grapes do you want to work with?” His brand tastes one way. That’s his interpretation. But when you get two or three different people tasting and mixing and matching, the palate completely changes. And that’s what was exciting to him. Seeing where he could take his grapes to show the versatility of his winemaking, of his grapes, of the terroir. I don’t want to say I hate using that word because it sounds so smart, but for me, he’s done amazing things for Chosen. If you taste Chosen and then L’Angolo you’d be like, “This is from the same plot of land? This is from the same vineyard?” But both of them are equally good. It just depends on what you like. But, again, that’s the conversation. The whole point is to create that conversation with somebody that you love. “Wow. This is a little more oaky. I wonder, is this new French barrel? Is that old French barrel? Did he boil the barrel? Did he put this in a clay pot?” All of these conversations are things that are connectors that we love being able to bring to the table. But literally after I had a conversation with him he was excited. We hugged it out and then we started this process of figuring out what our palate was going to be, how it’s going to evolve, do we want this drinkable now, do we want to lay down, or do we want a mix of both? And that’s really kind of the fun part of going through all the barrels and being a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and then you let the winemaker go do his mad scientist stuff. I don’t know how he does what he does. I could tell him, I just want a little pepper. He goes, give me a second. Boom. Puts a little bit of this. Oh, this is peppery now.
A: What did you decide? When you were going through it, did you decide you want it drinkable now? Did you decide half and half? And what was the rationale for whatever decision you came up with?
C: We decided we want to do half and half. Because of our demographic and the people, we want to be able to drink our wine now. We want them to go on this journey with us. So our biggest thing is, buy two bottles. If you can, buy one now, drink it when you have a special occasion, drink it on a Tuesday, drink it and remember it. And then let us sit for two or three years, because it is going to age really well. It’s only a 2018, so this Pinot is going to age really well. It shocked me, too. I opened up a 1999 Beaux Freres and I was shocked that a 21-year-old Pinot from the Willamette Valley was tasting that delicious. So it gives us hope that if you do want to lay it down, it is going to mature. It is going to be able to do that, but if you want to drink it now, which a lot of millennials — and I’m a millennial, I’m only 37 — want that drink now. But I think the more that people roll with us and listen to us about what to do with our wine, it’s going to be exciting that you can drink it every year with your friends but then see the evolution of our palate and see the evolution of our brand. Coming on this journey with us is really what we’re trying to talk about. So every year, we’ll open up that same bottle of white and see how it’s evolved.
A: Do you plan on continuing to make, for years to come, this Pinot, this Chardonnay, potentially this Syrah, and also expand? Or do you think that, because you have this ability to go to different vineyards and winemakers, that may be what Chosen Family is? For a few years you’re making this Pinot and this Chardonnay, and then five years later, you’re making Russian River or something? Have you thought about what that looks like?
C: Super thought about it. I think about it all the time, and I think business is going to dictate how far we can go. What’s amazing is right now, we have people in Italy looking for Nebbiolo, Barolo, Barbaresco. I get goosebumps thinking about it. I have friends in Australia looking at Shiraz, looking at things that they’re doing down there. We are planning trips to go to Walla Walla, Wash., which I think is the most underrated wine area in America. I think for me, if you go to Walla Walla, Wash., you have Cabernet, which is underrated, Syrah is absolutely amazing. I think one thing that people don’t drink as much now is Merlot, but I think amazing Merlot is absolutely delicious.
A: That’s one movie’s fault.
C: Basically. And so for us, right now, Chase is obviously our winemaker and unless something happens to his vineyard, he’s in for full-time. And that Hazelfern, as long as he’s able to do it with his time and his business, he’s in full-time. So every year, we’re going to be evolving with different winemakers but that doesn’t mean that we can’t go to California, we can’t go to Paso Robles and make another Pinot and Chardonnay from Paso Robles with a different winemaker. And that is why, again, it encompasses the name Chosen Family. We’re not going to just the big brand name places. We are going to the mom-and-pop places, the people who are making delicious wine that is going to be a small batch, and it is going to be maybe 50 cases, maybe a 100 cases, maybe 200 max, but we’re not putting out 10,000 cases like that. We just don’t feel like you’re going to get that quality. So come with us on the journey, because maybe one year, we may do a rosé and then the next year we say, we don’t want to do a rosé, or we’ll do a rosé with bubbles. We have that ability based on who we are. Maybe we do two Chardonnays. Maybe we get grapes from a different area in Oregon where now people can taste a difference between the Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity. That’s very cool. That’s what’s exciting to me. Where do we want to go? But the winemakers dictate that to us. They go, “Man, I would love to have some of the rocks raw.” OK. “How can we get grapes? Let’s go up there and meet some of the people who own the vineyards, who harvest the grapes and let’s go create a relationship so that we can get the best grapes and make an amazing product.”
