Dwyane Wade’s wine career just got a lot more demanding. Two years after retiring from professional basketball, the athlete-turned-vintner has joined the executive leadership board for UC Davis’ viticulture and enology department, the university announced on Tuesday — part of the prestigious wine program’s effort to recruit a more diverse student body and, in turn, help create a more diverse wine industry.
The longtime Miami Heat shooting guard already owns a Napa wine business, Wade Cellars, but his appointment indicates a new level of investment in the California wine industry. His main goal as a board member, Wade said, is to help with recruitment at UC Davis, whose undergraduate and graduate-level wine programs are widely considered the most prestigious in the country.
“The reason I got into this industry in the first place is to make wine feel more accessible. I wanted to bring it to my community in a not-intimidating way,” Wade, 39, said in an interview in Napa on Friday. “If I can make a big impact on a board with the number one wine school in the world, then I think I can really make a difference.”
Two other new board members are joining alongside Wade with similar goals: Julia Coney, a wine writer and educator who launched an organization called Black Wine Professionals last year; and Miguel Luna, a viticulturist with Silverado Farming Co. in Napa. Luna is himself a graduate of UC Davis’ viticulture and enology program.
This latest move is part of a yearslong effort to diversify the student population, said David Block, a professor of viticulture and enology who serves as the department’s chair. A decade ago, underrepresented minorities accounted for 5% of the school’s undergraduate and masters programs in viticulture and enology; now, it’s around 25%, Block said. He hopes Wade, Coney and Luna can help them bring that number even higher.
Dwyane Wade, seen at a winery on Oct. 16, co-founded his Wade Cellars brand in 2014.
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Like many industries, the wine business has undergone a major reckoning in the last year over its failure to cultivate a more racially diverse base of workers and consumers. The charge of being exclusionary was particularly pointed for the wine field, since it has long been seen as elitist, catering primarily to upper-class and white audiences. Several new organizations such as the Roots Fund and Wine Unify emerged in the summer of 2020 with the goal of mentoring young professionals of color in wine-industry careers.
Creating a more diverse industry, these organizations’ activists have argued, is a matter of moral dignity, creating a more fair and equitable system. It may also matter to the wine industry’s bottom line. A more homogenous industry has been linked to a more homogenous customer base, which means that businesses may be missing out on lots of potential customers. Less than 1% of U.S. wineries have a Black owner or winemaker, according to Wine & Spirits magazine, and just 9% of U.S. wine drinkers are Black, Wine Market Council research has shown.
While the UC Davis board does have some members who are very well known within the wine industry — like chair Laura Catena, managing director of Bodega Catena Zapata in Argentina — Wade will be the first member with widespread recognition outside of the industry. “I think it would be fair to say this is the first person with 18 million followers on Instagram on the board,” said Block.
The viticulture and enology department at UC Davis, which offers both bachelors’ and masters’ degrees, trains students to be winemakers (that’s enology) and grape growers (viticulture). It’s renowned for its academic rigor and selectiveness, graduating only about 30 undergraduates and 15 graduate students every year. Having a wine degree from UC Davis is a strong asset for getting a job at a top winery in Napa or Sonoma.
Dwyane Wade holds a bottle of his Wade Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Reputable Napa winemakers Jamie Watson, Matt Naumann and John Keyes help Wade make his wine.
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The department’s executive leadership board makes many of the most crucial decisions for the department, Block said, around issues like building a new training winery. It is also responsible for much of the outreach to donors.
Wade sees the wine industry’s shortcomings in this area as partly a matter of visibility. Young people who didn’t grow up around wine but have followed his basketball career, he hopes, may now be aware of UC Davis and the possibility of a career in wine.
“If you want to go into a community that is not educated about wine, you have to start from a very young age,” said Wade, who first learned about wine from his Miami teammate Alonzo Mourning. (His ah-ha bottle: Flowers Pinot Noir, from Sonoma County.) “They need to know that wine can be a part of their culture.”
Wade started his big wine investment in 2014, co-founding Wade Cellars with Jayson Pahlmeyer and his family, a well known Wine Country dynasty that owns Wayfarer Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. The winery is expanding quickly, aiming to grow its current production of 12,000 cases to 25,000 within the next 18 months.
Dwyane Wade didn’t grow up around wine, drinking his first glass at age 27. He wants to help young people learn about possible careers in the wine industry.
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Besides wine, Wade, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actor Gabrielle Union, is also a part owner in the Utah Jazz, an analyst for TNT’s “Inside the NBA” and the host of the game show “The Cube.”
But he’s remained deeply immersed in wine. Over the summer, Wade traveled to Burgundy to visit wine producers there (to his dismay, he had to crouch to fit inside the doors of many of wineries, which were built centuries ago and were not designed with NBA player visitors in mind). He visited Italy, too, where he said his favorite wine was from Piedmont estate Gaja.
That love of wine is something Wade now hopes he can share — ideally with an even wider reach. “You don’t want to take away the elegance, the cachet of the wine industry, because that’s why we want to be in it,” he said. “But you know, we do have to find a way to meet people where they’re at, and we’re not doing that right now in the wine space.”
Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior wine critic. Email: [email protected]