How Winemaker Joe Harden Is Helping Athletes Like Klay Thompson And Rui Hachimura Enter The Wine World

In a lot of ways Joe Harden still keeps the schedule of a ball player. Up before the sun most mornings, getting to the facility and checking in with his team to talk over what the most pressing reps are before the day’s runs get underway. That he’s traded open court for open fields, that his teammates are sometimes Klay Thompson, Rui Hachimura, Kevin Love, and Channing Frye, and that some days those pressing reps are quite literally pressing — grapes — makes little difference. As in his playing days, the methodology of care and attention to the smallest detail is what’s important.

Harden, the head winemaker at Napa Valley’s Nickel & Nickel winery, was pairing basketball and wine together before the two became the NBA’s defacto cultural tag team. Growing up on his family’s ranch outside of Lodi, California, the 6-foot-7 teenager had interest from Division 1 schools across the States before committing to Notre Dame. South Bend turned out to be much farther from the sun baked, sandy loam of Lodi’s fields than Harden liked, so he transferred to UC Davis and redshirted his sophomore year before joining the Aggies the next. Off the floor he studied viticulture and enology, and after graduating Harden let basketball lead him away again. First to Bismarck, North Dakota, to play for the Warriors G League team (a year before the team relocated to Santa Cruz), and then to a pro team in Melbourne, Australia.

“I didn’t make it to the NBA. I got fairly close, I ran outta talent a little early,” Harden chuckles from his office inside “the barns” at Nickel & Nickel that house dozens of towering stainless steel fermentation tanks and the 30,000 square foot cellar dug below them. Harden and his friend and assistant winemaker, Phil Holbrook, have already been on site at Nickel for an hour before our 8 a.m. Zoom. The light is faint in the vaulted space around the makeshift office. One of Harden’s dogs, a lanky grey wolfhound, ambles in and out of frame.

When Harden returned to California from Australia he and his wife, a former University of Utah and UC Davis basketball player, moved to Napa where they didn’t know anyone and rented an apartment. Though he’d just left it behind in a formal, “for good” sense, at least when it came to his career, Harden turned to basketball.

“I was just trying to find places to go hoop and I found some little tiny, it was like a horrible run,” Harden remembers. “But it was in Yountville and I had a couple buddies that I had met there, and someone introduced me to Phil [Holbrook] and Carlo Mondavi — Tim Mondavi’s son.”

It’s likely you’ve heard of Robert Mondavi, the California wine label and family that started in Napa in 1966 an is now one of the region’s most well-known and largest producers (Holbrook also has a Mondavi connection, his grandmother is Margrit Mondavi). Their vineyard sits directly across from Nickel & Nickel’s smaller property and is where Harden got his start as a wine maker. When he went across the road to Nickel in 2018, Harden hired Holbrook on to first help with harvests as an intern, a gig that led to his current position alongside Harden.

As two people who love wine and the process of making it deeply, but have recognized from their start in the business how many barriers exist for entry, Harden and Holbrook quickly wanted to explore avenues and outlets to do things differently. One of those is working with the Roots Fund, an organization committed to seeing more of the BIPOC community in the wine industry, and the other is through collaboration.

It shouldn’t be such a surprise, giving the ebb and flow between wine and basketball in Harden’s life, that when he was looking for a project that could help him delve into wine in a different way than he does behind the tanks at Nickel, that the universe would deliver him back to basketball again. It may have been a surprise that it delivered him Klay Thompson, specifically.

“First of all, I’ve learned since I’ve started in the wine business that like everything in life, it’s all about relationships. Relationships with the farmer, relationships with the land, relationships with who you’re making the wine for. And that’s what’s exciting for me,” Harden says. “There’s a timelessness to this. I wouldn’t say I knew him, but Klay and my paths crossed back in high school. And so there was some familiarity there.”

It was Thompson and MLB player, Nolan Arenado, who approached Harden hoping to get their start in burgeoning world of pro athletes and wine. Harden initially turned them down.

“I’ve always been hesitant because, I’m not gonna name brands, but I see celebrities who go about it the way that way where it’s not interesting for a guy who’s in the cellar pulling hoses and making the wines,” Harden says. “And so when they approached me, I said, I could link you with a handful of these wineries, it’s no problem. It’ll be very easy for you and you’ll get your wine tomorrow probably.”

But Thompson and Arenado were adamant, they wanted to make something and they wanted to do it Harden’s way. That is, learning everything from the dizzying range of soil varieties that can be found in the Valley to the hard work of the harvest, the patience of the fermentation and aging process, and of course the quiet reward in opening a bottle that was theirs.

“It started fairly slow with us. We had a wine in bottle for three years before we sold a bottle of wine,” Harden recalls. “It started with opening up a bunch of wine with [Thompson] and understanding what wine he likes. Cause I said, ultimately I can make a wine that I like, but if you don’t like it, you’re not drinking it, then it’s a waste of everybody’s time.”