A: That’s awesome. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you, because of everything we’re dealing with in the country right now with Covid. When new brands launch, especially wine, one of the biggest initial marketing strategies is, you’re definitely focusing a lot on social, which I think is insanely smart, but a lot of people think restaurants are one of the best ways to get introductions. Obviously, restaurants in America are struggling right now. Was that part of your initial plan, and did you have to change? Or was that never part of your plan? How are you adapting to the fact that probably introducing people to Chosen Family through restaurants, at least for the foreseeable future, isn’t going to be something that happens that often?
C: I think for us, we have great relationships. First of all: Everyone support your local businesses. I think people don’t understand how important the restaurant industry is to an ecosystem of people. And so for me, especially in Portland, you live in Brooklyn, the food scene is everything here. We are constantly seeing new food scenes and so many have been affected by Covid. And so, for us, obviously we would love to have it in a restaurant, but because this first year we’re only making 125 cases, we weren’t being able to hand it out and be able to continually buy grapes for the next year or two. Once we produce, I would say, 200 Chardonnay, 200, 300 Pinot, maybe 100 bubbles, now we can start to put our wine in certain places. And so that is kind of the thing for us. We don’t want them in every restaurant, but restaurants that we’ve actually gone to, where we know the owner, we know the head chef, we spent time there, we feel the vibe, we know them personally, that’s where we want our wine.
A: Makes sense. Right now, if someone wanted to find the wine, would they just find it on the website?
C: At chosenfamilywines.com and then stay attached to us on Instagram, if you can. We’re going to update and go to Facebook also. It’s been interesting because I have about 20 papers of just notes. Social media is such a powerful tool, especially for a growing business. You follow LeBron, and he actually posted my wine yesterday and he called me. I didn’t ask him to do that. I don’t ask anybody to ever post my wine. I do it because, and they know it, because of how much I love it and because they are my friends that have inspired me to be better and to put out a product that people can trust. And so I called him and I was like, “I appreciate you.” And I called Allie Clifton, who was on my podcast. She opened it with her mother from Ohio. And they were like, “Well, we usually don’t like Pinots so don’t be upset.” And all of a sudden, they’re like, “We’re buying two bottles right now. We didn’t even know Pinot could taste like that.” And I wanted to cry, because, for me being in this industry after playing basketball my whole life, and I’ve had some great help from my partners, but this is the first time I get to be artistic. It’s the first time my taste and our taste is put on the forefront. This is an opinion-based business. If you don’t like it, it’s your opinion, but we’re not going to argue about it. But I promise you that people are going to like it if they give it a chance.
A: I mean, I’m excited just hearing you talk about it.
C: I wouldn’t be this way if I hadn’t been inspired by others. I talk about that 99 Beaux Freres, I had a Melka Metisse, it was ridiculous. I had a Rex Hill 90. And obviously I stick a lot to Oregon but I have to see what people are doing so that I can push myself, so that we can push ourselves as a business. But then I’m excited to take this trip, once basketball season is over, to Washington, and just dive into that culture and dive into what these people have been doing to be so successful in making delicious wine. And it’s super, the bug. If you had a picture, you would see I have my championship ring. I have my beer, which is like an IPA that comes out once a year for charity. And then my two wine bottles. It’s some of the proudest things I’ve ever done. It’s serious, on my mantle. It’s been a journey. It’s hard work, but it’s the biggest labor of love that I’ve had, and this is just great. I could talk wine all day.
A: I don’t want to keep you too much, but I have to ask you two more questions. Obviously. you’re drinking lots of Chosen Family, which you should be, but what else are you drinking right now? Is there anything else that you discovered? I think you’re going to make someone on my staff extremely happy with your comment about Walla Walla, who’s been shouting about it to us forever. That it’s something that no one else is talking about. So I think that that’s a good pro tip, but what else have you been drinking recently that’s really exciting that people need to know?
