(Bloomberg) -- On a hot day in France’s Provence region last September, former NBA All-Star Tony Parker was picking grapes at Château La Mascaronne intended for its rosé. Then he sat down with the vineyard crew for the regular harvest lunch.

“I felt like a rookie,” he tells me of the experience, as we fork up kale salad and sip the château’s just-released Grande Réserve rosé 2022 at the New York City restaurant Benoit. “I’m hands-on, and I love to be part of that tradition,” he says, adding that he “worked hard enough to realize my back was hurting.”

Parker is better known for his lightning-fast skills on the basketball court: He helped the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA Finals four times and was a six-time All-Star. In August he became the first French player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But he’s long been a wine aficionado and, after retiring in 2019, finally found time to indulge his other passion seriously. “Since age 20,” he says, “I’ve dreamed of being in the wine business.” 

In May he’ll release his first wine, a rosé from the historic estate Chateau Saint Laurent—near Avignon, in the Rhône Valley—which he purchased in 2021. “When I saw the castle, I just fell in love,” he says. 

Over lunch, the modest and laid-back star was dressed in Adidas, sweatpants and a hoodie and discussed how he became a serious wine drinker and maker. On his right hand, holding a glass, Parker sports a tattoo of a “9,” the number he wore on his Spurs jersey.  

He’s been learning the ropes as a partner in La Mascaronne and Champagne Jeeper. They’re both owned by French businessman Michel Reybier, who offers Parker an interesting entrepreneurial model as the sole proprietor of several other important wine estates, including Bordeaux’s Château Cos d’Estournel and Hetszolo in Hungary. He also owns the Michel Reybier Hospitality Group with about 15 hotels and spas under its umbrella.

So far, though, Parker is only involved in the Provence estate and Jeeper. Naturally, he toasted his Hall of Fame induction with that blanc de blancs.

Parker sees clear parallels between being a sports star and making wine: “For both you have to be passionate, have a strong work ethic, and you have to do it because you love it.” 

How he got into wine 

“Basketball was my first love,” Parker says. Born in Belgium, in the great wine vintage 1982, to a basketball-playing American father and a Dutch model mother, he grew up in France. “I love cider,” he says. “I grew up in Normandy, which is famous for it.” 

Parker saw his basketball idol, Michael Jordan, play when he was 9 years old. “Back then, I was too small and skinny,” he says with a laugh. “I thought I’d never make it, but you have to dream big.”

At 17 he first tasted wine, and at 19, after joining the Spurs, he had the money to buy “the good stuff,” he says. At the time, his teammates were heavily into spirits and cocktails, which didn’t interest him at all.

On one of their first road trips, however, Parker noticed head coach Gregg Popovich reading a wine magazine, and the two bonded over a shared passion. When Popovich invited him for dinner at his home, he pulled out a Bordeaux from 1982, Parker’s birth year. “What a great vintage,” he says, smiling at the memory. Popovich, who sports a serious wine collection, became a mentor. 

Among his teammates, Parker always stood out for his determination to learn about wine, but a few years later they were also getting into fine vino. Parker is convinced the shift had something to do with the dress code the NBA introduced in 2005. “We had to wear sport coats,” he says. “Fashion became important. No more jerseys. And French chefs started coming to the US.” 

Parker surely helped by organizing wine dinners in San Antonio, inviting representatives of Bordeaux châteaux to share bottles with interested teammates and friends. 

Today many NBA players are getting into the business. Over the past few years, C.J. McCollum, Channing Frye, Kevin Love, James Harden and others have started their own wine brands. The Drinks Business recently reported that Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade was sipping Bordeaux cult wine Le Pin in his limo on the way to watch a Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers game.

During summer breaks, Parker made the rounds at top Bordeaux estates such as Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Palmer, Angelus, Margaux, Mouton and more. “I work on my allocations,” he says with his easy, slow smile. “I used to ‘love’ to get them to open bottles of 1982.” He has many in his own cellar, though he shrugs: “I’m a drinker, not a collector.” 

Parker has become a Bordeaux regular. Last spring, at Château Smith Haut Lafitte, he wore a wine-red velvet cloak as he was inducted into the Commanderie du Bontemps, an association of top châteaux. But he’s also a Burgundy fan, says he’d love to drive around Napa and Spain, and is high on wines from Italy and Chile. 

Then he got into rosé

What got him drinking rosé was Miraval, Brad Pitt’s Provence pink wine, which is not far from La Mascaronne. Parker points out that the two estates are connected: Tom Bove, who sold Miraval to Pitt and Angelina Jolie, had also owned La Mascaronne before selling it to Reybier in 2020.

Friends connected Parker and Reybier, and they hit it off. Both are from Lyon and are sports fans—Reybier had once been an investor in LDLC ASVEL, a professional Lyon basketball team in which Parker now owns a majority share. “We talked about doing something for six months,” Parker says. “I wanted to be all-in on investing in a winery, and it’s rare to have this opportunity.” He sits in on blending sessions and marketing meetings and acts as a brand ambassador. 

Friends also urged him to look at ivy-covered Chateau Saint Laurent when it went up for sale. “They were selling grapes to Guigal [the famous Rhône producer], so I knew they were good,” he says. The property comes with 40 hectares of vineyards he’s converting to organic viticulture. Parker and minority partner Said El Yousfi, founder of a club specializing in rare wines, are also welcoming weddings and conferences.

In November he opted for a crowdfunding approach via the platform Bricks to raise money. Parker, a shareholder in Bricks since 2022, aimed to promote the company—and remind the public of the coming release of his first rosé. Within 45 minutes of the crowdfunding campaign’s launch, 3,420 individuals had raised a collective €1 million ($1.1 million), and 250 of them will get to spend an evening in May with Parker at the château, sipping rosé during a behind-the-scenes tour. 

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