Wine has always been one of our planet’s great social connectors, as well as a symbol of generosity, pleasure, and celebration.
This spring, however, while the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us how important human connection is, and the global Black Lives Matter protests have shown how far we have to go in creating a more equitable society, there’s renewed energy toward making the wine world more inclusive.
Although there are more than 8,000 wineries in the U.S., about one-tenth of 1% of the winemakers and brand owners are Black, estimates Phil Long, president of the Association of African-American Vintners and owner of the Longevity winery in the California Bay Area’s Livermore Valley.
Which is why, Long says, “the real goal of our organization is promoting awareness—letting people know we exist, and we make great wine.”
It’s true. Many of the wines are absolutely delicious, and range from big, bold reds with savory flavors to refreshing whites, as well as unusual, experimental sparkling wines made from hybrid grapes.
“I didn’t know winemaking was a career choice,” says Long, who has a degree in architecture and spent years as a creative director in the Bay Area. “For Italian-Americans, wine is part of their culture and heritage. Most Black winemakers don’t have that.”
Getting attention hasn’t been so easy. The only Black-owned labels that most people are aware of are celebrity brands such as singer-songwriter John Legend’s LVE collection, made by Napa’s Raymond Winery, and NBA star Dwyane Wade’s D. Wade Cellars, made by Napa’s Pahlmeyer.
Theodora Lee, owner of Theopolis winery in Mendocino, Calif., is starting to see some change, though. While acknowledging that the injustices and killings of Black men by the police is driving the Black Lives Matter protests, Lee says the movement has helped spotlight Black wines, causing a surge in sales.
Lee, a shareholder, partner, and trial lawyer at Littler Mendelson, says sales have doubled from January to June, and she’s signed up many more wine club numbers.
Lee grew up in Texas as the daughter of educators. She learned to love wine via visits to law firm mentors in Napa, Calif., and thought: “I could be a grape farmer and still keep my job.” She took viticulture courses at University of California at Davis, hired soil experts to help her decide what grapes to plant, and ended up with five acres of petite sirah in Mendocino County. In 2006, she sold her first harvest and six years later started bottling her own wine.
Covid-19, she says, has encouraged direct-to-consumer sales, which has also helped support Black business owners. She’d like to see bigger wineries partner with Black wineries to help them with distribution.
That’s what happened to the AAV’s Long, who launched a national distribution deal with giant Bronco Wine Co. for his two entry-level wines just before the coronavirus hit. After the Black Lives Matter protests, he saw more online sales in the first two weeks of June than in all of 2019. “The question,” he says, “is how we keep that going.”
In South Africa, the path to becoming a Black winemaker hasn’t been easy either, despite empowerment efforts. The country now has about 60 Black-owned brands, according to Wines of South Africa. Ten are imported into the U.S.
Ntsiki Byela, the country’s first Black female winemaker, says, “Wine is not part of our history.” A collaboration with Napa’s Helen Keplinger, set up by Mika Bulmash of U.S. importer Wine for the World, gave her the funds to start her own winery, Aslina.
“It’s great that people are publishing lists of Black winemakers,” says Krista Scruggs, owner of Zafa Wines, based in Burlington, Vt. “But we need to go way beyond that.” She is pushing boundaries by making cider and wine blends and using hybrid grapes to make natural sparkling wines.
Julia Coney, a Black wine and travel writer in Washington, explains, “One of the problems is that most wine is not marketed to people who look like us. We have to change the perception of what a wine drinker looks like.”
Coney just launched Black Wine Professionals to help address the diversity problem in the wine industry. Meanwhile, AAAV sponsors scholarships to encourage others to work in wine and nonprofit organization Wine Empowered is offering tuition-free wine classes to women and minorities in the hospitality industry.
All are worth supporting—but hey, don’t miss out on the wines. Here are nine to look out for.
2018 Maison Noir OPP Other People’s Pinot
Andre Hueston Mack, a former sommelier at New York’s Per Se restaurant, is owner and winemaker at this Oregon winery. Think of this bright, juicy wine as an everyday pinot. $17
2019 La Fete du Rosé
The first Black-owned rosé brand from Saint-Tropez was released last fall by Donae Burston. It’s soft textured and fruity, with bright cherryish flavors. $2 from every bottle sold via the website goes to racial justice organization Color of Change. $25
2019 Longevity Pink Pinot Grigio
This floral-scented wine from California’s Livermore Valley is made in the Northern Italian ramato style, in which juice from pinot grigio grapes sit on the pink-toned skins to pick up color. It’s fresh and lively, with fruity citrus hints. $26
2017 Aslina Umsasane
Rich, savory, earthy, and sophisticated, this cabernet-based blend is filled with plummy, full-bodied fruit. “Umsasane” was Byela’s grandmother’s nickname. $32
2017 Theopolis Petite Sirah
This intense, peppery, deep-colored red comes from the Yorkville Highlands area of Mendocino. It’s big and bold but has plenty of brightness and polish. $39
2018 Brown Estate Zinfandel
The only Black-owned winery in the Napa Valley, founded in the 1980s, specializes in zinfandel. This one is bright, spicy, dark-fruited and juicy—and very elegant. $45
2019 Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir
Winemaker Berene Sauls makes this stunning wine at Hamilton Russell vineyards in South Africa. Perfectly balanced, it brims with crushed strawberry and cinnamon aromas and flavors of bright red fruit and minerals. $45
2019 Zafa Wines Visions of Gideon Mea Culpa
This sparkling wine is made as traditional Champagne is, but it’s a blend of two hybrid grapes, frontenac blanc and frontenac gris. Delicate and soft, yet zingy with acidity, it will change your mind about hybrid grapes. $47
2015 Il Palazzone Brunello di Montalcino
Richard Parsons, former chief executive officer of Time Warner, bought this estate in 2000. This great vintage, released earlier this year, is floral and ripe, with sweet licorice notes and a subtle cherry crispness. $90