Feast Q&A: From basketball to Bordeaux

UCD basketball star Joe Harden earned a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology in 2011.
UCD basketball star Joe Harden earned a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology in 2011. Sacramento Bee file

Joe Harden is remembered as one of the most successful UC Davis men’s basketball players since the program moved into Division 1 in 2007-08. Playing guard and forward, the 6-foot-8-inch Stockton native twice was named the Big West Conference’s Best Hustle Player, averaging 14.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in his senior year.

After graduating from UCD in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology, Harden played professionally in the NBA Development League. He averaged 1.5 points and 1.8 rebounds per game over 13 contests, and struggled to keep up with the league’s emphasis on one-on-one play. He later had a short stint playing in Australia before deciding he was done with professional basketball.

Since returning to California in 2012, Harden has shot through the ranks of Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi Winery, going from an intern to full-time winemaker. He spoke with The Bee about his time on the hard court, and what motivates him to succeed in the wine game.

Q: What was it like transitioning from UCD to the NBA D-League?

A: It was definitely a unique experience. When I was done at Davis, I knew I wanted to continue playing, (but) I knew that it wasn’t my career choice. I had a couple offers to go play in Japan or some small Baltic countries, but ... I’m a homebody at heart. I entered the NBA D-League draft and got drafted by what’s now the Santa Cruz Warriors, but at the time it was the Dakota Wizards in Bismark, N.D. So I flew out there and played about 60 percent of the season out there, and to be honest, the D-League wasn’t created for my kind of skill set. I need a little bit more of a structured offense and it was a freelance, take-your-defender-and-go kind of league and that didn’t really play to my strong suit.

Q: What did it feel like to hang up your basketball shoes?

A: I was ready. I was a little burned out, to be honest. I knew I had taken the journey as far as I had wanted (it) to go. I think I could still be playing in Europe if that was a dream of mine, but I was actually pretty excited to get onto the next stage. ... I still play basketball for fun, but I don’t ever look back and regret the decision to move on. I really enjoyed the time that I had and basketball did great things for me, but at the end of the day, I had a different career mindset.

Q: How did you get started in the winemaking business?

A: When I came home (from Australia), I had a couple connections with Robert Mondavi Winery, and got set up and interviewed for this really cool internship. ... I spent three months in the vineyards with the senior viticulturalist, then a couple months doing cellar work, pulling hoses and getting my hands dirty. Then during harvest, I worked with the winemaking team walking vineyards, doing fermentation work and being involved in all the tastings, followed by a couple more months in the lab. Then I was going to take a different job, but Robert Mondavi Winery contacted me and said, ‘Why don’t you try to stay on, we’ll create an enology position (for you)?’ That was exactly what I wanted to be doing. It’s kind of like an assistant winemaker job, where you work with all facets of production. ... I did that for about a year, and then my boss, legendary Napa Valley winemaker Genevieve Janssens, came into my office and said for the 2014 harvest I’d be taking over all the Bordeaux red winemaking under her supervision.

Q: What’s the most underrated wine that Robert Mondavi makes?

A: Ooh, the most underrated? I think our Napa Valley merlot. I think a lot of people don’t have a good mindset on what merlot is out here, and it’s had a lot to do with that movie “Sideways.” I think our merlot kind of over-delivers year after year, and it’s kind of that silent, steady cool customer that’s always rock solid.

Joe Harden

Former UCD basketball standout turned winemaker with Robert Mondavi Winery