Baxter Holmes just won the James Beard Foundation Award For Excellence in the “Feature Reporting” category at their annual media awards dinner. Baxter is an ESPN staff writer and all-around sports enthusiast known for his in-depth, sometimes delightfully quirky stories. I was lucky enough to talk with him for a leisurely chat – paired on my end with a glass of Puramun Malbec Reserva from Mendoza, Argentina – and speak with him about a subject near and dear to my heart.
Baxter Holmes, who has been hailed for such stories as blowing the lid off the National Basketball Association’s secret PBJ addiction (we knew it!!), is back with another fascinating look at life inside the food and beverage choices of NBA players. Today’s story centers on what we’re fondly calling the Banana Boat Story, for reasons which will soon become clear.
The friendly looking Oklahoma native, who now lives in and spoke to me from his current city of residence, Los Angeles, took time out of his story-swamped schedule to speak to me about … you guessed it … wine.
From Basketballs to Bottles
But first, let’s cast our memories back a little further, to the day when young Baxter was innocently sitting in geometry class sophomore year. There was a knock at the door, followed by the appearance of the high school basketball coach – also the sports editor for the local newspaper – asking if Holmes wanted to cover the team.
Beginning with the first fateful basketball game, Holmes was hooked. Upon graduating high school, he traveled around the U.S. for school, internships and assignments with such luminous publications as The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times.
Holmes got my attention with a recent piece, The NBA’s Secret Wine Society, which details the recent devotion certain NBA players have developed for the world of wine.
“I had noticed for some time the players were posting a lot of pictures of wine on social media,” Holmes tells me. The subject has also come up in interviews, and it slowly became apparent that wine is “more than just a side project” for these players: It’s a sideobsession.
Dedication and Discipline … to More than B-Ball
In his travels from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to Cleveland to Houston, covering the story, Holmes was struck again and again by the level of attention NBA players gave to their study of wine. We’re talking the big names, “at the top of their game the NBA.” People whose schedules are already full, Holmes explains, yet this does nothing to dim “their level of curiosity and their hunger to learn.”
Helming this oenological ship were superstars Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and LeBron James (of banana boat fame … told you we’d circle back).
Their mutual obsession began on vacation, and they realized that they were all on “their own little wine journeys,” as Holmes charmingly puts it, and that perhaps they ought to continue those journeys together. And thus was the Banana Boat Tasting Group born. (Not an official title, perhaps, but let’s all just pretend it is, because life is better that way.)
One of the most interesting aspects of the NBA wine story is the fact that the players are not just feigning their enthusiasm or using oenology as the next form of bling. This is not a drill. They really, really care about wine: its roots, its manufacture, its ins and outs.
Holmes tells the story of Carmelo Anthony, challenged to bring the best bottle of wine he could get on to a dinner hosted by the biggest wine collector on the East Coast (at least according to Anthony), and majorly sweating the decision. Not in a casual way, Holmes points out. His stress was more akin to taking a game-winning shot or making a playoff appearance.
So, you know. Did we mention these guys really care about wine?
Wine and the Game: More Similar Than You Might Think
That may be, ponders Carissa Mondavi, granddaughter of California winemaker Robert Mondavi, due to some striking similarities between the obsession and the game. As Holmes writes in his ESPN article, reflecting her thinking, “NBA players are the product of so many unseen hours spent perfecting so many hidden details, all leading to the moment when the ball is tossed in the air. So too is wine crafted against countless variables — the weather, soil, harvest, tanks, the barrels and blends, the delicate alchemy of it all — until, one day, the cork is pulled. For both to shine, it takes so much work no one will ever see.”
Once more, Carmelo Anthony is the perfect exhibit, becoming truly zealous in his study of wine documentaries, the intricacies of tasting, and especially tasting notes. Some people have, Holmes explains, a pitch-perfect accuracy in picking out tasting notes: “Let’s say there’s 12 tasting notes in a glass and they can pick up all 12 of them blindly.” Pretty impressive.
Anthony desires this skill as well, and he’s getting there: “He became really dedicated, trying to get at least three or four. He says he can now do that these days, which is a point of pride.” It’s a skill that takes an incredible amount of practice, which again highlights that uncanny resemblance between the game of basketball and the art of wine tasting.
A Not-Inexpensive Habit
It shouldn’t surprise us that the people who feature regularly on MTV’s Cribs are willing to drop huge sums of money in pursuit of their passions. LeBron James has mentioned his fondness for an occasional bottle of ’09 Screaming Eagle Cabernet, which ranges from $2,500 to $5,000 or more. J.J. Redick also pops into Holmes’ mind as a player with upscale predilections. Perhaps the NBA notable with the most expensive taste of all is Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
Nor is Holmes himself immune to the humanity-wide interest in very spendy bottles. When asked if he could have any bottle of wine to share with any person, Holmes reveals his perfect bottle to be Romanée-Conti – which he witnessed getting rave reviews during his travels, and which routinely sells for close to 10 grand per bottle. His partner in wine? None other than his wife on her birthday.
* pause for heartfelt awwwwwww *
The players wives’ are almost equally enthused, if not more so. One of his best sources for the story, Holmes reveals, was Gabrielle Union, famous actress and wife of Dwayne Wade. Not only does she know a whole lot, she was super excited to chat about it, answering emails instantaneously and reliably picking up the phone when called. Our conclusion? Well, once again, we have to give the players, along with their friends and families, a lot of credit: This ain’t no trend.
Building a Story
Wine to NBA players is much as wine has been to enthusiasts for thousands of years: part of their way of life. Holmes is just happy that they chose to spend so much time sharing their enthusiasm with him.
“I relied on a lot of people who were very very generous with their time in helping me do that,” he says. Wine is a very complex, almost endless subject. “I mean, it dates back to the beginning of civilization.” In his pursuit of knowledge on the subject, he modestly reveals that he leaned heavily on the players and wine experts to fill in the gaps of his knowledge.
We must say, however, that Holmes doesn’t need anyone to instruct him in how to tell a story. He credits his father for giving him a leg up … or at least a really good metaphor to draw on. As both a high-powered regional sales manager and a builder of log homes, Holmes Sr. taught his son a steadfast work ethic along with a “one log at a time” approach to work. As his father carefully stacked trunk by trunk, so does Holmes today ask one interview question at a time. With enough questions, voilà: You have a story.
Whether the story is about sports, wine or anything else, that’s the ultimate goal: to build a great house.
“I certainly feel very driven to tell the best story, the definitive story, the one that people will remember,” Holmes tells me. “You know, I hope that when people are thinking of the NBA and wine, that this is the story they’ll think of.” I think they probably will.
In closing, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t share this fun little tidbit from the rapid-fire question section at the end of our chat: Given the choice between giving up food, wine and sex, Holmes regretfully chooses wine. Considering his dedication to the crafts of both storytelling and oenology, though, we’ll give him a pass.
This one time. Got that, Holmes?
For the full interview, please feel free to listen to the podcast episode and subscribe to Wine Conversations with Jessica Altieri. I’d also like to extend one last thank you to Baxter Holmes for joining us on the show and giving us the inside scoop. Be sure to go visit him on Twitter, where he shares his adventures writing for ESPN and Esquire “now and then.”