photo by Scott Harris

Isaiah Thomas, the retired American basketball player who played professionally for the Detroit Pistons in the National Basketball Association and 12-time NBA All-Star lauded as one of the 50 greatest players in the NBA history, has imbibed in many celebratory bottles of Champagne over his illustrious career. Now he has embarked on his own brand of superb Champagne. Trading the court for the Champagne vineyards, Thomas has been awarded in another realm: the many international wine competitions where his Champagne, Cheurlin, has won numerous awards including 2017 Champagne Producer of the Year by the prestigious New York International Wine Competition. Cheurlin Thomas Black Label Collection, Blanc de Blanc Celebrite and the Le Champion Blanc de Noir along with the Rose de Saignee and the flagship Cheurlin Brut Speciale are all exquisite in subtle elegance, pure fruit balance and delicate tiny beads of bubbles that dance and dazzle in the glass and on the palate. We had a few moments to catch up with this remarkable NBA legend and speak with him about his new venture and his surprising success off the court. 

Tell us about your new venture:

The Champagne is named Cheurlin and the brand comes from a family of growers with 200 acres in Champagne near the Seine who have been making Champagne since the late 1700s. They pride themselves on Champagne making. We have the best soil, water and weather conditions for Champagne. Being in this format we are very conscious of what we eat and drink, and sometimes when you do drink other products you end up with a headache. I used to think the headache came from the alcohol, but now I realize it actually comes from the sugar. The thing that I love is that there is very little sugar added to our product. We are very excited to introduce this product to the MGM properties.

What motivated you into venturing into the Champagne making process and have you always had an interest in fine wines?

No, I was always an athlete first as I did not drink, smoke or anything of that nature; I was as pure as the driven snow, so to speak, in some aspects (laughs). The time I was around Champagne was for celebratory reasons usually after a big win. As time went on and I got involved in this space, I realized that Champagne can be a beverage for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The more I got into it the more I understood how Champagne was made and the vineyards from which it comes from. Our Champagne is from one vineyard; all the grapes come from the same place and the Champagne makers are from one family. That makes this product extremely special as it has a 90-plus pointed portfolio here in the United States. I believe we are one of two producers with a 90-plus pointed rating.

It appears that your motivation in launching Cheurlin is more about enhancing the intimate setting of meals with friends and family versus the club scene. Am I correct in that observation?

The more I learned about Champagne, the more I realized that it is about the pairing with the meals that you eat. So often we think of a certain red or white wine to go with a meal but Champagne is the perfect beverage, which is why it is such a luxurious drink. I have heard that Champagne is the drink of the Gods, since they can enjoy it anytime of the day or night. If you look at how we came into the business, we did not go to the nightclubs; instead, we are going into the hotels and the restaurants, and the big sporting arenas, where people sit, gather to talk and enjoy a meal and conversation. The best part of this job is that I can say that I am working doing this.

How are you going to engage the 21 crowd that may want to try Champagne for the first time?

I have found that the younger crowd is no different than we were when we started drinking in that they may start with a sweeter beverage, but then they may want to try something more upscale, or they meet someone who introduces them to a better product. The Millennials are very inquisitive, ask a lot of questions and they do want to know what they are drinking and they do want to know the story behind the beverage. I was one of those guys when someone asked me what kind of wine I wanted to drink—red or white or even Champagne—I really did not know what I was being poured; I was not educated. Now there is more education out there including more information about food, and now the spirits business is doing the same. People are more conscious of what they are drinking and what they are ordering, and that is why we will have a leg up on the competition.

Are you using social media including Instagram and other modalities to get the word out about your products?

We do use some social media, but we have only been in the U.S. six months with this product and I go back to what my economic teacher told me to invest in things you like and love and the good products sell themselves through word of mouth. Most of the good stuff that we wear, eat or drink sells itself through word of mouth. I happen to be here today in Las Vegas by word of mouth through the MGM properties. It is the juice in the bottle that speaks for itself, not the bottle or the packaging which I designed myself, but the Champagne.