SHANGHAI — After nine seasons facing off against on-court opponents in the NBA, former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is taking on what might be an even tougher challenge: trying to change the tastes and habits of Chinese consumers.
Since announcing his retirement last year, the 7-foot-6-inch Yao has embarked on a variety of ventures. He has enrolled in a Shanghai university; assumed ownership of his old Chinese basketball team, the Shanghai Sharks; joined a political advisory body in Shanghai; and continued to work with his charitable foundation supporting children’s education in poor and earthquake-damaged areas of western China.
And then there is his wine venture. Just as Yao built a basketball bridge between the United States and China, now he’s hoping to build a bridge for fine wine between California’s vineyards and China’s small but growing wine market.
His Yao Ming 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the more expensive Yao Ming Napa Valley Family Reserve label hit the market last year, with the Family Reserve receiving a more formal unveiling for China’s well-heeled this weekend at a plush conference on the southern island of Hainan.
Yao said he became interested in wine after moving to Houston and hopes to be able to instill that interest in China, where local tastes still tend toward beer and whiskey and the drinking style is more often chugging a full glass with a toast of “Gan bei!” or bottoms up.
“Wine represents a culture,” Yao said in an interview in Shanghai. “We drink a lot. But maybe we just have a different drinking culture here.”
Yao said he saw an opening for a wine culture in the new China.
“My favorite thing is to have a glass of wine with a book in hand, maybe some music, sitting on the couch on a weekend,” he said. “In China in the last few years, everybody has gotten so busy. Especially in Shanghai and the big cities. Wine,” he said, “can slow you down. It can bring peace.”
Chinese now consume more wine than in the past, but the mainland still lags far behind the Europe, the United States and the former British colony of Hong Kong in total wine consumption. France has a roughly 47 percent share of the imported wine market, with Australia second at 16 percent and U.S. wines far behind, at around 6.4 percent, according to wine industry experts.
Yao’s wine is sourced from grapes grown in several Napa Valley vineyards and is imported here exclusively by Pernod Ricard, the giant French beverage maker. Yao is the principal partner and shareholder in the business, along with veteran winemaker Tom Hinde, formerly of the Kendall-Jackson wine estate.
Yao still has a sales job to do. One local wine lover said she had tried Yao’s brand but was not impressed, particularly given the price tags of more than $280 for the 2009 cabernet sauvignon and up to $790 for the Family Reserve.
Julian Chen, who was shopping for high-end wine, said: “It’s the kind of wine whose first sip is good. But compared to those wines from France, there’s still a gap. It’s like comparing an American car brand to a Porsche.”
He added, “I don’t think real wine lovers will buy it.”
Yao said he will be introducing his wines slowly, bringing it first to top-tier wine sellers and fine-dining restaurants. “So far,” he said, “it’s doing well.”
Changing Chinese drinking habits may turn out to be easier than the challenge Yao has set himself with another of his ventures, however: changing what’s served at the table. Together with the wildlife protection group WildAid, Yao has made a video on protecting wildlife and has been encouraging Chinese to cut back on eating shark’s fin soup. Among other things, he is asking businesses to stop the practice of serving the soup as a delicacy at banquets.
Yao said he recognizes that eating shark’s fin soup is a Chinese tradition, which he respects. But he said his celebrity may be having an impact in slowly changing attitudes.
People used to walk up to him and comment on his commercials for Apple and Visa, he said. “Now people are saying, ‘Yao, I like your shark’s fin commercial.’ ”
“I understand shark’s fin has been a luxury for ages,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is limit people’s desires.”
Researcher Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.