Raptors wine pairings! Toast your favourite player with the wine most like him
Mysterious, understated, devastatingly profound... yeah, that's Kawhi. And also, the best Pinot from Burgundy
In the midst of one of Toronto's greatest sporting achievements, all of Canada can't stop talking about the enigmatic Raptors. The bandwagon is loading and it's not too late to fall in love with the most charming and Canadian-feeling team of non-Canadians you've ever met. There are many ways to get to know its superstar players: their Instagram accounts, the surprisingly funny team Twitter account or — my favourite — binge watching Raptors star Serge Ibaka's incredibly sweet talk show disguised as gross-out cooking challenge, "How Hungry Are You?".
Another normal way is to consider the type of wine each player would be! Basketball games, like bottles of wine, are all different and the result of innumerable hours of work and practice. The tremendous thought and care that goes into each cannot be seen, only felt, separating the good from the great. Thus, it's no wonder the NBA has fallen in love with wine. Baxter Holmes' recently detailed The NBA's Secret Wine Society and how many of the game's top figures have become oenophiles. Baxter notes Warriors star player Stephen Curry favours Bordeaux. But forget the Warriors dreamy-eyed superstar, it's Raptors time.
I consulted basketball and culture writer Katie Heindl to get the details on each Rap's personality on and off the court, in order to ponder the perfect wine matches, for toasting the team player of your choice. Without further ado: let's pair, shall we?
Katie says: While intensely private, Leonard's character has been revealed all season, bit by gleeful bit. There's a sense that his time north of the border is thawing him, and that finding a key role with such a dynamic, supportive team is a big part of that. Leonard is one of the top three players in the NBA and he's enjoying a comeback after a bad injury, in a place that couldn't be more grateful to have him. He's a leader with an unmatched basketball intelligence and his calm confidence is rubbing off on the whole team. He's staying.
The pairing: Kawhi belongs with a wine like him… mysterious, understated and devastatingly profound. He teaches us that to be great you needn't be arrogant. To be great you needn't trash talk. To be great you must only play great. This type of modesty in sport, business or culture of any kind comes rarely and seems very polite and Canadian, which perhaps contributes to why we can't stop talking about him. Similarly, the world's greatest Pinot Noir from Burgundy doesn't care what you think of it. It's expensive, its flavours are delicate and nuanced, it isn't giving you the star power up front (a-hem Curry/ Bordeaux) it's making you work for it. To those who look, it will open and show its quiet profundity. Good young, but ages and develops with an unmatched complexity. Whether for just the one year, or again the next, you're lucky to have ever had it at all.
Katie says: Lowry's growth as a player, leader and person has been a pleasure to watch unfold. There's no one on the team as nuanced: scrappy with bursts of dazzling elegance, passionate with an effortless cool, intensely loyal to his teammates and franchise, but with a growing autonomy accomplished by a savvy sense of his own development. Lowry is the whole package, and he's the cheerleader, heart and gravitational centre of this team.
The pairing: As an outsider (see: bandwagon joiner) Lowry is an easy player to take for granted. The sudden realization he isn't just a side-kick to Demar Rerozan is akin to the story of Canadian wine. You're like "Yeah, it's fine," as you consistently choose international wines instead. Meanwhile, they're working. Getting better. Staying focused, believing in the possibility of the place they're in. Being proud to be Canadian — or playing in Canada for the seventh straight year. We've finally noticed. Notice, too, Cabernet Franc from Niagara, Chardonnay from Prince Edward County and Old Vine Rieslings from the Okanagan. Varieties like this are ideal for toasting Lowry with, they've been big stars all along.
Katie says: Steady Freddy! Extremely tough and fast, with a heart so big his teammate Danny Green recently said he wasn't sure how it could fit inside Fred's chest. VanVleet went undrafted in the NBA, worked his way up to snag a spare roster spot on the Raptors and hasn't stopped working since. An essential part of the team, a teammate who gives support wherever, however he can, most recently losing half a front tooth and a whole lot of blood from his beautiful, smiling face in the process.
