Vintage performance: what’s behind NBA stars’ wine obsession?

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">LeBron James</a> has an in-depth knowledge of wine.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Terrill/Invision/AP</span>
LeBron James has an in-depth knowledge of wine.Photograph: Mark Terrill/Invision/AP

LeBron James could have chosen anything as a hobby to shepherd him into early middle age. He could have started collecting vintage cars or investing in startups or flying planes; he could have gotten into Texas-style barbecue and joined the massed ranks of American males who index their self-esteem to the quality of their smoke rings; he could have launched an alt-coin; he could have become a Roman Empire guy, a pizza geek, an amateur rancher, or a whisky bore. Instead he has developed a passion for wine. Nowhere is that passion on fuller display than in Mind the Game, James’s new show with JJ Redick, which sees this colossus of the boards dissect – in sometimes bewilderingly wonkish detail – the great plays and tactical trends of modern basketball while pouring a series of fabulously expensive wines for the pair’s on-screen delectation.

James, of course, is the perennial adult of American sport, an athlete who had the body of a man when he was still a boy and arrived in the NBA with all the elements of his mature game – the vision, the piano hands, the speed in transition and bulging power through the paint – seemingly already perfected. So it makes a rough kind of sense that he’s chosen scholarly, contemplative, grown-up oenophilia – the most responsible form of adult irresponsibility, a pastime that educates while it intoxicates – as the signature off-court diversion of his twilight years in the NBA. The king of the court is now the king of the wine influencers.

James developed an interest in wine after he turned 30, around the time that his former Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade posted a now-famous picture of the pair enjoying an unidentified red (leggy in the glass with hues of cherry and black fruits; perhaps an aglianico or big Sonoma red?) in the company of fellow All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.

Wine has become a much more pronounced part of James’s off-court identity over the past five years: during an injury layoff in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he showed up to a game brandishing a stemless glass of red; bottle shots are a regular feature of the King’s production on Instagram (one recent post rhapsodized about a 1984 cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley’s Caymus Vineyards: “They say my birth year was one of the worst years in wine history but can’t front. This is drinking very good right now!”); and reds sloshed in stubby, tavern-style glasses were one of the more memorable fixtures on James’s otherwise flaccid HBO talk series The Shop.

On Mind the Game it’s James who brings the wines and does the pouring – and, seemingly, most of the drinking. The bottles are emptied into glasses as tall and skinny as Victor Wenbanyama, but once the vessels are set against LeBron it becomes clear that the recent trend towards gigantism in stemware has been leading to this point: in the modern 250lbs NBA power forward, the wine industry finally has a quantity of human significant enough to justify the size of its glasses. The first episode opens with a big statement of oenophilic intent, as James plonks down a 2012 grand cru Mazy-Chambertin from Burgundy’s Domaine Armand Rousseau (average retail price: $1,200 a bottle) and a 1995 Bordeaux blend from Château Lynch-Bages (at a slightly less eye-popping $250 a bottle) while Redick spits out a weak excuse about how he was all set to bring three bottles of some forgettable cabernet franc from the Loire but then didn’t because of scheduling conflicts or something. These are big, serious, rich guy wines: there’s no concession to youthful fashion here, no whisper of an organic pineau d’aunis or a funky field blend or a chalky pet nat made with minimal intervention and observance of the pagan moon cycle. LeBron’s wine rotation represents the very best that extreme wealth, sulfites, and centuries of tradition can muster.

As James takes his first sip, it seems as if the pattern of the series is set: the world-historical alpha throwing back Côte d’Or grands crus like they’re Gatorade, with Redick, the statistical beta, gingerly lipping his Zalto sippy cup while probing the origins of his counterpart’s on-court greatness. Instead, something subtler emerges: LeBron is as deferential before his co-host as he is before the wines. He imbibes in short, unshowy sips (there’s no look-at-me swish of the glass, no examination of the legs or porcine sampling of the fumes) while keeping intellectual pace with Redick’s frenzied on-screen dissection of the modern game’s technical apparatus, all those “thumbs downs” and “hedges” and “horns chests” and “floppies” that make today’s NBA tick. As the series has evolved it’s become defined by the dance between James’s two hands – the dominant left he uses in everyday life and with which he drinks wine, and the right hand guiding all the defining plays of his career (including, most famously, The Block, which he and Redick have already discussed). His power-dunking hand is as meaty as his wine-holding hand is light. This is a man, the series seems to say, with layers.

