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Interview: NBA star CJ McCollum on making his own wine

Decanter speaks to CJ McCollum of Portland Trail Blazers about his winemaking project with Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon and how he became part of the NBA’s renowned wine scene.

CJ McCollum’s debut wine, ‘McCollum Heritage 91’, reportedly sold out in 45 minutes after the Oregon Pinot Noir was released last year at a retail price of $50-a-bottle. It would take longer to watch an NBA game.

‘It’s so cool to bring it out and see it sell,’ McCollum tells Decanter towards the end of 2020, prior to the start of the new NBA season.

McCollum heritage 91 wine, 2018 vintage

Photo credit: McCollum Heritage 91.

Only 133 cases of McCollum Heritage 91 2018 were made, in partnership with Adelsheim Vineyard.

Buyers were limited to six bottles each of the wine, sourced from vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains area of Willamette Valley.

As you may know, wine is a big deal in the NBA. Several players have spent time honing their tasting skills away from the court, yet McCollum is among a select few in making his own label.

It’s a far cry from the days when he didn’t really enjoy wine. ‘I was more of a lemonade guy,’ he says, crediting his wife with introducing him to good bottles initially.

Was there a ‘eureka moment’ when it all made sense? It’s more of an evolution, but he cites an early memory of Walter Scott Wines in Oregon, and in particular being intrigued by vineyards planted on volcanic soils.

‘I’m so close to a goldmine,’ he says of Oregon wine country on the Portland Trail Blazers’ doorstep. ‘Just going to vineyards and seeing how much love there is for it – you fall in love with it as well.’

Pinot Noir is a big part of the story. ‘It’s not too strong, it’s not too light, it goes with a lot of food. Pinot is a wine that you can drink,’ he says.

In 2016, though, he decided to ‘take it to the next level’ by exploring opportunities to make wine and develop his own label.

‘Before I do anything I try to educate myself on it,’ he says, recalling a journey down the ‘rabbit hole’ of researching the winemaking process, from soil types to use of oak barrels.

CJ McCollum tasting wine at Adelsheim

In the cellars at Adelsheim Vineyard. Photo credit: McCollum Heritage 91.

Cue the partnership with Adelsheim from 2017, where he worked with winemaker Gina Hennen.

He initially did a blind tasting with Hennen, putting wines he liked to the left and those he didn’t to the right. ‘The three glasses on the left were all from volcanic soils,’ he remembers.

Months of tasting, branding work and refining followed before Heritage 91 2018 was released in September last year.

The final wine, which was aged for 10 months in French oak (26% new) before bottling, is drawn from three Adelsheim vineyards certified sustainable by the ‘Live’ organisation and all planted on volcanic soil: Boulder Bluff, Quarter Mile Lane and Bryan Creek.

The ‘Heritage 91’ name references McCollum’s childhood street in Canton, Ohio, and the year of his own birth.

CJ McCollum Heritage 91 wine

Photo credit: McCollum Heritage 91.

Beyond Oregon, his own wine horizons have expanded during his time in the NBA. He says it’s great to learn off other wine fans, including players. ‘Everybody’s tastes are different.’

For instance, McCollum says Carmelo ‘Melo’ Anthony – currently also with the Trail Blazers – ‘is a big big Burgundy guy’.

Social distancing rules have changed things, but in the NBA some players would previously travel with wine and take a bottle out to dinner after games, he says.

How is McCollum’s personal cellar looking? There are more than 500 bottles now, he says, with Oregon greats sitting alongside wines from around the world, including top-drawer Bordeaux, such as Château Margaux, and also Italy’s Sassicaia – picked up following a trip to Tuscany two years ago.

Some of the Heritage 91 2018 is there, too, so that he can taste it every couple of years as it ages.

‘I’ve got a solid, diverse collection.’ But he says it could be organised better; an issue many wine collectors could probably identify with. ‘I need to slow down,’ he jokes.

He may need to make space for more blanc de blancs, which he describes as a growing passion. He also recalls enjoying a tasting of white wines, including Chardonnay, with sushi – involving shrimp tempura and eel.

In terms of drinking, however, early morning starts for work mean a Coravin device can come in handy for enjoying a glass or a taste without needing to open the bottle, he adds.

Having got married in 2020, can he provide any inspiration for wedding wines? ‘I did bring some of the Heritage,’ he says, adding other highlights included Screaming Eagle 2009 and Solaia, plus some Côte Rôtie for the honeymoon.

And what did he uncork after scoring 37 points to help the Blazers beat Denver Nuggets in a winner-takes-all game to reach the Western Conference Finals in 2019? ‘We had Champagne,’ he recalls of the jubilant post-match celebrations.

Looking ahead, McCollum confirms there will be a 2019 vintage release of Heritage 91, and hints at other projects in the pipeline, too. ‘We’re going to explore other avenues at some point.’ Watch this space.

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