A version of this story appears in GOLD RUSH: powered by espnW, a special collaboration with ESPN The Magazine for its Feb. 19 issue. Subscribe!
The river of black shuttle buses negotiates sharp switchbacks, bouncing upward along miles of uneven pavement that fades into dirt, from two lanes to one, climbing beneath oak forest that blocks out the morning light. Cellphone service dwindles to nothing. Finally, a metal gate appears, a large “M” at its center, and soon the Cleveland Cavaliers pour out of the buses. About 60 members of the franchise gather near tables covered in white cloth, sitting atop cedar bark spread across a small clearing. They clink flutes of 2006 Dom Pérignon in toast. Nearby, all around the property, lies charred earth. Burned hillsides, stippled with the black skeletons of trees, loom ominous.
This is Mayacamas, one of Napa Valley’s most iconic wineries. Not many of the Cavs have been here, but LeBron James has, and he recognizes that the area where he’s standing now, the small clearing, once belonged to a building that is no more.
The fire, when it came, had raced in from the west, feeding on dry underbrush, roaring over the hills. Winds swept it along the edges of and into Mayacamas’ vineyards, the intense heat threatening dormant vines harvested not long before. Workers evacuated as flames neared the winery, not knowing what — if anything — would survive. When staffers returned weeks later, they saw how the flames had crept to the edge of the three main buildings, licked up their sides, leaving deep black scars near the foundation. Millions in damage was caused, though the true toll will be tallied when it becomes clear which vines can still bud in the spring. But somehow the fire had devoured only one of the buildings, a 5,000-square-foot, two-story Italian villa-style structure used for hospitality and dining.
“It’s a miracle,” says Mayacamas assistant winemaker Braiden Albrecht.
Mayacamas hadn’t hosted any groups since that October blaze. No groups, that is, until today, a clear, brisk late-December Thursday — two days before James’ 33rd birthday — when the Cavaliers arrive for a midseason two-day Napa getaway.
At Mayacamas, organizers had rushed to prepare for the Cavaliers, hauling away burned rubble in huge bins. Now, after the champagne toast, players gather beside fermentation tanks before moving next door to a spacious living room, where glasses of 2015 chardonnay and 2013 cabernet dot a heavy wooden table. They playfully sneak more glasses of wine. James tries to tempt rookie forward Cedi Osman, who, along with some of the other rookies, isn’t into wine just yet. “Drink me … ” James says, holding the glass near Osman, but Osman declines. “Their loss,” James would say later. “More for me.”
Mayacamas winemaker Andy Erickson introduces the chardonnay by describing how proud he is that it’s not a typical Napa Valley chardonnay, not over-the-top with buttery-tasting notes. The players sip and are asked for their thoughts. Guard J.R. Smith, sitting on a couch against a back wall, raises his hand. What comes to mind as he sips the wine?
“It’s like butter,” Smith says, smiling. Laughter erupts from all over. Classic J.R.
Eventually, the players head below to the cellar, where 1,200-gallon oak barrels line stone walls built before Prohibition. Glasses of 2003 cabernet await. The Cavaliers are staying for just an hour and a half, but throughout, as winemakers explain the step-by-step process of how wine comes to be, players lob a stream of questions — about wines produced on mountains versus those in the valley, what practices are best to maintain a healthy cellar, how long to age certain wines, how to keep fermentation tanks clean, why some wines are $15, some $1,500.
No one asks these questions, Carissa Mondavi, a fourth-generation vintner from Continuum Estate and granddaughter of California wine pioneer Robert Mondavi, thinks to herself. The vintners love curiosity, when visitors probe deeper than others. But this feels like something more.
And here, Mondavi sees a corollary: NBA players are the product of so many unseen hours spent perfecting so many hidden details, all leading to the moment when the ball is tossed in the air. So too is wine crafted against countless variables — the weather, soil, harvest, tanks, the barrels and blends, the delicate alchemy of it all — until, one day, the cork is pulled. For both to shine, it takes so much work no one will ever see.