The pairing: Is it possible to see Fred VanVleet play and not fall in love? I refuse to believe it is! A true underdog story, he saw his dream of playing in the NBA falling away and instead of giving up like so many would, he bet on himself, putting in the work and knowing he could make it. Oh, how he has. With a new baby at home he's playing his heart out and his Instagram is deliciously, unapologetically uplifting. Many a wine region has also found themselves in the dumps. Fred VanVleet is a wine that was good, but not good enough, and so it went back to the drawing board and got better. He is: every Australian wine. What was once a fixture in every restaurant took a disastrous turn when it saturated the market with cheap plonk that devalued the category. A wave of fresh producers focused on quality and low intervention winemaking have changed the dialogue, driven the price up and caught the attention of the best wine buyers around the world. Bet on yourself.
Katie says: Combine extra-spicy moves on the court, extreme humility, a little bit of a shy attitude, and an incredible story of growth in his only 8 years playing basketball (not just professionally, period) and you have the recipe for one of the Raptors' most likable stars. He's having his strongest, most explosive season yet. He's a candidate and obvious winner for the Most Improved Player Award because, quite literally, it's what he spent his entire season doing.
The pairing: CAN WE TALK ABOUT PASCAL SIAKAM. If you don't know his unbelievable story you need to read it. It's a story of human ambition, impossible victories, heart-soaring emotions and of needing nothing but a ball. Pascal is known for his zesty moves on the court and is deserving of a lip-smacking wine that knocks you off your feet with its out-of-nowhere power and excellence. He's a Grenache-Syrah blend from France, of course, but not just any region. He is Cairanne from the Southern Rhone. A small village only recently elevated to premier cru status — joining well known regions like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. A new star, its sun drenched hillsides and wild herbs surprise and delight new tasters. Once you know it, there is no going back.
Katie says: After his arrival in a mid-season trade, Marc Gasol appeared to be... overly big and kind of cumbersome in a lineup that's quick, efficient, and occasionally sneaky. But as time went on Gasol found his groove in the Raptors squad and now plays with a calculated punch that comes out in big, refreshing cannonball moments. An affable shark in the water.
The pairing: Big is beautiful. So, let the sun shine on Marc Gasol, who stands tall even against a sea of fellow basketball players. Marc is Spanish, yes, but Marc is sooo California; sometimes too big, sometimes too much, but when done right his power and size really hit the spot.
Katie says: When Ibaka isn't answering questions in three-to-five languages, he's cycling through the most beautiful looking collection of stylish hats and leather jackets, or else in the kitchen with teammates and various celebrities on his Fear Factor-meets-talk show, "How Hungry Are You?". Somewhere in there he finds time to play an exacting game of basketball, with a dramatic accent aigu on offence and defence, so that the Raptors never get messed with... but in a way where the other team has a hard time not thanking him for his manners.
The pairing: If you haven't checked out Serge Ibaka's style both on and off the court, it's time you got on that. If you haven't stumbled upon his cooking show featuring top players with his affable humour on full display, boy you have a treat ahead of you. He's classy and unapologetically fancy, doing it right and inspiring you to try hats. What I mean is, he's Champagne in a heavy bottle with gold leaf. He's fancy and classy and wants you to know it. He's confident and great and isn't shy. He can poke fun of Kawhi Leonard, eat beef testicles with Lowry, while inspiring you to keep up with your Duolingo and go back to the gym. Complex, age-worthy, pairs with any situation, deserving of worldwide celebration.
Katie Heindl has written about basketball and NBA culture for The Athletic, VICE, Rolling Stone, Dime Magazine, Yahoo Sports, RealGM and more, and has appeared on national TV and radio. She has a weekly newsletter called Basketball Feelings, which is concerned with primarily that. You can follow her on Twitter @wtevs.
Nicole Campbell has spent the last century studying, making, buying and selling wine with the goal of helping all people drink nice things by nice people. When not moonlighting as a sports fan, find her hosting monthly natural wine parties and educational sessions under the name Grape Witches. Look out for her upcoming natural wine book with House of Anansi in the fall of 2021.