CJ McCollum takes a peek at fermenting Pinot Noir during a tour at Adelsheim Vineyard, where winemaker Gina Hennen makes his wine, ##Photo by Justin Tucker / Nine Eighty Four
Hennen offers McCollum a taste of the harvest. ##Photo by Justin Tucker / Nine Eighty Four

Blazing a Wine Trail

NBA star launches Willamette Valley brand

By Mark Stock

The union of professional athletes and fine wine is nothing new. But something changed for the better this year, and it all went down in the most unlikely of places, under the most unlikely of circumstances.

When the National Basketball Association agreed to resume its season earlier this summer, there were a lot of strings attached. The pandemic was in full swing, and the league and its players would have to take special precautions, as in creating a personnel “bubble” within the Disney complex of central Florida. No fans, limited family time, and a rigorous schedule to make up for lost time. Oh, and wine.

Players brought in some of their favorite bottles to share during downtime. Suddenly, bitter rivals were sipping vintage Bordeaux together poolside. They brought in wine fridges or kept their entire hotel rooms cool enough to cellar wine properly. Some, like Portland Trail Blazers star guard CJ McCollum, went so far as to bring his own work, testing it out on teammates and other NBA stars.

McCollum says it was well received and many fellow players inquired about getting their hands on some more. On the floor, players were offering some of the most entertaining hoops matches in years, in a new format en route to the playoffs. Away from the arena, players clinked glasses. It wasn’t entirely new that high profile players like Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony enjoyed wine. But amid the pandemic and a special quarantine for the players, it seemed more pronounced, as if basketball and wine had finally made an official pact. 

CJ McCollum and his wine Heritage 91. ##Photo by Justin Tucker / Nine Eighty Four

Perhaps, it’s no surprise McCollum would start a wine label. He’s as dynamic off the court as he is on it, a journalism major from Canton, Ohio, with a widely streamed podcast. Of the NBA’s many players, he’s often responsible for the most thoughtful interviews. He’s also a damn good basketball player, with incredible ball-handling prowess and a mean pull-up jumper. McCollum’s game is often overshadowed by his fellow backcourt teammate Damian Lillard, but anybody with any basketball sense has sincere respect for his skillset.

Oddly enough, McCollum’s first encounter with Pinot Noir wasn’t ideal. His fiancée, Elise, introduced it to him while in college, but he wasn’t an immediate fan. “My taste buds hadn’t really opened up or evolved yet,” he recalled. Slowly, though, he warmed up to the varietal, initially because his partner was so into it.

McCollum joined the Trail Blazers in 2013 after a standout career at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, becoming the first player ever to join the NBA from that particular institution. He remembers his immediate impressions associated with Oregon wine: the Walter Scott bottle he tried, his first taste of Oregon wine; the visit to Stoller, his inaugural Willamette Valley wine country adventure and the first of many.

McCollum’s label, Heritage 91, launched with the stellar 2018 vintage. He worked alongside Gina Hennen of Adelsheim, coming up with a Pinot Noir that suited his palate. The name is a reference to McCollum’s birth year as well as the street he grew up on in Ohio. “Gina has done a tremendous job of bringing my taste preferences to life,” McCollum said.

Unlike so many celebrity- or star athlete-backed wine enterprises, McCollum really dug into the process. “Historically, I’ve never been a part of something I couldn’t be fully invested in, and this is one of those,” McCollum said. That means walking vineyard rows, learning about the enological effects of volcanic soils, showing up at harvest — at least before training camp starts — and creating and designing his own label.

The Adelsheim fit is a perfect one not just because McCollum and Hennen share a mutual respect; the label has worked with the Blazers in the past and, for McCollum, it’s also about philosophy. “They believe in sustainability; they believe in education, and those things align with what I stand for and what I’m about,” McCollum said of the label.

McCollum says he’s stayed after-hours at a lot of vineyards, chatting up those in the know about volcanic versus sedimentary soil in the vineyard, stainless versus oak in the cellar. He credits his competitive personality for wanting to know so much about the industry. “I obviously enjoy having a glass of wine, but I also enjoy getting educated by people who do it for a living,” he commented.

Now that he’s engaged in so much of the process firsthand, McCollum has developed a heightened respect for both Oregon’s unique terroir and the mind of a winemaker. He’s become the go-to wine guy on the Blazers roster and enjoys sharing what he’s learned along with organizing outings to wine country for teammates, friends and Blazers staff.

Just 133 cases of the 2018 Heritage 91 Pinot Noir were made. It’s a combination of three Chehalem Mountains AVA vineyards, all from the Adelsheim estate and rooted in volcanic soil. The wine was aged 10 months in French oak and bottled in August of last year. On Sept. 15, it officially debuted, becoming available to the public.

“The biggest thing I want is legacy,” McCollum said. He notes it’s about far more than basketball, like serving the community and making more and more inroads with his adopted city. He’s also adamant about education and wine happens to have both bases covered. Going forward, McCollum plans to keep enlightening himself and others on wine. It could even lead to his own facility, tasting room, vineyard or some combination of all in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the Blazer star will continue to enjoy his time in Oregon, visiting vineyards as often as possible. If his competitive personality and genuine hunger for wisdom are any indicators, McCollum will be doing the wine thing for quite some time. He talks about the industry with the same zest and reverence of a seasoned winemaker. It’s an infectious industry, and McCollum is now very much a part of it.

“It’s just so fascinating that something like wine can go through such a process and finish in a bottle,” McCollum said.


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