If Gatorade is the preferred drink of NBA athletes, wine is a close second. Buoyed by a host of wine enthusiasts who also happen to be some of the biggest names in the last 20 years of the sport—including the likes of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul—the NBA’s love affair with wine has been a refreshing B plot over the last few years. (Did you see all that wine that got brought into the playoff bubble last year? Why weren’t there more bubble bubbles?)
But the wine love for some is more than just an appreciation for good grapes. Many players are using their platform as professional athletes to push for more inclusion in the wine industry.
More than every other professional sport in America, the NBA has embraced player-activism, eschewing the “stick to sports” mantra many leagues hope if not outright mandate for their players. In the wake of murder of George Floyd, players could be seen wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, kneeling during the National Anthem, and wearing (league-approved) messages on their jerseys like “Say Her Name” in reference to Breonna Taylor, “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words of both Floyd and Eric Garner, both Black men killed at the hands of white police officers, and “Equality”. When Kenosha, Wisconsin police shot unarmed Black man Jacob Blake seven times, leaving him paralyzed, the players boycotted—during the playoffs no less—causing the league to cancel all games over the next few days.
Activism runs deep in the NBA, so it makes sense that the wine-minded in the league would give similar attention to the predominately white wine industry.
One such player is Josh Hart, shooting guard for the New Orleans Pelicans. As reported by Food & Wine, Hart worked with Wine Access to create a scholarship program “in an effort to make the wine industry more welcoming and inclusive—particularly for members of the BIPOC community who have historically been left out.” Hart, one of the latest additions to the NBA’s storied unofficial wine club and prolific poster of bottles on Instagram, wants to “change the stereotype around wine as something for old, rich, white men.” Through his scholarship, Hart is helping 100 individuals take the Level 1 Wine & Spirits Education Trust exam, with the top five students being sponsored for the Level 2 exam and the top three from there going onto Level 3 as well as a Napa trip with Hart.
Other players, like Dwayne Wade, Moe Harkless, Channing Frye, and CJ McCollum, are increasing representation in wine by themselves becoming part of the wine industry. Per F&W, in 2014 Wade created his own wine brand, Wade Cellars, in a partnership with Napa’s Pahlmeyer winery. The former Miami Heat star has since used his label to help raise money for his Social Change Fund, “which champions issues such as criminal justice reform and economic equity.” Harkless has partnered with Napa’s Prisoner Wine Company to “eliminate the stigma of wine as a snobby, high-class experience,” Harkless tells F&W. “Wine is for everybody to enjoy.”
Frye, a former Portland Trail Blazer, partnered with Willamette Valley winery L’Angolo Estate to create his own label, Chosen Family Wines. Like Wade, Frye uses his label to help create funds for social initiatives. This spring, Frye is launching the One Barrel Challenge along with six other wineries whereby they will sell the contents of one wine barrel—300 bottles, per F&W—with the proceeds going to the Maurice Lucas Foundation, a non-profit that supports Black youths in Portland.
Also taking part in the One Barrel Challenge is fellow Trail Blazer CJ McCollum’s label, McCollum Heritage 91, made in cooperation with Oregon’s Adelsheim Vineyard. For McCollum visibility and representation in the wine industry matter. “Wine has felt like an exclusive industry historically,” McCollum tells Food & Wine. “I think there’s so much opportunity to increase exposure and diversify the wine industry, and that will improve the industry overall.”
The climb towards more diversity in the wine industry has perhaps found its champions in basketball stars. Already socially-minded and with the financial means afforded top-tier professional athletes, these players are fighting for change in the wine industry all the while using wine to fight for change.