Before reflecting on how Orlando’s Walt Disney World has become the improbable fine wine capital of America, New Orleans Pelicans forward Josh Hart plunges into an 11-minute ice bath. “It is cold alright … shit,” he says, voice rising a few octaves as the sound of ice and water ripples across the cell phone line.
For the next month at least, three hotels at the Florida resort will house the players and staff of 22 NBA teams, with the 2019-2020 season resuming on July 30 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Quarantine life inside the “NBA bubble” has seen the complex’s all-star inhabitants adapt to a surreal new normal: daily coronavirus tests; practice sessions in cavernous, converted conference rooms; pre-packaged meals described as “Fyre Fest 2.0;” and for some, like Hart, nightly fine wine tastings.
“When I’m home, I hang out with my family and my dog, I play video games, and I drink wine,” Hart says. “Being able to share some bottles with teammates and friends from other teams, it gives me a sense of normalcy here.”
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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many NBA stars are unwinding in the bubble with a Zalto glass in hand. In recent years, the blind-tasting skills of players like LeBron James have been almost as well documented as their on-court performances. But with little else to do other than fish, play golf, or stage video game tournaments, players are dropping #bottleshots at the rate they normally convert free throws.
The Yacht Club: the NBA Bubble’s Hub of Fine Wine Drinking
Hart, who is so far topping the leaderboard on wine social media, shares his off-court passion via a recently launched Instagram account, @jhartcellars. Wine-loving basketball fans who’ve caught wind of the account will note that his description of sharing “some bottles” is something of an understatement. Premier cru white Burgundy, vintage Bordeaux (Left and Right Bank), and burly Napa Cabs have taken center stage since #bubblelife began two weeks ago.
How did an oenophile such as Hart prepare for this strangest of summer camps? Well, he started by filling his suitcase with a dozen bottles and scheduled a future delivery. Knowing he would need somewhere to keep those bottles at optimum temperature — something larger than a hotel room mini-fridge — he had a wine fridge shipped to the resort before he arrived. The only thing he forgot? Appropriate glassware. The special 2005 Chateau Montrose Hart packed to get through an initial individual quarantine period sadly had to be sipped from a paper cup. Luckily, Hart has since been able to pick up some crystal stemware. “I wasn’t too much of a fan of the paper cup,” he says
Hart is quick to point out that while he’s brought plenty of choice bottles, he’s also benefited from the generosity of others. Pelicans teammate J.J. Redick has supplied many of the more exclusive wines featured on Hart’s account, such as a 2009 Domaine Ponsot Griotte Chambertin, which retails for an average $400 in the U.S. And when the Disney NBA lockdown reached “Phase 5” on Wednesday, the tasting opportunities seemed poised to increase.
Until then, players were restricted to socializing with teammates; contact with other teams was limited to “brief interactions” in common areas. But starting Wednesday, players could socialize with those from other teams based in the same hotel, as long as they don’t enter each other’s rooms. For Hart and Redick, who are based at the Yacht Club, that meant they could now clink glasses with noted wine enthusiasts Carmelo Anthony and CJ McCollum, both of them Portland Trailblazers.
While “Melo” apparently favors ’90s Bordeaux, McCollum brings an even more unique offering to the table. Unlike Hart, McCollum did not have the foresight to schedule delivery of a wine fridge. But in fairness, he was busy making arrangements for another very special shipment: the first bottling of McCollum Heritage 91.
Two years in the making and set to launch to the public in September, McCollum created the 2018 Pinot Noir in partnership with Oregon-based Adelsheim Vineyard. Keen to share his first vintage with fellow wine-loving NBA stars, McCollum says he received permission from the NBA to distribute the wine to players and staff in different hotels when it arrived at the resort.
Sure, there may be some friendly rivalry over who’s opening what — this is a group of cooped-up professional athletes — but McCollum is excited to introduce his wine to the league’s growing ranks of connoisseurs.
“I think people will have a greater appreciation of Oregon Pinot once they taste it,” he says. “If they haven’t tasted [Oregon Pinot] yet, they’re going to get the chance to while they’re here — at least if I have anything to say about it.”
Hundred-Dollar Bottles Beyond the Yacht Club
While the Yacht Club appears to be the hub of fine wine drinking in the bubble, it’s not the only place where exclusive bottles are being dunked.
When LA Lakers center JaVale McGee arrived at the Grand Destino, he shared the goodies waiting for him in his hotel room on a video blog. Included in the branded care package was everything he would need to adapt to quarantine life: official NBA face masks and robes, an Amazon Firestick, a phone sanitizer, a stack of reading material, and a bottle of Freemark Abbey Cabernet Bosche 2013. From the video, it appears that the wine was a gift from the NBA. But it would be nice to think it was instead a “housewarming” present from teammate LeBron James, who has so far been quiet on the Instagram wine front.
Meanwhile, Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale, who is also based at the Grand Destino, paired his Friday night dinner with a bottle of former NBA star Yao Ming’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Earlier that week, over at the Grand Floridian, Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris toasted his 28th birthday with a bottle of 2018 Caymus, which was gifted to him by Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic.
Beer in the Bubble
While many NBA players have spent their time in the bubble sharpening blind-tasting skills and sampling classified Bordeaux, not everyone has been drinking wine. Between $400 bottles of white Burgundy, the Pelicans’ Redick also found time to start a bubble trend: shotgunning beer.
It started in the same way many viral social media trends do: Redick was challenged to shotgun a Bud Light by a Twitter account (NBA Bubble Life), if a post received an inflated number of retweets. Redick accepted, setting the limit at 10,000. Twenty-four hours later, he found himself sitting in an ice bath chugging the light beer through a pierced can.
Before long, others got in on the action. That same day, Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard uploaded his own shotgun effort to Instagram. Leonard finished the beer in the blink of an eye after punching a shotgun-cartridge-sized hole in a 12-ounce Coors Light. Multiple other players have since shared their own attempts, with varying levels of success, but often inside the now-familiar setting of the ice bath.
But for the Pelicans’ Hart, fine wine remains the beverage of choice. “The beauty of wine is being able to bring people together, whether it’s people from different teams, different professions, or different racial backgrounds,” he says.
With play set to continue until mid-October for the two teams that ultimately reach the NBA Finals, there will be plenty of opportunities to share more bottles. Hart even has a few “heavy hitters” stashed away in his fridge, which he’s saving for if and when the Pelicans reach the playoffs.
In the meantime, the real winners will be those watching the action unfold as #bottleshots meets #bubblelife on wine Instagram.