How Josh Hart Is Turning His Love For Wine Into Industry Reform

If 2020, melting now into its final few months, has left you feeling disoriented and adrift, without a clear sense of which tangible or theoretical direction to take, why not accept some sensible advice from Josh Hart?

“All roads lead to Burgundy.”

Granted, in the context of this particular conversation the Pelicans guard was noting the way his palate has shifted, but the advice, as a matter of his broadening tastes and the aspirational moves they’ve inclined him to make, is sound.

For someone who has been in the wine world a relatively short while in the grand scheme of a hobby or lifestyle — depending on how you approach it — that is synonymous with careful cultivation over slow, intricate spans of time, Hart is a quick study. His wine cellar is extensive, boasting bottles older than him from regions all over the world, and he’s become a go-to guy in a league already brimming with connoisseurs. Still, it’s a love affair so fresh he can easily remember how it started.

“I got into wine several years ago and really got attached to it and loved it. I tried it earlier, three or four years [before], and I didn’t like it. I hated it,” Hart laughs, “I tried it again, I feel like my tastebuds kind of changed a little bit, I really liked it and kind of went all-in on it.”

Hart, just over a month clear of his first and prolonged season in New Orleans, is warm and relaxed over the phone, unguarded and happy to ramble down the roads he’s traveled with wine.

“When I first got into wine I was drinking American wine — Napa, Sonoma Coast, Alexander Valley, then I got into Bordeaux,” Hart explains. “I’m big into Bordeaux. And then, probably two or three months ago, I started really getting into Burgundy. I love Burgundies. I love Cab but Burgundy’s kinda making me a bit of a Pinot guy. My palate’s definitely changed since I first started drinking wine. There’s some wines that I first started drinking that I’m like, ‘Yo, this shit is terrible, why was I drinking this? Lord.’”

It’s no stretch to say that same easygoing approachability has been a factor in creating what Hart called in a post-practice interview from the Orlando Bubble a “close-knit” team with the Pelicans.

“We bond off the court,” Hart says. “There’s no drama within our team, no one doesn’t like each other. It’s all love with all of us.”

At least some of that off-court bonding has included wine.

“Some of those guys have talked to me about it, talked to J.J. [Reddick],” Hart says when asked whether his teammates have started to come to him for wine advice, “J.J. is a big wine guy so me and him share bottles all the time. Guys like E’Twaun Moore kinda wanted to learn a little more about it, kinda dabbled into it a little bit more recently. If we’re on a flight, you know, Lonzo [Ball] would have a little bit, Brandon [Ingram] would have a little bit. Jrue [Holiday] would have some, Frank [Jackson] would have some. It’s definitely something that’s growing more and more in the NBA, and I think it’s definitely getting to younger players, they’re getting that exposure.”

While Hart credits the time he spent in L.A. alongside the league’s quintessential vintages veteran of LeBron James, plus the sprits-savvy Rajon Rondo, who both frequently brought bottles to share on team flights, as being his enthusiastic guides into wine, he quickly realized that the real world did not provide as many welcoming avenues into a complex and occasionally overwhelming world.

As Hart’s initial interest turned into an engaging hobby, taking him to vineyards, meeting producers and leaders within the wine space, that realization grew notably starker, and distinctly homogenous.

“There’s that stereotype,” he pauses, “it’s like old, white men. Old white wealthy men, who drink wine.”

He laughs (well, we both laugh) before his voice turns serious, sincere.

“The biggest thing for me was, okay, there’s obviously a lot of division in our country right now, and in the wine world there’s not too many minorities,” Hart opines. “And obviously it’s getting bigger and bigger in the NBA, and bigger and bigger with this generation now, so my thought process was ok, how can I help minorities get into the wine space?”

To distill his passion into something tangible, Hart turned to the industry experts at Wine Access, one of the largest online wine retailers, headquartered in Napa, Calif., and the Diversity In Wine Scholarship was launched.

The initiative aims to address racial representation gaps in the industry, from the production of wine to the selling and service of it, by offering 100 scholarships to BIPOC working in or aspiring to pursue a career in wine. The scholarships will cover the cost of Level 1 certification through global certification and awarding body, the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). The top five scorers from that initial pool will have their Level 2 certification sponsored, and the top three scorers from that group will spend three days in Napa Valley with Hart literally wining and dining, as well as meeting experts and pairing with potential mentors in the industry.

“I went to Napa and met some different people and different winers in Napa, so I had a leg up those times getting into the wine world just because I had those connections,” Hart says, “For a minority who doesn’t have those connections, it’s almost impossible to get into. So my thought process was ok, let’s lend a hand to those people and if this is something they really want to pursue as a career, let’s give them the opportunity to do that.”

Applications for the initial scholarship close at the end of October, but Hart is already thinking longterm. When asked if he’d like to offer something like this again he affirms enthusiastically, “I think it’d be really dope. It’s definitely something I would like to do again. It would be an amazing opportunity to get into the world of wine and see if it’s something you really liked and want to have a career in, it’s a good start for it.”

In talking about his own prospective plans in the wide, growing world of wine, Hart’s voice shifts gears, no less driven, but casual, cruising through the future and its potential.

“Maybe a little bit in education, but not too much, I’m not trying to be a master somm [sommelier] or anything like that.” Hart laughs. “It’s nice to have more of an understanding for wine and what I’m drinking,” he pauses, loops back, “Maybe I’d like to do the first level of somm, the WSET, but I think five, ten years down the line maybe trying to come out with my own wine. I don’t think I’m going to go out there and buy a vineyard and retire and do that, but doing something like how D Wade [Dwyane Wade] is, or Channing [Frye] is doing it, and partnering with a vineyard and going out there and tasting the grapes. They’re doing their own tastings and all that kind of stuff.”

He pauses again, this time his voice turning almost dreamy.

“That’s something that I definitely want to do, that’s probably the next step,” Hart says. “Who knows? Maybe if I’m great at that I could go get my own vineyard, but I think baby steps. Baby steps.”

For the rest of us, we can lift another lesson from wine. One bad year really only adds to life’s overall vintage. For Hart, whether taking strides to reform the structure of the very industry his hobby has matured in, building a contender with the Pelicans, or in the small, aspirational steps on his own road leading to (or beyond) Burgundy, he’s sure to get there.