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Interview: NBA star Moe Harkless on wine

Moe Harkless of the New York Knicks talks about the NBA wine scene, his new birthday tradition and how a partnership with The Prisoner Wine Co in California fits alongside his efforts to promote social justice.

From delicious Oregon Chardonnay to classic Napa Cabernet and rarer sights like California Charbono, Moe Harkless is one of several high-profile NBA players who enjoy honing their wine tasting skills when away from the court.

Harkless also recently partnered with The Prisoner Wine Co. He’ll help to ‘amplify’ exposure of the company’s wines and will work with the firm on social justice issues, too; a move that follows his launch of the Black Lives Now initiative via his website.

Decanter caught up with Harkless, now of the New York Knicks, via Zoom.

How big is the wine tasting trend in the NBA?

Wine and basketball obviously don’t mix too well on the court, but plenty of players seem to enjoy good bottles during downtime or when they have a break from games.

‘It’s kind of a culture that’s intertwined with the league,’ says 27-year-old Harkless, who grew up in Queens, New York and played college basketball for St John’s Red Storm before making his NBA debut in 2012.

Moe Harkless Prisoner

Moe Harkless with The Prisoner red blend.

He’s humble about his own knowledge, but he has hosted ‘Wine Wednesday’ via Instagram Live for Uninterrupted, the multimedia production group cofounded by LeBron James – who just won the NBA title with LA Lakers – and business partner Maverick Carter.

‘When I talk to the older guys in the league I feel some of them are wine connoisseurs,’ he says, mentioning players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. ‘These guys have been preaching the wine stuff for years.’

That has filtered down to younger recruits, he says, referencing players such as Josh Hart, now of the New Orleans Pelicans and formerly of the Lakers, who has an Instagram account dedicated to great wines that he’s enjoyed.

As for himself, Harkless says his curiosity was triggered by seeing his college coaches sitting at their own dinner table enjoying wine.

‘When I turned 21 I got a Wine.com membership and was trying different wines and going out to restaurants and trying wines,’ he says. ‘It just grew from there.’

At Portland Trail Blazers he would use days off to visit Oregon wine country. ‘During the summer we’d go up there for a couple of days and hit a few different places,’ he says.

‘Initially it was just a couple of guys that were interested in going. As my years there went on, it went from like two guys to six or seven guys.’

‘Usually after a win you’re in a good mood so you open a better bottle.’

On higher-priced wines, Harkless says he’s been lucky to be around people willing to pour him a glass. Otherwise, ‘it’s a bit intimidating to buy an expensive bottle if you don’t know what’s inside’.

A birthday tradition is now opening a bottle from the 1993 vintage, the year he was born. What was this year’s treat? ‘My friend gifted me a 1993 bottle of Opus [One],’ he says.

He also recalls enjoying a six-bottle case of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 2011 with family and friends after the Trail Blazers triumphed in a must-win game to make the play-offs. ‘Usually after a win you’re in a good mood so you open a better bottle.’

His home cellar now has around 200 bottles. ‘I want to continue to build that. When I get wine, I usually buy at least two or three bottles each so I can buy one, save one and gift one if I like it,’ he says.

If sailing tomorrow, he says his desert island wine would be Peter Michael Winery’s Au Paradis, the Cabernet Sauvignon-driven bottling from Napa Valley’s Oakville – alongside a case of several favourites from The Prisoner Wine Co range, of course.

He’s long been a fan of The Prisoner red blend, but he recently enjoyed trying the group’s [Headlock] Charbono-led red. ‘It’s first time I’ve ever had one of those.’

Although he says Chardonnay and the bolder styles of Cabernet normally associated with Napa Valley are among his go-to picks in general right now, he says he has wine ‘from all over the place’.

He started buying European wines after a trip last year, and recently took his first sips of Bordeaux. He adds that he’s started to enjoy ‘lighter styles’ more than in the past, too. ‘I’ll be interested in five years from now what my favourite wine is.’

Black Lives Now

Alongside tasting, Harkless has highlighted black-owned wine businesses and restaurants via the Black Lives Now initiative on his website, which also includes links to advice on voter registration and mental health services, plus black contemporary artists and music.

‘I turned my website into a resource hub to support everything going on right now,’ he says.

‘When I did my research there were hundreds of black-owned wine businesses and to me that was a surprise because I’d never heard of a lot of them,’ he says. ‘I’ve taken time to start to try to get to know some of them.’

Shining a light on these companies can help to inspire the next generation, he says.

‘I think just having the knowledge and being able to see people with the same skin colour as you, people who look like you being successful in any field, it gives you a sense of reality that that can happen for you.’

Would he give any advice to people looking to get involved in the sector? He says it’s about not being afraid to take risks and believing in what you want to do. ‘You can make it happen, you have to just put the work in and go do it.’

Wine can appear almost cult-like from the outside, he says. ‘[But] one thing I’ve learned about this “club” is that everyone’s friendly.’ He adds, ‘People enjoy helping someone else, so you can’t be afraid to try to go out and make those connections because a lot of times that’s what’s holding you back.’

On a broader level, he also says that he supports efforts to highlight all companies doing good things. ‘Not just black-owned businesses, every business needs support right now because times are just hard in general,’ he says.

How the Prisoner partnership started

Harkless says he was a fan of the wines and heard about the firm’s ethos. After reaching out, he says, ‘we realised that we had common goals and it felt perfect’.

Chrissy Wittmann, The Prisoner’s director of winemaking, said the firm was proud to have Harkless as a fan and ‘support [his] efforts in the Black Lives Matter movement.’ She added, ‘We believe we have a responsibility to use our platform to drive awareness and action in the fight for justice and equality.’

In June 2020, The Prisoner’s owner, Constellation Brands, said it would invest $100m over 10 years in ‘black- and minority-owned businesses’ in the alcoholic drinks sector. It also paid $1m to the Equal Justice Initiative.

A future winemaking project?

Like many wine lovers, Harkless has thought about owning a vineyard. ‘One day that would be pretty awesome to have a vineyard and be able to make my own wine,’ he says.

He also hints that there could be a possibility of producing his own wine label with The Prisoner at some point. ‘The door is open,’ he says. Watch this space.

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