Channing Frye on Creating His Own Wine Label and Being Part of the NBA’s ‘Wine Team’
The former NBA player is launching his Oregon-based wine brand, Chosen Family, this fall.
It’s no secret that the NBA is obsessed with wine. Some players are vocal about this infatuation, like Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who turned his room in the NBA Bubble into a refrigerator to protect his 84-bottle collection. Others tend to be less public, like LeBron James, who’s said to have a “supercomputer in his brain” when it comes to all things wine. And then there are players like Channing Frye, whose obsession with wine grew so much that he decided to launch his very own wine label, Chosen Family Wines. Frye partnered with L’Angolo Estate in Newberg, Oregon, to create Chosen Family, and the first wines, a 2018 pinot noir and a 2019 chardonnay, will be available for purchase on October 5.
Frye was first introduced to Oregon wines in 2007, when he played for the Portland Trail Blazers. His love for Willamette Valley pinots and chardonnays continued to blossom during his years with the Phoenix Suns, the Orlando Magic, and finally the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2016, Frye and his Cavalier teammates, which included LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, won the NBA championship. They also earned themselves a nickname, “the wine team,” because of a team-wide obsession with drinking, learning about, and sharing wine.
Although Frye retired from basketball after the 2019 season, his wine career is just getting started. Food & Wine sat down with Frye to learn more about his love of wine, what it was like to create Chosen Family, and how he hopes to change the wine industry for the better.
F&W: How has your relationship with wine changed throughout your life?
Channing Frye: I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In the early '90s, my parents weren’t really drinking wine. They had a bottle or two laying around, but it had been a stigma where a bottle of wine had to be for a super special occasion. A bottle of wine had to go with a steak. And it was this thing that seemed so distant. But it was amazing to see my dad’s reaction, especially when he had a good steak or a good piece of fish, and my mom would always say, oh this wine is so good with this. I can’t remember a specific bottle, but I have that memory of them enjoying it and sharing a laugh and starting a conversation.
As you get older, you drink wine at a restaurant trying to impress a girl, or you drink wine because you try to be fancy. That was back in my early days. And then I started to say, oh I really like this. I like drinking wine. Since I travel a lot in the league, I like to sit down with my wife and have a meal and share a glass of wine. We’re exhausted, especially when our kids are acting crazy, but that cheers, that connection, is what wine is for my family and my friends. It’s a part of who we are.
When did wine become part of your life as a basketball player?
When I went to Orlando [to play for the Orlando Magic], there was this restaurant called Scratch that we would go to after games. This was six years ago now. I would say, let me try a new wine, and they would explain that wine. And I started to get interested and curious about wines back in Oregon, where I live. A buddy of mine happened to start working at a vineyard called L’Angolo Estate. He sent me some wines that to this day are my favorite. That’s when I really caught the bug. I was like, this is my backyard. I had heard stories about [NBA coach] Gregg Popovich owning part of Rex Hill, about [former NBA player and coach] George Karl, about all these other NBA coaches and owners that were interested in the Willamette Valley. I had gone wine tasting here and there, but I was just a fan.
I got traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers [in 2016]. We’re on a plane and I’m sitting next to some of my teammates and I was like, I’m not playing tomorrow so I’m gonna have a bottle of chardonnay. They start roasting me, like why didn’t you bring enough for everybody? It ended up with people taking turns bringing 6 to 12 bottles of their favorite wine on a trip, and if we didn’t finish it on the plane, we would finish it at a restaurant. It became a thing where everybody was contributing something from where they love. A lot of guys like Italian wines. A couple younger guys love the Napa cabs. For me, I was all about the Oregon pinot and Oregon chard. It became about having a sense of pride for Oregon.
What pushed you to want to learn even more about wine?
I started to notice that wine was taking up a lot of my life in a great way, where guys would say hey, what was that pinot we had last week? Or, what was that chardonnay? Or I’d be at a restaurant and be like, let’s try some Chilean wine, I want to see what that tastes like. And it became a thing. People would come with me and they knew they were going to try new things. It incites conversation, not just about common subjects but about your opinion. At home, when friends come over, they’re always like, "Channing let’s open up a bottle of wine," and they’re willing to learn. Wine has become that conversation piece.
What I found was that if I went to dinner and I knew how to read the wine menu, it opened up conversations. And having a conversation is everything at dinner. If you’re taking the time to eat a meal at a nice restaurant and you don’t have a good conversation, it ruins the meal, it ruins the wine, it ruins your day. But if you have a great conversation, the meal can be ho hum and you can still have a great time. And wine is that connector. We didn’t know what we were doing at the time, but there are guys now who have taken off with it and guys that have been inspirational for the next generation, like Dwyane Wade and C.J. McCollum and Steph Curry. It’s been an amazing opportunity to be a part of it, and I’m trying to keep up.