C: Champagne. Listen, people’s perception of Champagne is so underrated. All they think about when they think of Champagne is Moet and Veuve. Congratulations to those two businesses. But let me tell you people, go to your store, your wine store, and go try other types of Champagne. People are doing amazing, amazing things. I taste wine a lot. I keep the bottles that I love up above my refrigerator, and I’m running out of room because most of them are Champagne bottles because I’m like, “How does this taste like this?” What is this? People getting to know me as, if I don’t know something, I don’t have a sense of pride where I won’t say, “How do they do this?” or, “How can we emulate this?” or, “Where is this?” And I’m trying to learn all the time so I can put the best product out there. And so I’m drinking a lot of Syrah right now. I tried two or three bottles last night from the Rhône region because I need to see the flavor profile. I’ve had a lot of Walla Walla, Wash. I’ve gone from Syrah that tastes like a Pinot, to a Syrah that tastes like straight bell pepper. I would love to see where we can challenge the traditional, but also give it the respect that it’s due, when it comes to Syrah. And I try to do that with every type of wine that we work with. Chase, our winemaker, is really good. He makes a great Barolo. And so I’m starting to get into Italians now. So I have to pick my days of what I’m drinking, or else I just want to drink it all. But those are the things that I’m really kind of just crushing at my house right now.
A: That’s awesome. It’s funny, Champagne is this thing where some people in the wine industry, especially somms, are really obsessed with it. And then you have the huge brands that have created a different thing than it is. But I recently also went to Champagne, also just because it’s so expensive. It is crazy, you’re like, “Wow, how does this taste different than any other sparkling I’ve ever had?”
C: Let’s say you like Champagne, but your budget doesn’t dictate that you could spend $140 on four glasses. Two people are doing amazing sparkling wine out in Oregon for good prices. I have a bottle up there doing amazing things. I think our bottle was $55, $60. And I’m like, this is great. This is great for not entry-level but this is a very solid bottle of Champagne, or sparkling wine, for that price that’s justifiable to me.
A: That’s awesome. Last question, you are obviously a professional athlete. I’m a very competitive person, although I was never good enough to be a professional athlete, but I’m very competitive. I would assume you are very competitive in a lot of things in your life, being a professional athlete. There is another professional athlete that lives in your city that has also released a wine label. You and CJ [McCollum] have any rivalry there?
C: No, no, no, no, no. CJ and I have had plenty of conversations, and the thing is that if you look at the big picture, there’s no competition between us, because we are two young African American men in 2020 with our own wine labels. We are slowly putting a new perspective into this business, which I think is better for all of us. What he does motivates me to do better in my wine. And I’ve tasted his wine, I think his wine is really good. I think Adelsheim makes good wine. They’ve been doing it for 30, 40 years, so he’s with the OGs for me. I had to stay true to my truth with my friends and my crew. And the way we’re doing business, I don’t know if it’s ever been done before. I’m not in competition. because all I’m doing is trying to showcase people who I already support. My competition is me. and how can I get people’s wine that I love because most people, if you’re out of Oregon, you wouldn’t have heard of Hazelfern. With me, I’m able to be a megaphone for people doing amazing things all around the world, the country, our region. And I’m excited for that. I’m excited to have people in Brooklyn try something from Oregon that they wouldn’t know unless they came wine tasting out here.
A: Totally. Channing, this has been an awesome conversation. I’m excited. I’m hoping people listening are excited to try Chosen Family as well. What you’re doing is really cool, next time you’re in New York, let me know. In Brooklyn, we’ll go drink some wine together.
C: If people want to get on the newsletter, we release our wine early to people on the newsletter. So [email protected]. If you sign up for that newsletter, it’ll keep you up to date. It’ll tell you what we’re doing. We are social media-driven, so you’re going to see our journey. You’re going to see what we do all the time so that we can gain your trust. You’re going to see that I’m squishing the grapes — I don’t know the technical term for it. You’re going to see that I’m tasting the juice as it’s pressed. You’re going to see that journey with our crew and our relationships that we build and in the different places.
A: That’s awesome. It’s chosenfamilywines.com If they just want to go in and they’re convinced to buy a bottle and then [email protected] email to sign up for the newsletter. Thank you for taking time on a Friday morning to chat with me about wine.
A: Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.