Yao Family Wines was founded with their 2009 vintage and takes its namesake from founder Yao Ming, a retired professional basketball player for the Houston Rockets. During his career, he made the NBA All-Star team five times. Standing at 7 feet 6 inches, Yao is certainly the tallest Napa winery owner. He made his mark in the world of basketball – now he is focusing on producing premium wines from the Napa Valley.
He was introduced to wine through a friend during his time playing professional basketball. And from our experience visiting Houston – there are certainly a plethora of steak restaurants – and when you have steak, you need to pair it with a good red wine. Yao’s passion and knowledge for wine grew and ultimately he decided to start the Yao Ming wine brand. His home base is in Shanghai and he is in the Napa Valley several times a year.
When Yao first voiced interest in making premium Napa wines he visited a number of larger wineries in both Napa and Sonoma but these wineries wanted to market his wine with their name as a part of the brand. Eventually he found industry veteran Tom Hinde – Tom has worked in the wine industry for over 3 decades spending 18 years with Kendall-Jackson, serving as their General Manager for some 9 years. He was also General Manager of La Crema and more recently President, CEO and Director of wine making for Flowers Vineyard and Winery (Sonoma Coast). In 2007 he started his own business, Wine Trends Marketing and currently works with a number of premium smaller brands.
Since his partnership with Yao, Tom has visited China numerous times (learning some Mandarin in the process, not always an easy language because of its tonal nature for native English speakers). One of their staff at the tasting room speaks fluent Mandarin to accommodate Mandarin speaking guests.
In late February 2016 they moved into an existing tasting room in south St. Helena (built by prior owners). The location sees a fair amount of walk-in customers – traffic commonly backs up here into St. Helena; Highway 29 is merely steps from the entrance to the tasting room.
They offer three distinctive tastings – the Access tasting does not require an appointment and includes both Yao Ming and Napa Crest wines. The Reserve Tasting features limited production more exclusive wines and the Library Tasting features select older vintages. The Reserve and Library tastings require reservations and both tastings are paired with a light charcuterie and local cheeses. In addition to the main bar tasting area, three private tasting rooms and an outdoor patio area are also available. The size of the tasting room is deceiving – it is certainly one of the more sizable stand alone (no winery) tasting rooms in all of Napa – they can hold up to 130 people at one time.
The tasting room has a select number of limited edition wines personally signed by Yao Ming. And of course a full size cutout of Yao – so “normal” sized people can get a sense of just how tall he is. They focus on two labels: Yao Ming (their flagship wine) and Napa Crest.
Tom prefers parts of the valley that have moderate temperatures during the growing season and tends to source grapes from locations that are geographically closer to the center of the valley. Currently they source from six vineyards in Napa County ranging from Coombsville in the south to several mountain vineyards (Atlas Peak, Soda Canyon) up through Yountville and St. Helena.
The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (their first ever white wine) includes a tiny percentage of Sémillon. There is a noticeable spicy note on the nose – the palate has good acidity with notes of green and red apple. There is also a hint of residual sugar but it is somewhat masked by the acidity.
The 2014 Gold Peak is a very good value – this wine isn’t necessarily built upon layers of complexity as their premium wines – but is very approachable and an easy to drink everyday wine.
The 2012 Napa Crest red wine (Bordeaux-styled blend) is a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend with Merlot and Petit Verdot rounding out the varietals. There is a sweet note to the bouquet – perhaps like a candied apple with hints of dried sage. The wine is light upon the entry but gains in complexity by the finish. Notes of tobacco spice. The tannins are noticeable – mostly on the sides of the palate rather than the back and are not over powering to the palate.
The 2012 Yao Ming Cabernet Sauvignon is a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend. It is brick red in the glass with just a hint of herbal notes on the bouquet (perhaps eucalyptus), saddle leather and mocha. This wine is rounded with layers of flavor and dusty well integrated both oak and grape tannins.
The 2012 Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon shows mostly red fruit on the bouquet with hints of vanilla. The palate is lively and features robust yet tight grained tannins on the finish. These tannins are somewhat chewy and linger for quite some time. This is a complex and well layered wine and should age well for many years. Only 179 cases were produced.
Yao is not only involved with his own winery but he has become a humanitarian over the years – establishing the Yao Ming Foundation in 2008 after the terrible earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province and continues to contribute to educational causes in both the US and China. And he is credited with significantly decreasing shark fin consumption in China with his work to ban shark fin soup.
The tasting room is already popular at times with as expected a number of visitors from China or Chinese Americans. Production is currently around 8,500 cases with select distribution in 16 states as well as in parts of China. For more information visit: www.yaofamilywines.com