What was the process like for creating Chosen Family?
When I was in Orlando and my buddy started working with L’Angolo Estate, that was when my mind was blown on pinot noir, and my idea of what it could taste like. So I started talking to them and eventually, we were doing one-off bottles for charity events. The process of going through the barrel and talking with Chase [Renton], who’s the owner of the vineyard, about what we wanted to portray in that bottle became something more than just grapes in a glass. I fell in love with the process and they saw that. They saw my energy and excitement, and we ended up saying let’s get into business.
We started at the beginning of last year. This year, we have 85 cases of pinot noir and 40 cases of chardonnay. We chose the name Chosen Family because both of my parents passed away. I moved to Portland because I fell in love with the city, the fans, I fell in love with my wife, and that’s my chosen family.
How does being a basketball player make you a better cellar master?
I think it actually puts me behind. I think sometimes people have a stigma of why I do this or why basketball players do this, like oh he just put his name on there, he didn’t taste this. I have to say that from day one of creating this brand, I was there for every single meeting, doing research, putting my two cents in. I don’t know it all, but I have dedicated time to making sure we’re putting a great product out there. That’s also why I have Chase and Jake [Gray, the general manager], who make great wine at L’Angolo. We’re not constrained by a vineyard that we own because we don’t own one. We don’t have a tasting room. We are literally putting the best product out there and not at huge quantities. I’m not gonna be at Safeway. I’m not gonna be at Whole Foods. You’re most likely not gonna find my wine at a wine shop. You’ve got to get it from us. And it’s about trust. I don’t want people to think that I just want this for money. This is a passion project. I get excited talking about this every day. In this made-up office that I have, above me is my championship ring, and then right next to it is my chardonnay and pinot noir bottle. The things that for me, outside of my family, I’m the most proud of.
I was there hand-bottling all 85 cases of pinot. Did my arm want to fall off? Absolutely. But I have put my love and passion into this and I'm gonna constantly be challenging myself to put something better out every year. As a basketball player, I use my work ethic and my access to wines that other people might not have. When people say what kind of wine do you like, I say pinot noir because I drink that the most, chardonnay because I drink that the most. But I am always open to learning. I’m starting from scratch in this business, and I am inspired by the things that other people are doing in challenging this business. I’m ready to get on that treadmill with them so that we can all go make great products and share them with the world.
What’s been the most memorable moment from this whole Chosen Family journey?
I went to the bottling, and I was so excited about this bottle of pinot noir that I completely forgot that night about bottle shock. So I open this bottle up that same night, and I drink it and I’m like what is this? And my wife looked at my face and she was like, you look like you’re about to cry. I’m texting and calling my winemaker, my business partner, and I’m like what is going on. And they’re like, you didn’t open it did you. And I’m like, I did. And they’re like, dude it’s gonna be in bottle shock for a couple of weeks. I was like, oh no! So just me learning that little thing and freaking out shows how much I love it and am into it and want it to be good. I want this to be someone’s favorite wine. I want this to be your favorite wine, not only because it tastes good, but because of what we’re about.
What do you want to change about the way wine and wine culture exists right now?
Wine culture is very white. It’s a fact. When you look at it from a cultural standpoint, you’re missing out on so many different cultural influences in America. When I was growing up as a kid in Phoenix, I didn’t even know wine was a thing. Even as a 30-year-old, I didn’t even know it was possible for me to get into this business. Because for me, as a black guy, I don’t see black guys pouring me wine. I don’t see black guys as winemakers. I don’t see black guys as sommeliers. I don’t see that. And what I’m trying to do is influence culture. For people to say, dang I’m really into this wine thing, let me see where my passion lies. Is it working with the grapes every day? Is it being in the tasting room? I think if we can put people of all different types of color in the fields, in the barrel rooms, in the tasting rooms, everywhere, it is going to bring so many more people to your vineyards to taste your wine. We’re only speaking to a certain group. We should speak to everybody. The wine industry should want different perspectives, should want different cultures and colors so that they can be better because everyone’s perspective is going to challenge them to constantly evolve.
What has been the biggest challenge in creating your own wine brand?
At Chosen Family, we want people to trust us, which is hard. We want to make sure that people know that they’re appreciated and know that we did this with love.
When you think about Chosen Family, your love of wine, and your own wine journey, what are you most looking forward to?
I want people to not look at NBA players as basketball players who love wine. I want them to really look at us as people who may have access to different wines but are as passionate as them. We love wine. We love the culture, we love being able to open a bottle, we love the excitement of hearing if you love it. We’re new here. I’m humbled to be a part of the industry and I’m just trying to make my mark in the sand. I hope people can come on the journey with me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.