When most people think of NBA veteran Dwyane Wade, viniculture probably isn’t at the top of the list of things that come to mind. And sure, he’s a basketball legend with three NBA championship rings and countless other accolades, but well before he retired from the game in 2019, Wade’s been hard at work establishing his own presence in the world of wine. In 2014, the star teamed up with legendary Napa winemaker Pahlmeyer for his own label, called Wade Cellars, which has earned accolades from industry publications like Wine Enthusiast for its wine line-up, which includes cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, and rosé.
In creating his own wine brand, Wade immersed himself in learning everything he could about wine. He traveled to Burgundy and Piedmont to learn from winemakers and sommeliers, and even hired his own “Champagne connoisseur” to help him learn how to love fizzy French wines. Now, he’s a growing voice in California’s winemaker scene, serving on UC Davis’s Executive Leadership Board for the Department of Viticulture and Enology. This month, Wade also launched When We Gather, a dinner series in six cities across the country that highlights the work of Black sommeliers and chefs.
On the heels of When We Gather’s launch, Eater caught up with Wade to talk about the ways that learning about wine have changed his palate over the years, how much he thinks is reasonable to spend on a good bottle of wine, and whether or not dropping $5,000 on a single bottle is actually worth it.
Eater: Do you have a memory of the first wine you ever tried?
Dwyane Wade: The first one that I can remember that I’ve tried was given to me by a teammate of mine, Alonzo Mourning. It was a bottle of Flowers pinot noir, and it was something I definitely couldn’t appreciate at that time. I was coming off of drinking sweet stuff, lemonade and Kool-Aid. I was young, and tasting red wine at that time, it was so foreign to my taste buds. I didn’t like it.
How did you start to develop a taste for wine?
We’d go to restaurants and just keep trying things. Looking at the guys who played in the NBA, the veterans before me, they would all drink wine. And growing up in that, I knew that one day I wanted to. I wasn’t really into alcohol, but I wanted to be able to enjoy a glass of wine. So I just kept trying and finally found something that kind of spoke to my palate. That was a riesling, because it was closer to the sweet drinks that I was used to.
Do you think that your fellow NBA veterans have good or bad taste in wine?
It’s very competitive in the NBA, and a lot of the time it’s more about the name of the wine than what they’re drinking. I don’t know what their taste in wine is, but as much as anything, it’s, “Oh look at this bottle that I have access to.” Starting in around 2014, there was this conversation about wine and its prevalence in the NBA, and I would like to think since that time, a lot of people’s palates have matured and we’ve gotten the chance to really understand what we’re drinking.
What kind of wines appeal to you now, as a more educated wine drinker?
I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t use the word “like” anymore. If I drink a wine from a region that I’m not familiar with, I just feel like my palate isn’t advanced enough to where I can appreciate it yet. It takes time, certain things to happen, for you to be able to appreciate certain types of wine. I haven’t experienced everything yet, but I’m willing to.
I would say my go-tos are California wines. I love French wines, Italian wines, but the one thing I love about California wines is that I know I’m going to get that consistency every time. There’s nothing in the world like the consistency of a California cab. If I’m having a day, I want to drink a wine that I know, so I’m going to go to Napa. I’m going to pick out a cabernet sauvignon from Wade Wines, or maybe Pahlmeyer or Harlan Estate.
Do you and your wife [superstar actress Gabrielle Union] have similar tastes in wine?
At one point, I don’t think we did. When it came to red wine, my wife was more likely to enjoy a merlot, and I just had my hands crossed like “no.” They were too aggressive for me. But now I’m starting to appreciate all wines, and I think we both are. The cool thing about it is that she can introduce me to a wine, and then I can introduce her to one. We didn’t have that when I first started drinking wine.
Not really, and that’s only because my mindset has changed. It can be a little hard to find a great chardonnay, but I’ve been able to experience some good chardonnay. A lot of people have a hard time appreciating Champagne, and I was one of those people. Now, I can appreciate it. The same could be said for chenin blanc. We have a chenin blanc in our line, and a lot of people have a certain impression of that, and the first taste of our wine may be a little different than what they’re expecting. But I think eventually, you can come to appreciate any good wine.
It seems kind of ironic that you’ve had so many opportunities to drink Champagne [see: three NBA championships over a storied 16-year basketball career] and didn’t even really like it!
I always feel like Champagne is just given to you. You just walk in a room, or it’s used for a celebratory moment, and it’s never really anything good. You don’t really develop an appreciation for what you’re drinking until you start to do some research on Champagne and asking questions about the process. I went into it not really liking Champagne, and then I went to France two years ago, and spent some time with a Champagne connoisseur. They had me trying Champagnes every day, just trying to get me to understand. I finally landed on a bottle from Salon that I just fell in love with.
This is absolutely a nosy question, but what’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle of wine?
I don’t like to get very expensive. When it comes to my house, you go to these vineyards and you buy in bulk, and that can get pricey. But going out to a restaurant, I think probably like $5,000 is the most I’ve ever spent, and I didn’t even know I was doing that. I was on this anniversary dinner with my wife and we saw a bottle we wanted. I got the bill back and it was like $5,300, and I know we didn’t order that much food. At the end of the night, we just corked it up and took it back on up to our room to finish.
Did it feel worth $5,000?
I don’t even remember what bottle it was! It was totally unplanned. That was at a time when I knew less about wine, and when I really wasn’t into spending money on wine, and even now it just doesn’t seem necessary. You can get so many great wines at so many different price points. I’m not the one who needs to go to the top, I don’t want to go into the thousands to get great wine, because it’s not necessary. The money isn’t what makes great wine.
What is an amount that you think is actually reasonable to pay for a nice bottle of wine? Not a daily drinker, but something for a special occasion?
Well, I guess that all depends on who you ask the question to. But for me, I would say something in the $60 to $70 range is healthy. That’s the best price point I think. It’s not cheap, it’s not overly expensive. It’s a good amount of money to spend on a bottle of wine.
Do you prefer to drink wine at home or in restaurants?
Definitely in restaurants. I’m not a big at-home drinker unless it’s a Friday or friends are coming over. Outside of that it’s mostly water at home, I’m always trying to make sure that I’m hydrated. But I like to go out, and for me, wine is not just about the taste. Wine is about the community, the conversations, the stories, and it’s easier to find that outside of the home.
Do you have favorite restaurants that you like to just post up at and drink wine?
I don’t have a regular place like that. I moved out to California during the pandemic and so that made it hard, but I definitely like to go to L.A. and go to Wally’s. They carry Wade Cellars and they have a great assortment of wines. I’ll also reach out to my sommelier and meet with wine collectors who have these on-site cellars where you can go and drink wine. I do that more than I do anything else.
When you go to a restaurant, how do you know if their wine list is any good?
I just like to go through and see what they have from the regions I like — what they have from Oregon, Italy, and California. I’m the person at dinner now where everyone just gives me the menu to pick a wine. For some reason people think I know about wine because I have a wine brand. But I really like to sit down and ask a somm, because if I’m ordering, I’m always gonna go to what I know, and I want to experience things that I haven’t experienced before. I want to hear their recommendations, and sometimes I’ll ask them to take me on a journey through Italy or through France.