The basketball world has a particular affinity for wine: drinking it, collecting it and even making it. And in a world of 7-footers, no one stands out like Dwyane Wade: three-time NBA champion with the Miami Heat, 13-time All Star and 2009 NBA Finals MVP who now runs his own high-flying wine label. In 2015, Wade teamed up with Jayson Pahlmeyer of Napa Valley’s esteemed Pahlmeyer winery, known for his 100-point Cabernets and other bucket-list reds, to create Wade Cellars, his own highly regarded, top-shelf Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Ever since, he’s worked to change what people think about wine — and who drinks it.
Although Wade Cellars has been around for a minute, the brand’s mission is evolving and expanding, according to Jamie Watson, a founding partner of Wade Cellars, who cites Dwyane himself as the inspiration for the company’s new direction.
“After Dwyane retired from the game of basketball and kind of dove even deeper into this, we pretty quickly realized that we have an opportunity to really change the dialogue in the wine space,” says Watson. “Using wine as a vehicle to speak to the broader issues in our society and create access for an audience that hasn’t traditionally had it, I think that’s where the mission of this brand has shifted to.”
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To further that expanding mission, in early 2019 Wade Cellars brought in Matt Naumann as president, after Jayson Pahlmeyer’s retirement, and most recently added George Walker, an emerging Black wine professional from Grand Rapids, Mich., to the team this summer. An industry veteran, Naumann says he’s inspired by how hands-on and engaged Dwyane is with the winery.
“Dwyane has been all-in on supporting marketing efforts as an active day-to-day partner in the brand. He communicates regularly and often with our winemaker Jon Keyes regarding the current lots in barrel and provides input on the blending pre-bottling process,” Naumann says. “You can see why he’s been such a success, on the court in basketball, and you can see why he’s been such a major ambassador in the world for social issues and everything that he stands for.”
Those commitments include his own charity, the Social Change Fund, which gives back to underserved communities and supports community outreach programs in his hometowns of Chicago and South Florida. The Social Change Fund was created by philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and NBA superstars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade to support critical and timely issues impacting the Black community. And in terms of wine, that includes making what Watson and Naumann call “wines with integrity.”
This encompasses many aspects of the business, starting with the vineyards they work with, such as the ones in Napa’s famed Oakville region, the origin of Wade Cellars’ flagship Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. This includes “doing right by the farming, by the people that we do business with and by the people that we’re buying grapes from— starting there to make sure that philosophically we’re aligned in terms of the way we want the land to be respected.”
Another aspect to this idea of integrity, Naumann points out, is to respect the many people involved in bringing the wines from vine to cellar. “With the wine industry, there’s an economy that’s supported behind each bottle,” says Naumann, listing farmers and grape workers, as well as the people who design, plant, and replant vineyards, going back decades. “There’s a group of individuals. For me, ‘integrity’ is to do whatever you possibly can do to honor all of that.”
Although Wade Cellars has had a high profile for years, the massively important Black Lives Matter movement has greatly increased focus on Black-owned wine brands in 2020, as well as on the idea of improving accessibility in the wine world.
“This is a big moment for Wade Cellars,” said Dwyane Wade, proprietor, Wade Cellars. “It has always been my intention with this brand to show that wine is for all of us and make it more accessible. The introduction and recent expansion of the Three by Wade portfolio is a testament to that.”
While the annual production of Wade Cellars’ highly coveted Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (which runs $95 a bottle, for those on its mailing list) is only around 125 cases, and will probably never exceed 200 per year, Wade decided to expand his offerings with Three by Wade, a portfolio of high-quality wines that retail at more affordable prices. The first release, in 2017, was a rosé made from Grenache (with the current incarnation based on Pinot Noir), and they have since added a white blend called Blanc, a red blend (made of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Malbec, and Petite Verdot) and a Cabernet Sauvignon. While the Three by Wade Cabernet is sourced from Napa, the other bottlings use grapes from Mendocino and other parts of the North Coast AVA, as well as from an organic vineyard in Clarksburg.
“Three by Wade still falls in a premium category,” says Naumann, “but the wines, for their category, are really great values,” The rosé retails for $15, the Blanc is $20, the red blend costs $25, and the Cabernet is just $40 — a relative bargain for Napa Cabernet.
Not only are Three by Wade wines much more affordable, but fans are far more likely to be able to find them. The owners are planning to scale up production of Three by Wade to 25,000 cases over the next two years.
And while Three by Wade has certainly found traction with basketball fans, Naumann says that, for him, the biggest surprise has been the support it’s found in the fine-wine world, citing shout-outs from industry veterans, restaurateurs, and wine directors at popular events like Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic.
“The fact that the sommelier community just really, truly believes in what we’re doing — that was, to be honest, outside of what I had ever envisioned,” says Naumann. “I love that the wine community has embraced this project and what it stands and for.”
Chad Walsh, the U.S. portfolio manager for distributor T. Edward Wines & Spirits, attributes this support not only to the wines, but to the people behind the brand.
“This isn’t the typical route a celebrity or vanity brand takes,” says Walsh. “Unlike many who are happy to slap a label on whatever comes their way, Mr. Wade has put a serious team behind the project. His commitment to keep the price point accessible really heartened me. I can’t think of a better ambassador for the world of wine.”
While some drinkers might approach a wine with a basketball player’s name on it with a touch of skepticism, Watson welcomes this. “We like exceeding people’s expectations,” he says. “Ultimately, we’re trying to change the dialogue and include a broader audience.”