TIMBERWOLVES GUARD JIMMY Butler travels with a wine case, one he toted to the 2016 Rio Olympics, bringing along bottles of pinot noir. Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, a fan of Bordeaux, makes the hour trek to Napa to unwind, though he wishes he’d started doing so nine years ago, when he arrived in the Bay Area. (“I don’t know if I appreciated what was in my backyard,” Curry says today.) Warriors forward Kevin Durant is still gauging which wines pair best with certain foods, still curious about terroir — the environmental factors that affect wine. But he knows what he likes to unwind with, especially after a game: a richer, fuller-bodied pinot noir.
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade started on riesling one night at Prime 112 in Miami years ago, now craves cabernet and, in a partnership with Napa’s acclaimed Pahlmeyer wine, started his own label, D Wade Cellars, which features a red blend and a cabernet sauvignon. There’s talk of a rosé to come.
Chris Paul likewise started on riesling before moving to reds, now adores pinot noir, befriended a master sommelier, partakes in blind tastings and visits vineyards during harvest. During a November game against the Warriors in 2015, when Paul was with the Clippers, he was bringing the ball up the court when he shouted to a man courtside. “Hey! You bring me any good wine?” The man was Juan Mercado, founder of Realm Cellars in Napa.
Then there’s Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony too went through a riesling phase, not long after he became intrigued by wine in 2007, back when he played for the Nuggets. He would soon begin vacationing at wine-rich regions around the globe. He’d stock up at a wine shop in Sacramento, savor early vintages of Dominus. He tried an ’86 Petrus, a vintage Bordeaux worth thousands of dollars, and, in his words, there was “no going back” — but then a friend persuaded him to give burgundies a chance, and though Anthony at first found them too intricate, he soon fell for those too. Now those varietals populate the six-bottle wine case Anthony lugs around the league.
As Anthony dove deeper into wine, he began engaging in blind tastings, tasting groups. He began priding himself on being able to pair wine with any dish. He became driven to pick up the tasting notes in any glass. “If a master sommelier gets 12 out of 12,” Anthony declares about tasting notes, “I want to get three.” And so he kept probing, developing his palate, until now, he says proudly and with a huge smile, “I can give you three.”
Today, Anthony looks around the NBA and sees a blooming trend but admits some players might be intimidated by the vastness of the wine world. “You gotta find your own palate,” Anthony preaches. “It’s like art. Like everybody can’t go buy the Basquiats and the Rembrandts, the big pieces. That’s how I look at wine, you gotta figure out what you like.”
When he was traded to the Knicks in 2011, Anthony began attending and hosting “two-bottle Sunday” New York City dinners with high-ranking aficionados — those whose collections, he says, are valued in the millions. The mandate at such dinners: bring top-flight bottles.
“Here’s a story,” Anthony begins, sitting in the Thunder’s practice facility on a chilly December morning. A few years ago, maybe 2014, he attended a dinner at the home of one of the East Coast’s biggest collectors, along with about 80 others, all well versed in vino, and everyone was asked to bring his or her very best bottle. Oh my god, Anthony thought to himself. I don’t want to be “that guy.” Because I know those guys are coming with ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. They’d go deep into their cellars, bringing the heat. Then it hit him: champagne. Always classy, always a safe bet. So he brought a Dom Pérignon Brut Rosé magnum, late 1990s.
At the end of the night, there was a contest to select the best bottle. And? Anthony grins now. He placed in the top three.
ACTRESS GABRIELLE UNION, who is married to Wade, remembers a time only a few years ago when her husband didn’t drink wine at all. But then she pursued her own label — Vanilla Puddin, a California chardonnay — and an opportunity arose. Wade was young in wine but believed he might do such a thing at 40, after retiring.
It happened much sooner. By summer 2014, there he was, sitting at the Bardessono Hotel in Yountville, with three cabernet-centric red blends in front of him, each one crafted by Pahlmeyer to fit the style he specifically requested. Wade sipped all three, but in Goldilocks style, only one was just right — 75 percent cabernet, 15 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet franc, 2.5 percent petit verdot, 0.5 percent malbec, featuring notes of dark chocolate, cured tobacco, sage and blueberry pie. Wade beamed as he sipped that combination, declaring, “I feel like I’ve arrived. I’ve got my own wine now.”
