Game Time to Harvest Time

Meet three pro athletes captivated by Oregon wine

CJ McCollum of McCollum Heritage 91 standing in the vineyard##Photo provided By McCollum Heritage 91
Chosen Family Wines’ Channing Frye standing among barrels in the winery.##Photo provided By Chosen Family Wines
From left, Drew Bledsoe and Josh McDaniels, partners in Bledsoe | McDaniels. ##Photo provided By Bledsoe | McDaniels

By Tamara Turner

Crafting a great bottle of wine can become a lifelong endeavor. For professional athletes, wine occasionally transforms into a compelling second career. From football to basketball, in Oregon, there’s an increase in wine brands as sports legends retire. A few have practically grown up in the industry (or adjacent to it); some use their wineries to promote diversity while others have discovered a place that feels like home.

Big Game Wine Player

For NFL star Drew Bledsoe, wine seemed like the obvious next step after 14 seasons playing football. His love of wine developed while playing for the New England Patriots, along with the realization his hometown of Walla Walla was producing some of the best wines in the world. “A group of football players were all bitten by the wine bug around the same time,” says Bledsoe. “We would perform blind tastings at the house and then vote for those we liked best. I would, of course, include something from Walla Walla. Every time, the Walla Walla wine was chosen over fancy, expensive wines from Napa and Bordeaux.”
He thought, perhaps, after his football career, he could return home and start a winery and craft some of the best wines in the world. After his final year with the Dallas Cowboys, Bledsoe, with wife Maura, opened their first winery, Doubleback, in 2007.

His two winemakers provided Bledsoe with the ultimate wine education. Bledsoe hired Chris Figgins, a classmate at Walla Walla High School. He worked as Doubleback’s consulting winemaker for the first seven years. Then, in 2014, when Figgins left for Leonetti Cellars, his protégé, Josh McDaniels, took over. “Both Chris and Josh are among the best winemakers in the world.” says Bledsoe. “In addition to winemakers (and CEO, in Josh’s case), both acted as my professors, patiently answering my myriad questions over the years.” More recently, Bledsoe and McDaniels partnered to create Bledsoe | McDaniels, expanding into the Willamette Valley.

Bledsoe and McDaniels are longtime fans of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. “I believe we’ve consumed more Willamette Valley Pinot than any other wine over the past 20-plus years,” states Bledsoe. “Josh and I were intrigued by the possibility of seeing what we could produce in that realm. When we discovered an opportunity to acquire an amazing vineyard from Mimi Casteel, we put our plans into overdrive.” Previously called Hopewell, we now call it Coulee Vineyard. “I believe our estate wines stand among the finest in the Willamette Valley,” says Bledsoe.

The Bledsoe | McDaniels label weaves their history in Walla Walla with their admiration for Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Focusing on the land and soils of the Pacific Northwest, they showcase the terroir-driven varietals of Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley and estate single vineyard Syrahs from Walla Walla, bridging the many similarities and singularities characteristic of the two areas.

According to Bledsoe, while they currently have their hands full, expansion may figure in their future. “There may be a sparkling wine down the road, but this is only in the conceptual stages,” hints Bledsoe. “We’ve never wanted to be a huge winery. We simply want to continue to produce wines we’re proud to share and represent our two Valleys in the best possible way.”

Find the Bledsoe | McDaniels tasting room in Salem with private tastings available by appointment.

Chosen Family Wines is a Slam Dunk

When asked why former NBA champion and Chosen Family Wines partner, Channing Frye chose the wine business, he jokes, “I think it’s half passion, half craziness.” Frye explains when he was retiring from basketball, he wanted to find something equally passionate. “People say to think about what you’re going to do when you retire. But I’d never thought about anything other than playing basketball my whole life.”

Ultimately, Frye realized he enjoys being around people, eating, drinking and traveling the world. When he asked himself questions like: “What brings people together? What’s fun? What’s challenging? What am I passionate about? What do I love waking up and talking about and doing?” Not surprisingly, the answers were wine.

While still playing basketball, wine became a significant aspect of the team dynamic. “It was the thing we were excited to share on the plane,” Frye explains. “It would spark conversations. We would say, ‘Hey, let’s go get a glass of wine real quick,’ and we could talk about anything. Most of the time, it wasn’t even basketball.”

Working in wine, Frye has learned to feel uncomfortable in a space where he considers himself a rookie. He also believes in creating something for future generations. “It’s an investment of time, labor and love,” he says. “I want my kids and my kids’ kids to be able to say, ‘Look what my dad started. We built this.’ I plan to continue with this tradition, including a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities, ensuring the wine industry represents the world as we see it.”

Frye also hopes to alter the perception that athletes create wine brands as mere vanity projects. He recognizes there’s important work to be done and is realizing those goals through wine. He’s striving to make the next generation of vintners more diverse while improving the quality of wine in the process. He says, “For athletes, for Black Americans, we can raise awareness of the opportunities the wine industry has for all people.”

Why the Willamette Valley? “Why not? Is there anywhere better?,” asks Frye. “This is where I fell in love with wine. Go to the Valley and find anything you want. Want to taste wine in an opulent setting or in a barn? The range of this area is amazing.”

Chosen Family Wines is currently pouring every Sunday at Han Oak in N.E. Portland. But Frye explains they’re trying to purchase a vineyard, “like yesterday.” They also have long-term plans for their own winery and tasting room. “But you have to be picky; it’s like choosing a home.” says Frye. “I’ve put a lot of miles on my truck looking for a location that’s ‘us’. We know who we are, we just need to find the right place. We’re like a hermit crab without a shell right now.”

It’s All About the Team

CJ McCollum, former NBA Portland Trail Blazer and current point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, developed his fondness for wine in his early 20’s with now wife Elise. While dining at Portland’s RingSide Steakhouse, they ordered a bottle of 2012 Walter Scott Pinot Noir and the rest was history. “When my career took me to Oregon, my passion for wine grew to where I knew I wanted to be part of that world in a bigger way,” he says. Inspired by NBA players Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, both with their wines, McCollum followed suit with his own wine label, McCollum Heritage 91.

“While I was certainly interested in wine before my career took me to Oregon, the Willamette Valley is where I fell in love with the industry,” explains McCollum. “Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in the Willamette Valley winemaking community. With time, Pinot Noir, along with sparkling wine and Chardonnay, have earned a special place in my heart.”

McCollum Heritage 91 has always been about legacy. McCollum says he’s most passionate about honoring the people, communities, places and causes important to him. “It’s also vital to me to contribute to the spirit of inclusivity within the wine industry, especially as it relates to people of color,” says McCollum.
It’s no surprise that for this player, it’s all about being part of a great team. “For McCollum Heritage 91, we partnered with Adelsheim Vineyard winemaker Gina Hennen from the very beginning,” says McCollum. “Adelsheim has been instrumental in our journey. The launch of McCollum Heritage 91 wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication and knowledge provided by the Adelsheim team. I deeply appreciate our collaboration.”

In 2021, the McCollums acquired a 318-acre property bordering Résonance Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. “We’re so excited about the land; it has so much potential with its diverse micro-climates,” says McCollum. “We’ve started mapping out our vision for the vineyard and are consulting with experts to ensure we plant the right clones to complement our land’s unique character.” While preparing the property for grape cultivation, they continue to make McCollum Heritage 91 wines at Adelsheim Vineyard and are available for purchase on their website.

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