Yao Ming – China Wine Boom

While Yao Ming was growing up in Shanghai, wine was served with ice cubes. It wasn’t until the 7-foot-6-inch Chinese basketball star spent time with National Basketball Association teammate Dikembe Mutombo, a 7-foot-2-inch Congolese player, that he began to appreciate wine.

“I always watched him at our dinners and I’d sometimes ask him ‘Why are you doing that?'” said Mr. Yao, swirling an imaginary glass. “I was just trying to copy him.”

Now retired and living in his native Shanghai, Mr. Yao is an unlikely connoisseur and a trailblazer on the Chinese wine scene. The 31-year-old is launching his own Californian winery geared exclusively for the Chinese market this week called Yao Family Wines.

Distributed by French beverage giant Pernod Ricard SA, bottles in the first 5,000-case run will be labeled simply Yao Ming and aimed at the top end of the market.

The wine, made from cabernet sauvignon grapes harvested in 2009 from California’s Napa Valley, is priced at 1,775 yuan (US$289) a bottle. (The price includes a 27% import duty and a 17% sales tax.) A second wine, called Yao Family Reserve, will be released later this year, and its small 500-case production will be even pricier.

“I really like Napa Valley,” said the former center. “California represents vacation, casual [living], sunshine—everything related to a good quality of life.”

Yao Family Wines currently doesn’t own any vineyards in California, but is aiming to acquire land in the next few years.

California couldn’t have a better pitchman in China than Mr. Yao. He is one of the country’s biggest stars and is credited with boosting China’s interest in the NBA. During his nine seasons with the Houston Rockets, his games were broadcast on national television in China, and he was selected to carry China’s flag during the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He has endorsed everything from Apple Inc. products to his father’s Chinese restaurant in Houston.

Mr. Yao’s appreciation for wine grew in parallel with its acceptance in his home country—wine consumption in China doubled from 2005 to 2009. But wine imported into China came predominantly from France, and he spotted a market opportunity for Californian wines.

Mr. Yao asked BDA Sports International, the agency that represents him, to explore the idea of starting his own Napa Valley winery. In 2009, with BDA’s assistance, he found a team of wine experts to help him realize his vision, including winemaker Tom Hinde, who had made wines for Flowers Vineyard and Winery and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. “We tasted a lot of wine together and got to know him in a way so I could express his personality in the wine,” said Mr. Hinde. “He’s physically imposing, but he’s also very personable and gentle. We wanted to capture that in the wine.”

Mr. Hinde insists Yao Family Wines isn’t a short-lived bid to capitalize on China’s wine boom and the star’s celebrity before either of them wane. He said the business plan is based on a 10-year timeline.

Mr. Hinde and four others involved with the winery are minority shareholders in the venture, while Mr. Yao is the principal owner. Neither Mr. Yao nor his winemaking team disclosed how much has been invested, though wine-industry experts estimate that it requires $2 million to $5 million to get a winery to reach full production.

While most of the wine sold in China is from domestic sources, the imported market has grown dramatically. Bottled-wine imports—as opposed to cheap bulk wine that is imported in large tanks for bottling in China—grew 240% from 2008 to 2010, according to data from China Customs.

China has a heavy bias toward French wines. Last year, France led bottled-wine imports with a 47% market share. Australia ranked a distant second with 16% of the market. The U.S. came in sixth, trailing Italy, Spain and Chile, with a 6.4% share.

Chinese collectors have bid top dollar for the world’s most sought-after bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy at auctions in Hong Kong, putting the city ahead of London and New York in sales.

In September, 2011 an anonymous Chinese bidder spent $539,280 on a single lot of 300 bottles of Château Lafite-Rothschild wine at a Sotheby’s wine auction in Hong Kong.

Mr. Yao’s new winery isn’t his only business venture. He is the owner of his first professional basketball team, the Shanghai Sharks, and an investor in a digital-music site called Top100.cn.

Mr. Yao is also attending classes at Shanghai Jiaotong University. He is going to miss a day of school this week for one of the many launch events scheduled for the new winery.

“I’ll need an extra bottle for my history professor so he can give me a good grade and let me skip his class,” Mr. Yao said.


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