Says Union, author of the memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine: “When they were first in the league … it was the jewelry and the cars and the rock star lifestyles and all the accoutrements that comes with that. As they all got older and started families, it was houses and all of the obvious visual trappings of wealth. Now no longer are people impressed by your financial portfolio or how big your house is. Nobody talks about square footage. Nobody talks about cars or jewelry or whatever. It’s who can bring the best bottle of wine.”
In dozens of interviews with players and those in the wine industry who’ve interacted with them — winemakers, collectors, master sommeliers — it’s clear: The game’s iconic figures are burgeoning oenophiles. But when it comes to which team is the most wine-obsessed, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the one whose colors are, fittingly, wine and gold.
SOMETHING IS OFF with the Cleveland Cavaliers. (And no, we’re not talking about these last few weeks.) It’s February 2014, and David Griffin has just been named acting general manager. But as he begins to examine the team’s culture, he finds it … lacking. Seeking a fix, Griffin rips a page from Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whom Griffin worked alongside in the Suns’ front office and who swears by the power of team dinners. And not just any dinners but wine-paired dinners. And for that, Griffin turns to his wife, Meredith.
Meredith is training to become a sommelier and hosts seminars about the relationship between wine and wellness as part of her company, decantU. She believes in wine’s purported benefits — that it’s good for the cardiovascular system, good for the heart, that appreciating it inspires mindfulness, encourages being present. If you start noticing what the person across the table is smelling in the glass? Then you might begin paying more attention to him or her.
Consider the scene midday on Dec. 28, after visiting Mayacamas, as the Cavaliers head to the Brand Napa Valley winery, where they lunch in a cave before moving to the fermentation room. Inside are eight tables, each holding three wines Brand produces: a cabernet sauvignon, a cabernet franc and a petit verdot. Also on the table is its Brio, a Bordeaux-style red blend.
In what amounts to a team-building exercise — a far cry from a contentious team meeting in their locker room 25 days later and a series of trade-deadline deals that would jettison six Cavaliers elsewhere — the Cavs are divvied up among the eight tables, and players are told to try the blend, then mix together portions of the three other wines to match the blend. They’re given no percentages; they must go only by taste. Using graduated glass cylinders, players begin to mix, jotting down the quantities.
The formula for the Brio is 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent petit verdot. Many come close to nailing the exact formula. But when the results are examined, one player, who’d visited this winery months earlier, in late August, comes closest.
“I got it, I got it!” Kevin Love shouts. And indeed he is close, very close, just a touch too rich, a percentage point too much of petit verdot. High-fives are exchanged at his table. “We have a future winemaker with us,” the owners tell Love. “Of all the accolades in my career, that’s up there,” Love jokes.
Later that night, Griffin, who now lives in Sonoma with his wife, will arrive at the resort where the Cavs are staying, and Love will wrap Griffin in a bear hug.
“Did they tell you?” Love will ask. “I was 1 percent from perfect!”
Consider another scene in the Cavs’ locker room, after their 109-95 road loss to the Kings, the team’s second loss in what will become a 7-13 stretch leading to the Feb. 8 roster shakeup. Sitting at his locker, forward Channing Frye, who will be among six Cavaliers traded, discusses wine and its role on the team. “It’s not just like ‘Here’s a Jack and Coke,’ ” Frye says. “It’s like each bottle of wine is different. And I think it’s just a representation of us and our relationship with each other.”
Many, like James and Wade, love big, bold Napa reds. Frye lives in Oregon in the summer and enjoys the local fare, and as he ascended into middle age, he began to prefer a good pinot noir — as does Kyle Korver. Still, Frye isn’t afraid to try the Tempranillo that Jose Calderon gifted him, or to wander into South American wine.
The beverage is always present on the team plane, where quality labels are mandated (players bring the bottles, and Frye often delivered). It was the gift du jour during their latest Secret Santa exchange. It might not have been enough, all by itself, to save the roster from upheaval. But one restaurant manager, who works at a Western Conference hotel that has hosted the Cavaliers, notes that when the wine service begins, everyone stops. “Everyone is paying attention and talking about the nose and the color and the aroma of the wine,” the manager says. “It’s amazing.” But who orders the best wine at these dinners? Frye, still sitting in his locker, leans forward, tilting his head back a bit, pausing, weighing possibilities.
