CJ McCollum: How the Blazers star uses her love of wine to become a different kind of trailblazer

“It was a combination of business and pleasure,” says McCollum. “I’m only 6’3″, not that tall or that muscular, so I could blend in. But when you’ve faced a certain team from Colorado a few times in the playoffs, some people will notice you. ”

Most professionals in the wine industry shouldn’t be surprised to meet an elite NBA player while enjoying wine tasting in a small mountain town. McCollum is one of the many players in the league who are well-documented enthusiasts of Pinots, Chardonnay and Cabernets.

“The focus is on building chemistry in the NBA,” the nine-year veteran told CNN Sport. “And there are a lot of dinners and situations where you break bread with your teammates, family, and staff – and wine is associated with that.
“I’m going out to dinner with some teammates, Lady [Lillard] and Mélo [Carmelo Anthony] for example, and I know that Melo is going to bring a white burgundy. I’ll bring a great Tuscan or something from Oregon. JJ Reddick can give me a chardonnay that I have never tasted. Josh Hart, Seth Curry, KD [Kevin Durant], you have all these friends in the wine space. “
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Some former players like Channing Frye and Dwyane Wade, who attended the Classic in 2019, now have their own wine labels. But McCollum, who launched his own label McCollum 91 Pinot Noir last year, has gone even further.

A pioneer of wine

On the day the Wine & Food Classic opened for tasting, CJ and his wife Elise McCollum closed the purchase of a future 318-acre vineyard in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. The couple’s new property – which includes a reservoir, multiple microclimates, and a nursery – borders the vineyard where McCollum’s Pinot Noir is currently produced.

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“As far as the players go, I think I’m the only one,” said McCollum when asked if other members of the league have their own vineyards. “My love for wine continued to grow, until I got interested in all phases of wine – from the manufacturing process to the commercial side. And now we have a blank canvas. We can build it however we want.”

The McCollums’ plan is to begin preparing the ground for their vineyard in late December 2021, before planting around 8,800 pinot vines in the spring of 2022.

Les McCollums The new 318-acre vineyard has multiple microclimates that will make it an ideal place to grow Pinot Noir grapes and several other grapes.

According to the 2020 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Census report, 70% of the vineyard area in the Willamette Valley is devoted to growing Pinot Noir.

“It takes about three years to process the grapes from the vine to the bottle … especially when they come from unplanted soil,” says McCollum. “I would say that between 2025 and 2027, we will be able to say that we have grown our own wines on our own land. And it’s really cool to say that out loud.”

“We are building a dream team”

Regardless of when the first bottles from the vineyard whose name has yet to be deposited in consumer wine cellars, McCollum believes the barometer of his and his wife’s success will come years earlier.

“I am now in the position of a black man of influence. My role is to continue to find ways to make it accessible, to make it diverse and to create equity and inclusion. ways to expand and bring in new horizons from new places. ”

The McCollums’ initial goal is to hire a diverse and talented staff to help them grow the operation as Elise focuses on her dental practice, CJ on her NBA career, and their expected first child in a few months. month.

McCollum visits the Adelsheim vineyard where his Pinot noir grape is produced.  He hopes to create more opportunities for minorities and women to learn and operate in the wine industry.

“In basketball, you need coaches, you need staff, you need players. And the same goes for the vineyard, ”explains McCollum. “You need a farm manager, you need operations, you need all of these people who specialize and can be stars in their roles. And that’s what we do, we build a dream team.

“But we also discussed ways to provide opportunities and channels from a mentoring and internship perspective to learn more about all aspects of the wine business, not just the physical making of grapes, but also learning. from behind the scenes of the company.

“There are a lot of people here in the Willamette Valley who are trying to make this space more diverse. They understand that the bottom line is that not only will you attract more people to the wine space, but you will get a better product from it. of that. “

"With regard to the black community, the [wine] space is becoming more and more accessible, ”says McCollum.  "I think it just starts with seeing more people like you in this space."

Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, agrees. “I can only imagine that there will be a lot of people who want to be on this team,” she told CNN Sport.

She says the McCollums’ investment in the valley, as well as CJ’s work with former teammate Channing Frye on the One Barrel Challenge, a fundraising effort to promote accessibility and inclusiveness in the wine industry from Oregon, will have an extremely positive effect.

“Black people in owner roles are really important. As a white person, it’s hard for me to say that we are trying to diversify the wine industry and get more people to drink wine. But it is. very different when it comes from someone of that caliber and that visibility. ”

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Through it all, McCollum is hoping his legacy will be more than a great basketball player who learned how to make a great pinot noir.

“It’s more about how we treat people, empower people, empower people to be successful. I think all of those things are more important than just shooting a basketball.”

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