“These guys, similar to their basketball route, they don’t wanna take any shortcuts. And that’s what’s been fun about the project for me at least, these guys were like, if you were doing this and you had their means, what would you do? And I was like, this is exactly what I would do. Klay was like, ‘Let’s go find the grapes!’,” Harden laughs.

Diamond & Key, a play on the two places its founders spend most of their time, started with a cabernet sauvignon and has since added a rosé at Thompson’s behest and Harden’s urging to only get into wine to make the kind you’d like to drink yourself.

“That’s how the rosé came about cause you know, not everyone wants to open up $150 cab four days a week. He’s a big boat guy and so he was like, I want a wine that I can have on my boat. So we made a crisp, really elegant rosé that’s been doing great.”

A surprising element that Harden’s seen athletes like Thompson and Arenado take to, as well as Hachimura, who’s partnered with Harden to produce his own cab suav, called Black Samurai, is the time capsule offshoot involved with bottling wine. Harden has felt this firsthand in working through droughts and wildfires and seeing and tasting their impacts on the finished product, but he’s also had milestones he can trace back to each vantage. He calls wine a “living, breathing thing”. Wine, as a marker of time and place, is something that initially drew Harden in and how many winemakers eventually come to refer to variances between vintages. But wine as a snapshot, as something that can essentially slow down time, has an entirely different appeal to an NBA athlete in the accelerated blur of season over season.

“That’s what’s unique about wine and I think they’re learning that as they go,” Harden nods, “It’s like, oh yeah, the ’18 vintage I was doing this, and ’20 was a really hard year for Klay and ’21 was tough, and ’22 we won a championship. So it’s kind of fun to see them link that with wine as well.”

The first batch of Diamond & Key’s rosé is doubly special to Harden because the grapes that were used to produce it were grown on the same ranch he grew up on, a place he calls “more cowboy” than Napa with grapes growing rangy and less manicured, harvested from a plot he named after his son. The grapes were also picked specifically for rosé, rare in that wine’s usual style of production. Thompson, Harden says, is fully “stoked.”

Though Harden outright rejects any title of being the go-to NBA wine guy — he guesses he’s had between 40-50 players out to the vineyard, some of which he’s turned down — his experience as an athlete does give him a unique perspective to the process, beyond the plays on words and comparable schedules.

“The basketball world is so into wine that I think people can get taken advantage of,” Harden says, “For me, I’m gonna always have the athlete’s interests, number one cause I’ve seen that, and I think that there’s a relationship and a trust there that’s really important.”

To establish that trust beyond their shared touchpoint in basketball, Harden, who is as warm and expansive as he is blunt, likes to have them come and check out the winery at Nickel and some of the other vineyards around Napa he uses for collaborative wine projects. Thompson clearly took to this immersive approach, so too did Hachimura and his family, who Harden hosted when Hachimura’s current agent and Harden’s former AAU coach for EBO, Darren Matsubara, caught up with Harden at a Warriors-Bucks game a few years ago and encouraged him to talk to Hachimura about wine.

“He just kind of fell in love with it,” Harden recalls of the now-Laker’s visit, noting his “fascination” with the entire process.

Nothing is rushed. It’s a crucial point for Harden, too, who now counts Diamond & Key, Black Samurai, a pinot noir he made for Kevin Love and Channing Frye’s Chosen Family wines, plus his own venture with Holbrook, Salty Goats, as side projects on top of his passionate anchor and day job at Nickel. Plainly put, Harden doesn’t have that much extra time on his hands, but what he does have he’s happy to use broadening the scope of the wine world by getting passionate people involved. Athletes, with their means, interest, and desire to create post-playing career hobbies and jobs, represent tangible ways to shift wine into its next iteration.

“I think that wine can be a little intimidating. And trying to knock down that barrier where, at the end of the day, I’m very passionate about what I do — but it’s fermented grape juice,” Harden smiles, “We can overcomplicate it. We can put a stuffiness to it, we can put pretension behind it. But that’s not really what I’m interested in.”

Asked if he’s ever surprised by the way basketball has continued to act as a vehicle, accelerant, and connector for him, and Harden pauses. Anyone who has a foot in multiple worlds can understand how it feels to not want to be pigeonholed by one or the other.

“I think having open doors, and showing people how wine is made, and having different groups of people visit — I think Napa Valley for a long time has just been like very wealthy white people who come and spend a ton of money. And I think in the last handful of years, athletes have helped kind of break down those barriers and that’s exciting for me,” he says, “There’s an honesty there and again, as long as the story makes sense and the wine is cool and we’re making it from grape to bottle and and growing grapes together, then I don’t really care who you are. Like let’s go do it.”