In 2011, 7-foot-6-inch-tall Yao Ming retired as a professional basketball player. He had played in the NBA for the Houston Rockets for more than 10 years, and during his career he’d been widely regarded as one of the superstars of the game. He went to the All-Star Game eight times and was named to the All-NBA Team five times. Now Yao spends his days as a global humanitarian and owner of Yao Family Wines.

“I’m very proud to have a winery in Napa Valley,” wrote Yao in an email. “When I first visited, I knew I wanted to be a part of the community. It is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I’ve ever been. Now that we have our hospitality center open, we can meet more people and become a more visible member of the community.”

Yao’s wine is made in collaboration with veteran Napa Valley winemaker Tom Hinde (Cardinale, Lokoya and Verite).

“Yao Ming and I hit it right off,” said Hinde. “We both have a common philosophy when it comes to wine — each should be sophisticated, balanced and exhibit harmony. Besides it’s really an honor to be involved with someone that is making a positive impact through his work with the Special Olympics, at-risk youth and animal-welfare efforts.”

To open the tasting room, located at 929 Main St., Yao reportedly engaged with his many fans in a crowd-sourcing campaign that raised an undisclosed sum.

Visitors may be lucky enough to find Yao making the final blending decisions for his wines with Hinde. Or more likely, guests will be greeted by Sheila Thomas or Jeff Zhang, both of whom are tasting room associates, or Karen Rivers, director of hospitality.

“I am thrilled to be a part of this winery,” said Thomas. “The wines are stunning and have received high scores from Robert Parker. People really seem to enjoy the wine and the tasting experience. We have many options to choose from and private tasting suites where guests can come in and relax as they enjoy the wines and perhaps a seasonal selection of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie.”

The excitement goes beyond those working with the wines, including KC Chen, who has been working as the food and beverage supervisor at Solage, Calistoga for the last year. Chen comes from Shenzhen, China, which is just outside of Hong Kong.

“Yao Ming is one of our country’s superstars,” said Chen. “I haven’t been to his winery yet myself, but I do plan to go soon. I am sure he is producing great wine. The news of his new winery has spread through social media and other outlets, and since he is a major star in China, a lot of people want to come to take a look at his winery.”

Chen’s prediction seems likely.

“We are seeing big jumps in the number of Chinese visitors to the Napa Valley,” wrote John Stallcup in an email. Stallcup is co-founder of Napa Seasoning Co. and a wine-business consultant, often advising wineries on how to better engage with visitors from Asia. “So if you understand the Chinese tourism business, speak the native language of China (Mandarin) and have connections in China, you’re all good.”

My tasting of two of the wines included the 2012 Napa Crest ($48) red blend wine and the 2012 Yao Ming Cabernet Sauvignon. The Crest is an approachable blend of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petite verdot that was dark in the glass with ruby edges.

The aromatics included blueberry, dark cherry and lightly smoky oak. Flavors of plum and raspberry cola were accompanied by chewy tannins.

The cabernet sauvignon ($100) was opaque in the glass and had aromas of candied violets, black cassis and dried lavender. On the palate the wine was rich, layered with echoes of the aromas but finished with luscious blackberry, anise, thyme and vanilla.

Of course my description of these wines is based on my particular palate and cultural context, as my friend John Mini has pointed out. Mini is a St. Helena native who has been an accredited Chinese medicine specialist for more than 30 years and who practices in Marin.

“I’ve written about the complexities of translating wine terminology. There is really no exact translation for many of the terms we use to describe wine,” he said. “Even the word ‘flavor’ (in Mandarin wei dao) also means ‘smell.’ There are other words for ‘flavor,’ too. And blackberry is not very common, so using mulberry (sang) might be a better alternative.”

However you describe it, visitors to Yao Family Wines’ new tasting room are likely to be pleasantly engaged by their experience, walking away with a smile that can be translated to any language.

Yao Family Wines can be found at fine wine shops around the valley, including V-Wine Cellar in Yountville. In addition to the main tasting area, there are also three private tasting rooms and an outdoor patio area.

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Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (SHHS Class of ’84) and is now a freelance writer living in Calistoga.


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