You are probably already familiar with CJ McCollum the basketball star. Drafted in 2013 to the Portland Trail Blazers, he’s become a leader in the league, both on and off the court. He not only averages more than 20 points per game for the Blazers, but last year, McCollum was elected president of the National Basketball Players Association, tasked with leading the union in bargaining talks with the NBA.
But you may be less familiar with CJ McCollum the winemaker.
OPB host Paul Marshall spoke with McCollum about the similarities between wine and basketball, bringing bottles into the NBA COVID bubble last year, and how winemakers from different backgrounds can help diversify the wine industry.
Paul Marshall: How did you go from wine drinker to winemaker?
CJ McCollum: That’s a great question. I started off not liking wine. Back in college, my wife introduced me to merlot and we weren’t big fans of it, but we felt like it was something we should try as we became adults. Kind of getting away from the things you drank in college and turning into a more sophisticated person. And as I pursued her, I began to continue to follow wine. And once I got drafted to the Portland Trail Blazers out here in Oregon, I was exposed to Willamette Valley, to Chehalem Mountains, I was exposed to the Carlton AVA...and it pulled me in. I had Walter Scott as my first Oregon pinot — it was volcanic soil from Bryan Creek — and then I began to go wine tasting to Stoller and Soter, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, and Mon Frère and Antica Terra… and ordering wines from all these different places where I just began to fall in love with it.
And then I met some people at Adelsheim and we ended up forming a partnership together, where I was able to really dive into wine and learn more about the process of it. And as you said before, go from wine drinker to my own label. Using Gina [Hennen], using some of the different winemakers out here in the valley to educate me and put me in a position to feel comfortable speaking to wine, but also putting wine in front of people that is based on my taste preference.
Marshall: You and your wife bought a vineyard in the Willamette Valley this year, [making you] the first active NBA player to own a vineyard. What does that mean to you?
McCollum: It means a lot to me, to be in that conversation as a pioneer, so to speak. From growing up in Canton, Ohio, to not really liking wine and not really being exposed to those types of things, to creating my own label, to owning and operating my own land and being able to control the decision-making process of what I plant, when I plant it, who plants it and what that looks like — it’s a blessing and a privilege and one I don’t take for granted. I think, as a Black man, growing up in America, I think there’s a lot of kids that grew up in similar situations to me that will be more likely to gravitate towards this field, be more likely to gravitate towards wine in general, and I think the industry will improve because of that.
Marshall: In 2020 the NBA suspended its season, but because of COVID they then decided to restart it and finish it up in the bubble. I heard the bubble was big on wine. Is it true that you shipped more than 100 bottles there?
McCollum: It is true. I actually gave away close to 300 bottles, so I had more than 200 bottles shipped into the bubble. Some to be distributed, others to be drunk by myself, my teammates, staff across the league. There were lots and lots of boxes... I don’t think they understood what they signed up for when they said that we could have mail shipped in. Guys began to go crazy, not just on wine, but wine refrigerators were shipped in, coolers, everything you can think of was shipped into the bubble.
It was a great opportunity for us to bond, get to know each other a little bit better and to be able to introduce different wines from different regions with not only current teammates, former teammates, [but] with other teams that were staying in some of the hotels next to us.
Marshall: What sort of feedback are you getting?
McCollum: It was a great experiment for me to introduce a lot of “wine snobs” to not only Oregon pinot, but specifically McCollum Heritage 91. I had my 2018 varietal pinot noir released around the time we were in the bubble. So it was really cool to get feedback from people who drink wine on the regular and it was cool to introduce some of the different wineries throughout Oregon that I’m fond of and that I had wine shipped in from. You know, JJ Reddick was there, Melo (Carmelo Anthony) obviously, Rudy Gay, Pop (Gregg Popovich) — there’s a lot of people that drink wine in a bubble that were there and I was able to share wine with them.
I was able to drink some white Burgundy, I was able to drink some Super Tuscans, you know, a lot of people brought out some of their best stuff and some of the stuff they are very fond of and I thought that created a great environment.
Marshall: Any off-the-court competition between yourself and other winemakers in the NBA?
McCollum: No [laughing]. No, I think it’s a great community where you respect everybody, understanding where they come from, what they’ve come from. And me being in Oregon, it’s unique. You know, we have great pinot noir grapes, chardonnay, we have a lot of different varietals that are starting to get the recognition that it truly deserves. And I think people are starting to really respect wine that comes from Oregon. I think for me having an Oregon wine kind of sets me apart from the Napas and those other areas because it’s unique. It’s different.
Marshall: Any similarities between playing ball and making wine?
McCollum: Discipline. I think you have to be disciplined, it takes a lot of sacrifice, it takes a lot of time, and you can do everything right and still not succeed at times. And I think the same thing can be said for basketball, you can do all the preparation in the world and you can get in foul trouble or you can get injured or you can just miss shots, a bad break here or there and the game can go wrong. The same for the wine industry, you can’t control the climate, you can’t control the temperatures, exposure to the sunlight, precipitation, the amount of water that’s going to come each year, and you can’t control the outcome of the grapes. One row may taste a little different than the next row and I think that’s the cool thing about vineyards in general is that each block gives you something different, something unique.
Marshall: What does winemaking bring you that you wouldn’t find on the court?
McCollum: It brings a unique balance of peace. Basketball has always been my escape. Obviously it’s a different type of escape because you have to be well conditioned, you’re playing a high pressure sport in front of people, but wine is more celebratory. I think it’s relaxing. It’s kind of a kick back where you’re breaking bread with family. You associate that with storytelling, you associate that with quality time, and it’s just something that you share. I can enjoy wine with my grandmother, I can enjoy wine with my mother, my father, my wife, my in-laws, my brother. We can celebrate with bubbles, we can celebrate with rosé, we can celebrate with chardonnay… I think that uniqueness to it allows [wine] to be transparently acceptable across all ages, groups, and genders. Whereas for basketball, it’s just me playing and people watching.
Marshall: Do you see your role in the wine industry as helping to make it a more inclusive space?
McCollum: Absolutely. I think that’s part of my job to not only provide a great product for people, but to get more people that come from places like me interested in wine. To get them exposed to it and more comfortable with it. And not just making wine, but the entire process; the business of wine, what goes into it, the farming aspects of it. I think all those things are extremely important and the more people we have from diverse backgrounds, the more diverse wine will become. And that will create a great product that’s even more diverse than anything we’ve ever seen before.