“Probably Kevin,” Frye says after a beat, and Love, who’s sitting to Frye’s right, his feet soaking in an ice bucket after logging 30 minutes against the Kings, appreciates the mention. Love hails from Oregon, prides himself on not easing into wine on a sweet white but instead his home state’s famed reds.
“He has the simplest taste,” Frye continues, “but he also … “
“Simplest taste?!” Love interrupts, his eyes wide, eyebrows raised, head perched forward.
“I mean easiest taste,” Frye says. “Shut up.”
“Simplest taste?” Love repeats.
A reporter chimes in: “Elementary, kind of?”
Frye: “No, I wouldn’t say elementary.”
Love: “Then what?”
Frye: “It’s just simple. You just get solid bottles of wine.”
Love: “I wasn’t going to go with simple.“
Frye: “What is the word for that? Very solid.“
Frye: “There we go.”
Love: “That’s ‘simple‘? It’s not.”
Frye: “Reliable, very reliable taste. F— you, Kevin.”
Love, still shooting a glare at Frye, pauses for a beat, then another … “Simple?”
AT THE CAVS’ morning shootaround before their loss in Sacramento, Wade, sitting along the sideline, about six weeks before being traded back to Miami, is asked who on the Cavs knows the most about wine. Without hesitation, he points at James, who stands across the court. “He knows a lot. It’s just something he don’t want to share,” Wade says. “But when we go out, it’s, Bron, what wine we getting? You ask most of the guys on the team who orders the wine, we leave it to him to order.”
Indeed, among the Cavs, the legend of LeBron’s oenophilia is large.
As Love says, when it comes to wine, “Bron has a supercomputer in his brain.”
“LeBron,” Griffin says, “has instant recall. If he’s driving on vacation and he passes a field that has lavender and seven other scents in it, LeBron can literally put his nose in a glass of wine three years later and say, ‘I smell lavender.'”
And now, as James begins shooting around the 3-point arc, drawing conspicuously within earshot, he halts his routine to look toward Wade. “See,” Wade says, “he heard ‘wine,’ so that’s why he stopped.”
James laughs. Wade is right. LeBron was creeping on us. He’s also right that when it comes to wine, the world’s greatest player is as tightly corked as a bottle of Château Latour. One need only peruse James’ Instagram account to see how deep his passion for wine runs. But ask LeBron today about his favorite wine? Not going there. A specific region? Producer? Not going there either. Who knows the most on his team? No comment. Around the league? He’d rather not say. Was there a specific wine he was looking forward to trying on his pre-birthday Napa trip? “Yeah,” James says, finally. “Every last one of them.”
He’ll admit he believes in wine’s purported physical benefits: “I’ve heard it’s good for the heart. Listen, I’m playing the best basketball of my life, and I’m drinking some wine pretty much every day. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.” Still, James knows he’s a Worldwide Brand. And surrendering certain details will affect The Brand. (“I know how genuine I am about it,” James says, “I just don’t talk about it.”) But he is willing to spill a few drops of his origin story.
As recently as a few years ago, James, by his own admission, “was not a wine guy. I didn’t drink wine at all.” But as he neared 30, his curiosity piqued — and it helped that business partner Maverick Carter was a wine aficionado.
So he began sampling wines, learning more about vines, regions, reds, whites, blends. During a visit to a Napa winery with Chris Paul last August, James squeezed his frame into the back of a 1980s Toyota Land Cruiser, retrofitted to look like a safari buggy, and they explored the property, asking about what makes Napa unique, about the soil, sunlight, how to know which grapes to plant and where. James was especially interested in the business elements. How much does it all cost? How much time does it all take?
At one point, he let his now-3-year-old daughter, Zhuri, sip a high-end label. “Ooh, it tastes like rocks!” she told him. “It’s nasty.” (Although rocks, let it be known, are a tasting note, so perhaps Zhuri James was actually right on the nose.)
On another recent visit to a Napa winery, James wandered the vines, tasting grapes, asking about the business side. He tried two cabernet sauvignons, grown in different areas but made by the same producer. “I really want to know why they’re different,” he said. He was shown the dirt each was grown in — one featured more gravel, the other more iron. Smell that, he was told, then go smell the wine. He did, and understood.
That, at least, is part of his origin story. But there exists another chapter — and one that involves a famously fruity inflatable form of flotation.