James is not the only NBA star with an interest in wine, of course, but he’s definitely the biggest. Carmelo Anthony hosted an interview series throughout the pandemic called What’s In Your Glass?, in which he shared his enthusiasm for wine with a series of slightly less enthusiastic celebrity wine drinkers; San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a fabled connoisseur of the pleasures of the vine; and several high-profile players, including Wade, James Harden, Kevin Love, and CJ McCollum, have even produced their own wines.

Player-backed wine labels are also growing in the NFL – former Oakland Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson, for instance, produces a line of budget-friendly cuvées out of the Napa Valley – but it’s in basketball that the love of wine has taken hold most powerfully as a cultural discriminator. While the NFL struggles to shed its image as the home of bros and brews, and baseballers in MLB’s post-chewing tobacco era are left to seek comfort in their nicotine pouches, the NBA’s elite has gone all in on the grape. And though these players generally tend to favor red Burgundies and Bordeaux and Barolos over whites of any region or appellation (a classic failing, some might say, of the novice oenophile), the wines they’re consuming are products of great maturity and finesse. (Or so I’ve read online; sadly, the budget for this piece does not extend to allowing me to sample a grand cru Mazy-Chambertin.)

Appreciating fine wine requires no justification – after all, why shouldn’t NBA players get into fermented fruit juice? It’s delicious and they have the means to buy the best of the best. But it’s worth venturing, I think, a more courageous explanation for this sudden surge of interest in the murk and mystery of the vine. As a status symbol, prestige wine is a notch more sophisticated than the fast car collection, the private jet, or the big house – the superstar athlete’s traditional channel for setting themselves apart from the adoring consumer masses. An interest in wine, especially the big, prestigious reds that LeBron and company gravitate towards, is a way of signaling omnivorousness, openness to experience, a curiosity about the world beyond the narrow confines of professional basketball – a pursuit that’s right in line with the NBA’s cultivated image as the most worldly and culturally self-aware of the US’s major sporting leagues.

Wine, in other words, is the rare vice that fits the NBA’s brand. But there’s something else there, too. In the fourth episode of Mind the Game Redick asks LeBron why he thinks women’s basketball – and women’s college basketball in particular, inspired by the prodigious scoring feats of Caitlin Clark – has exploded in popularity in recent times. LeBron identifies a single factor that makes the women’s game at college level so compelling: time. Male college basketballers can declare for the NBA draft after their freshman year, he explains, but “in the women’s game you have the ability to build your legacy and build your rapport and brand with that fanbase, with that community. You’re watching these girls year after year after year continue to grow. I think that has a lot to do with the popularity of the sport.”

The NBA is a restless, expansionary league filled with restless, ambitious players. Along with that ambition comes a kind of rootlessness. LeBron himself has lived the dramas of modern basketball’s hyper-mobility, has felt the struggle of honoring his origins in Ohio while heeding the call of celebrity and success further afield. Like many modern players, he’s of somewhere and nowhere at the same time, a sporting vagabond who’s bounced from team to team and city to city, always in a rush. The life of the elite basketballer is both itinerant and programmed, frenetic and predictable, wired to the conditioning rhythm of the playing calendar and the technical demands of the tactics whiteboard. Wine, by contrast, is a powerful expression of place and chance. Though each bottle bears the imprint of its maker, its contents are subject to the vagaries of soil, slope, time, and climate, and it’s that ineffable quality of terroir that gives every good wine its mark of distinction. This is a radically different world from the one that elite basketballers inhabit on a daily basis, in which great teams are assembled and disassembled with the speed and efficiency of a car wash.

The burgeoning love of fine wine could be, in the kinetic, permacasting world of the modern NBA, a way for players to reconnect to place, commune with the earth, appreciate a realm of achievement and beauty beyond human control – the rich athlete version of “touching grass”. The more you see the craze for the grape spreading throughout basketball, the more you start to see it everywhere, reflected in everything. Eventually you can even detect the wines in the players themselves. You see Kevin Durant as a lean Etna red, Russell Westbrook as an over-eager Amarone, Giannis Antetokounmpo as an inky vertzami, Steph Curry as a fine-bubbled crémant – or LeBron himself, even, as a regal bottle-aged Côte de Nuits, fringed with a rusty glamor, the old might mellowed but still lurking within.