Yao Family Wines was founded with their 2009 vintage and takes its namesake from proprietor Yao Ming, a retired professional basketball player who spent his entire NBA career with the Houston Rockets. He was drafted with the number one pick in the 2002 NBA draft (the first ever international number one NBA pick). His rookie year was documented in the film, The Year of the Yao and later co-authored an autobiography titled Yao: A Life in Two Worlds. He played in the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. While still playing in the NBA in 2009 he purchased the Shanghai Sharks, of the China Basketball League and a team that Yao formerly played for. He sold the team in 2019.
During his career, he made the NBA All-Star team eight times. He was the tallest player in the NBA during his final season in 2010/2011. At only age 30, his career was cut short by persistent ankle and foot injuries. In 2016 he was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame along with other former notable players including Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA. He is still the tallest player ever to be elected to the NBA Hall of Fame. And he has been the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association since 2017. During his playing time in the NBA, as expected, the Houston Rockets were the most popular basketball team in China and Yao is arguably the most famous athlete from China on the planet.
Standing at 7 feet 6 inches, Yao is certainly the tallest Napa Valley wine brand owner. He made his mark in the world of basketball and now he is focusing on producing premium wines from Napa Valley. His first wine released in China, was in 2011 and was the 2009 vintage of the Yao Ming Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
He was introduced to wine through a friend during his time playing professional basketball as well as from players ordering wine at dinners during road trips (a common story we’ve heard from several of the athlete run brands in Napa Valley). And from personal experience visiting Houston, there are certainly a plethora of steak restaurants; when one has steak, an ideal pairing is with a well-made red wine. Yao’s passion and knowledge for wine grew and ultimately, he decided to start Yao Ming wine brand. His home base is in Shanghai (where he was born), but he is in 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 (who we originally met with). 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). Note: Tom is no longer the winemaker for Yao Ming.
Their winemaking team prefers parts of the valley that have moderate temperatures during the growing season and tend 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 focus is on two labels: YAO MING (their flagship wine) and Napa Crest.
YAO MING Wines
The 2015 YAO MING Family Sauvignon Blanc (their first ever white wine) includes a tiny percentage of Sémillon. There is a noticeable herbal note on the nose; the palate offers bright acidity with notes of green and red apple. There is also a hint of sweetness which is somewhat overwritten by the acidity.
The 2018 Yao Ming Family Table, Napa Valley Red Wine is dark ruby in color; the bouquet offers aromas of blackberry, dark and ripe cherry, black raspberry, Pakistani mulberry, suede leather, a light woodsy spice, crushed peppercorn, creosote, dried mushroom, dark chocolate, mocha and espresso. Give this wine time, the bouquet will become more expressive of its core fruit characteristics. The palate reveals flavors of dark plum, dark raspberry, cherry, currant, a sweet tobacco spice and a light note of peppercorn on the finish. This wine lingers with a warmth of alcohol and grainy but integrated tannins. This bottling is balanced at the time of our tasting 5 years post vintage. If this was a summer day and its not even close with cold rain falling outside, we would pair with this a tri-tip from the BBQ.
The 2012 YAO MING Family 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.
Napa Crest Wines
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 along with hints of dried sage. The wine is light upon the entry but gains in complexity by the finish. It features notes of tobacco spice. The tannins are noticeable felt mostly on the sides of the palate rather than the back and are not overpowering in their textural feel.
Yao Family Wines became the world’s first winery to offer a wine at auction paired with NFt digital collectible with the release of their 2016 CHOP. The label on these extremely coveted and limited production bottles is the Chinese chop, a seal which dates from the Shang Dynasty (商朝), ruling from 1600 BC to 1046 BC.
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.
NOTE: It is possible that Yao Ming may no longer be producing. The most current release listed on their website as of our latest update to this review is over 5 years old and all social media ceased more than a year ago. We will archive this review or update once we have more information.
Production is currently around 8,500 cases per year with select distribution in 16 states as well as in parts of China. After closing their tasting room in 2020, Yao Ming Wines began accepting private tastings by prior reservation available Thursday through Sundays but as of mid 2023 have since stopped accepting visits. For more information, to purchase wines, or to join their wine club, visit: www.yaofamilywines.com
Former Tasting Room (permanently closed)
In late February 2016 Yao Ming moved into a tasting room in south St. Helena after the space was vacated by prior occupants, Bello Family Vineyards. In 2020 this tasting room closed permanently, and Yao Family wines vacated the building. Following a period of vacancy the building was home to Vine Star, a wine and espresso bar. The owner of Vine Star, Jay was involved with the Yao Ming brand and as a result, for a short while, visitors were able to still taste select Yao Ming wines here. However as of late 2023, the Vine Star sign has been removed from the exterior of the building and it appears the building may be vacated.
When this tasting was opened, they offered three distinctive tastings: the Access Tasting included both Yao Ming and Napa Crest wines. The Reserve Tasting featured limited production more exclusive wines and the Library Tasting featured select older vintages. The Reserve and Library tastings required reservations and both tastings were 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 were also available. The size of this tasting room is deceiving; it is certainly one of the more sizable stand-alone (no winery) tasting rooms in all of Napa Valley and can host 130 people at any one time.
The tasting room also offered select number of limited-edition wines personally signed by Yao Ming. And what used to grab visitor’s attention immediately when entering the tasting room, was a full-size cutout of Yao allowing people of ‘normal’ height a sense of just how tall he is. Yao’s Hall of Fame jacket was also on display.
During the several years this tasting room was open, it was a good thing in that it perhaps introduced primarily Chinese tourists to Napa Valley who otherwise would not have visited.
(we keep these photographs here for historical reference)