How NBA Champion Tony Parker Traded the Hardwood for the Vineyard
Tony Parker isn’t sure why so many professional basketball players in the United States are into wine, but he has a hunch that it has something to do with changes in the NBA dress code that went into effect a few years after he joined the San Antonio Spurs. Since his debut in 2001 and rapid elevation to starting point guard, Parker won four championships, in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. Over lunch at Le Gabriel, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Paris’s La Réserve Hotel, Parker explained that having been raised in France, he started drinking wine at home at the age of 17, but when he first joined the NBA, players were all about hard liquor and cocktail culture.
Parker says he was much more into wine, and his initial reaction was, “Oh, I don’t want to drink this.” The tide turned within a few years, and Parker posits that it was the 2005 NBA dress code, requiring players to wear “business casual” dress including sports coats, that influenced drinking culture. He explained, “The NBA changed; they added the dress code, and everybody had to dress nicely and we got into fashion. Everybody started to drink wine slowly but surely and then started to post wine on Instagram. Now you can see Lebron James showing what he drinks, what kind of Bordeaux he drank that night. For me it was pretty cool to see the evolution.”
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He is right about Instagram: a scroll through NBA players’ feeds reveals prize bottles, and images of Lebron James’ recent collaboration with Rimowa on a specially designed wine suitcase were everywhere all at once. You can add Parker’s name to a steadily growing list of basketball stars who either invested in or bought a winery or are producing a wine brand that includes Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony, C.J. McCollum and Channing Frye. While most of the brands are US-based, Parker, like Carmelo Anthony, went to France when he decided to turn his passion for wine into a business.
Chatting amiably with Parker over lunch that included his Champagne Jeeper Blanc de Blancs and Château La Mascaronne Rosé, he seems awfully laid back for such an accomplished and driven individual. In addition to buying a vineyard and chateau in the Rhône Valley and investing in Champagne Jeeper and Château La Mascaronne in Provence, Parker owns a school in Lyon (Tony Parker Adéquat Academy) with another on the way in Paris, French basketball team ASVEL Basket (on which he played during the 2011 NBA lockout), also based in Lyon, as well as a women’s basketball team, a ski resort, a horse stable and a health drink called Smart Good Things. It makes one wonder how Parker has time to sleep; after lunch he was off to a two-hour padel game with three friends, two of whom are professional padel players.
Parker credits his Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for much of his success on the court as well as introducing him to the fine wines he enjoys daily. Although his tastes run to Bordeaux and he’s happy to share treasures such as Château Margaux, Petrus, Angelus and Château Palmer with friends when they come to one of his homes in San Antonio, Paris or Lyon for dinner, Parker is an equal opportunity drinker, telling us, “I love to drink wine. I’m not a collector. I buy to drink, and I love to share with my friends and I love different regions. Besides Bordeaux, I love Bourgogne, like Clos de Vougeot and Gevrey-Chambertin. I like to drink in different styles; it depends on my mood. I love Spanish wine, Italian wine is very good, wine from Chile is really good too. I like to try different things too.”
When the athlete turned entrepreneur talks about his investments in wine, he treats business partner Michel Reybier with the same deference and admiration he reserves for Popovich. Reybier’s hospitality group owns La Réserve hotels throughout France and Switzerland, and in addition to Champagne Jeeper and La Mascaronne, he founded Champagne Michel Reybier and acquired legendary Bordeaux house Cos d’Estournel as well as Tokaj Hétszölö in Hungary—another winery Parker has his eye on.
“I love Tokaji,” Parker says. “I was just there last month. I’m negotiating right now. I think it’s got great potential. Obviously, Chateau d’Yquem is the reference, but I think that pricewise, Hétszölö can be unbelievable. So I told Michel, ‘I want to do this.’”
It was a combination of basketball and mutual friends that brought the two together; Reybier is the former owner of ASVEL Basket, but as Parker explains, “He likes sports, and it was known that I was looking to do something in the wine world. Mutual friends connected us, and we started talking. After six months we said, ‘Okay, let’s do something together.’ So, I felt very lucky and very blessed to be able to invest in a product where I know the product is going to be good. Michel’s name in the wine world is unbelievable.”
Not one to sit back and let his investments do their own work, Parker is very hands on at both wineries, where he sits on the board but takes part in blending sessions and marketing meetings and has even harvested grapes. His main role is to grow brand awareness, but he hints that there may be some special Tony Parker bottlings released in coming years, possibly a special blend or single vineyard wine at higher price point than current offerings.
He becomes cagey when we circle back to future plans. “You never know,” the former NBA Finals MVP says. “We’ve been talking and we’ll see how we’re going to do it; maybe do a special cuvee. I’m talking with Monsieur Reybier, but in the end it’s going to be his decision. It doesn’t matter to me if my name is on it or not. I just want it to be a project for people to enjoy what they’re drinking. When they talk about Michel or Tony’s wine, I just want them to say they like it; that’s what I care about. If we put my name on it, that’s okay.”
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