Photography by Kristian Schmidt, Bob Mclenahan

Yao Ming is larger than life and his impact on and off the court is still being felt by millions around the world. For all of his accomplishments, he’d rather not be the center of attention.  That is until the subjects of wine and philanthropy come up. He combined these two passions with the release of Yao Family Wines’ 2014 Napa Crest Red Wine. The limited-edition bottling commemorates his 10-year partnership with WildAid—a global nonprofit dedicated to ending the illegal trade in elephant tusks, rhino horns, and other wildlife parts—with all proceeds going directly to the organization. In a recent interview Yao shared his thoughts on wines, conservation and more.

What’s the philosophy behind Yao Family Wines?
Drinking wine is more than just the drinking and tasting. It’s about a shared experience, the time we spend together. When we are drinking, we talk about our lives, our jobs, our stress, our joy, and many things about life. We have a saying that “every empty bottle is full of our experience.” Also, for the label we designed, we use Chinese characters, but instead of the modern ones we use today, it is ancient characters from more than 1,000 years ago. It is almost like using Latin.

How involved are you in the winemaking process?
I stay there and watch people harvest and produce the grape juice. But Tom Hinde, he is the real winemaker. I want to put a real before the winemaker—you know what I mean [laughing]. He is a very experienced guy; he knows Napa.

You both must feel proud of the praise your wines have received. Obviously [the Robert Parker score] was encouragement for us. It shows that people love our wine and that’s great for us. But still, our focus is to explain our understanding of the wine and how we make it different than yesterday, than before. You don’t want to get there and say, “I want to do this in a totally different way.” You have to respect the tradition of the Napa Valley. But I believe that each time you want to put a little bit in there to make it a little bit different. With enough time—while that time will be decades, maybe—it will come out as something very, very special.