Can the NBA’s All-Star Oenophiles Teach Us Everything We Need to Know About Wine?

Aaron Goldfarb Can the NBA’s All-Star Oenophiles Teach Us Everything We Need to Know About Wine?

5 minute Read

On January 29, at around 8:30 p.m., like many of the 604 people I follow on Instagram, @kingjames posted a picture of what he was drinking that evening. Of course, @kingjames is NBA superstar Lebron James, and his drink was a $125 bottle of 2013 Nicholas Allen Carte Blanche Cabernet Sauvignon — a pricier bottle than most folks treat themselves to on a casual Monday night.

This is hardly a rare occurrence for James, though. Even on a “school night” — he would play the Detroit Pistons the next day — he wasn’t sheepish about imbibing.

It’s a good thing James has a hobby, as this season has been a struggle for his Cleveland Cavaliers. They traded away Kyrie Irving in the off-season, shipped out a good portion of the team mid-season, and incurred a bout of locker room squabbling. James is statistically having one of his best seasons in a while, yet all year he’s seemingly been more happy to answer questions about wine than wins (and losses).

“I wanted to learn about it,” he explained to Sacramento reporters in December, hinting that his business partner Maverick Carter was the one responsible for his newfound obsession. “Everybody was talking about how great it is and the different regions — not only here in America, but also obviously Italy and France and so many different places. So, I started to do some research. I started tasting different wines, and it took a while for my palate to actually give into it.”

If it took a while for him to give into it, he’s gone all in over the past year, posting flashy bottles on his Instagram account almost as much as, well, I do.

In March, James posted a 2009 Chateau Pontet-Canet Gran Cru. In October, a 2005 Quintarelli Giuseppe. Finally, in November, a massive lineup of high-priced icons and a few cult hits as well.

Even the wine press was impressed.

“[D]on’t talk to me about wine like u know it if you really don’t know what you’re talking about,” James wrote on that latter IG post, punctuating the sentiment: “Seriously!”

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But I’d really like to talk to James about wine. Despite being a professional alcohol writer, despite knowing quite a bit about craft beer, whiskey, and cocktails, I really don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to wine. In fact, I had to Google every single bottle James posted on Instagram simply to learn their worth and quality.

It made me wonder: What could James (and his fellow wine-centric NBA players) teach me? What could he teach us, about wine?

Still just 33, James claims he didn’t get into wine until he turned 30. (I’m about to turn 39, for the record.) In fact, 30 seems to be the very age when many NBA players have decided to start building a deep interest in the wine industry.

Because it’s not only James who has gone gaga over vino (as he prefers to call it). That hangover helper lineup from November was shared with all-star teammate Kevin Love. James has done tastings on the road and after practice with other Cavaliers, everyone from Tristan Thompson to J.R. Smith to Dwayne Wade. On an off day during a California road swing, the Cavs even visited Napa Valley, something organized by coach Tyronn Lue, despite the fact he’s a teetotaler.

James thought it was good to “get our minds away from basketball…learn some things, and taste some great wine, decompress for twenty-four hours.”

Other teams and players in the league clearly like to decompress as well. James’s buddy Carmelo Anthony also fancies himself a wine connoisseur, posting pics of his own drinking online, traveling to vineyards as far flung as those in South Africa, and even installing a state-of-the-art cellar in his Manhattan penthouse. (He’s even haughtily noted: “I have a bunch of wine mentors, but now, I can teach them. The student has become the master.”)

Lebron, Melo, DWade, and others have famously even vacationed together, it would seem, for the express purpose of drinking fine wine.

In days gone by, former NBA players dropped untold millions on jewelry, cars, entourages, and the like. More than 50 percent of NBA alums were broke within five years of retirement, according to the players’ union.

James’s generation appears to be more financially prudent. As Dwyane Wade told Wine Enthusiast in 2016, “Now, we sit down and drink wine and talk about investments.” If the Henny-swilling superstars of the 1990s mostly went completely broke, today’s NBA player continues to increase his wealth even while popping $3,000 bottles of Petrus.

(James has a current net worth of $400 million. Anthony and Wade sit around $100 million.)

#BrotherHood

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In the post-recession era, the ability to deal in high-end, critically acclaimed wine is a signifier of success, and a lot cheaper than a new Ferrari. The Golden State Warriors celebrated their recent title with $180K of Moët Impérial Golden Luminous Champagne. Meanwhile, in 2015, James and Draymond Green used noted bottles as the stakes on a little college football wager.

Meanwhile, players like Anthony and Steph Curry have their own stocked wine cellars. Wade, Sasha, and Yao Ming have their own wine labels. Chris Paul has done a charity partnership with a winery, and the San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, is an investor in an Oregon winery.

Is this emerging maturity and a newfound desire for quiet evenings spent drinking wine with friends the reason the NBA is better than it’s ever been? Quite possibly.

“I’ve heard it’s good for the heart,” James has said about wine. “As far as healing powers, I’m playing the best basketball of my life, and I’m drinking some wine pretty much every day. So, whatever it is, I’ll take it.”

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For most of its existence the NBA was known as a “beer league,” with hoopsters pounding sixers in the post-game locker room. Charles Barkley and Larry Bird were huge beer drinkers during their Hall of Fame careers. Allen Iverson reportedly liked having cases of Corona waiting for him in the team bus. In 2015 I even looked at the long-standing rumor that Michael Jordan had a voracious appetite for brews.

As Roland Lazenby wrote in his book “Blood on the Horns“: “In the first half hour after a game, Jordan and various teammates would pound down five or six beers and often fire up a cigar. It’s not unusual for pro basketball players to drink beer after games. They’ve been doing it for decades. It helped them replace the body fluids they’ve sweated away.”

According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, though, wine is probably a lot better for NBA players. Wine leads to a lower prevalence of coronary heart disease while preventing blood clots, relaxing blood vessel walls, and preventing “bad” cholesterol. The wine industry itself has done a terrific job of positioning itself as an antioxidant-rich and heart-healthy libation in a way that, say, lite beer has not.

Now, you don’t exactly need a Harvard medical professional to tell you that you simply feel a little more spry, and quite a bit less bloated, the day after drinking wine as opposed to beer. Maybe that’s why players like Amar’e Stoudemire even started bathing in red wine to aid in their training regimen.

“It’s great for recovery,” he told ESPN. “They say ‘a glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away’…so I took it upon myself to really submerge myself into some red wine.”

(Then again, the player nicknamed “Standin Tall and Talented” was often injured.)

Nevertheless, if the beer drinkers of the past were exiting the league in their early 30s, many of today’s players are pushing their careers into their late 30s and beyond. Manu Ginóbili, still in the NBA at age 40, reportedly stocks plenty of Argentinian wine in his home.

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So what have Lebron James and his wine-swirling buddies taught me?

Well, they’ve made me feel immature, even though I’m a married father several years their senior.

They also made me realize why, perhaps, I struggle to jog a few miles on the treadmill most days after having drunk some IPAs the night before — while they’re easily sweating through 40 minutes on the court per night.

And they’ve certainly made me feel a lot poorer than them. Even on the lucky occasions when I’m drinking rare bourbon or fancy cocktails with my 30-something buddies, we certainly aren’t talking about our investments (most of us have none; we’re freelance writers).

So, would switching to fine wine suddenly change all these things for me for the better? Would drinking vino make me more mature, more fit, and suddenly wealthier? Couldn’t hurt to give it a go.

But tonight, I think I’ll have a Scotch.

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