Celebrity Wines

2 December 2011
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


This week, wine has just moved up another notch as an object of desire among the Chinese. Yao Ming, national basketball hero and homegrown celebrity, just launched ‘Yao Family Wines’. Recently retired from the Houston Rockets, Yao has been seen attending business management classes at Antai College of Economics and Management and launching a sports wear line with Paul & Shark. According to Wine Spectator who interviewed Yao’s winemaker Tom Hinde, the 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon launched in China this week is a blend of 82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that has been aged about 18 months in oak. 


Yao Ming 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will produce 5,000 cases, according to The Wall Street Journal. The wine will be priced in the United States at US$289 a bottle. A more expensive Yao Family Reserve with longer barrel aging will also be released with a total production of only 500 cases. So far, it isn’t clear whether Yao’s wines will be available in Hong Kong or even through China’s traditional wine retail channels. 
The launch of Yao’s wine this week was cleverly orchestrated. On November 27, 2011, in Shanghai, a magnum of his Cabernet Sauvignon was auctioned off to benefit the Special Olympics this weekend for 150,000 yuan ($23,499)with a starting price tag of RMB 150,000 Yuan (US$23,499). This event combines the launch of his own wine with a high profile charity auction that ingeniously allows the first magnum of his wine to be sold at a price that far exceeds its retail value. 
Hollywood celebrities and musicians have long been attracted to wine. Antonio Banderas has shares in a Ribera del Duero winery called Anta Natura; legendary director Francis Ford Coppola purchased his winery Rubicon (aka Inglenook) in the 1970s; Madonna established her Michigan winery Ciccone Winery in 1996; Sam Neil owns Two Paddocks in Gibbston, New Zealand, and is often in Hong Kong to promote his wines; Gerard Depardieu owns Chateau de Tigne in the Loire Valley. It was only a matter of time that a Chinese celebrity followed suit.
Californian wine producers should celebrate Yao’s move. While Bordeaux, and more recently Burgundy, has long hoarded the limelight, this may well be California’s chance to shine. With Yao as the de facto Californian wine ambassador, the United States has a fighting chance of sharing some of the spot light with France, and more specifically with Bordeaux. In Hong Kong, American wines have the second highest per litre price after French wines and their import value is just behind France. However in China, American wines are way behind France and Australia by value of imports and they lag behind Italy, Chile and more recently Spain, according to October 2011 China Customs import figures.  
Americans have been late entering the Chinese market in Hong Kong and China. Not because their wines were not present but because Californian winemakers didn’t invest the time and effort getting to know the market as the Australians and the French have over the past few decades. However, they are trying to make up for lost time, most notably since the US economic downturn in 2008. 
This week and next, we have a star-studded lineup of Napa Valley winemakers in town including Bart and Daphne Araujo of Araujo Estate Wines; Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars; Molly Chappellet of Chappellet Vineyard & Winery; Naoko Dalla Valle of Dalla Valle Vineyards; Janet Pagano of Ovid Napa Valley; Garen & Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard; Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery. To find out more about where these winemakers can be found around town, ask your local retailer or email Jaime Araujo at [email protected].

Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post