History of Black American Winemakers
A Story of History & Heritage
The United States wine industry is notoriously difficult to tap into, and in a trade that is often as wealthy (and non-diverse) as they come, it can be particularly difficult for winemakers, vintners, and sommeliers of color. We salute our unsung heroes of the past who made waves and paved the way for other Black Americans in this industry, today’s Black wine leaders are positioned to make their own memorable mark.
Throughout its relatively young history, the average American has been primarily a beer and spirits drinker, while wine was thought of as something reserved for the upper-class members of society. Before the age of the internet (circa 1998), access to wine and wine knowledge for the average American was limited. More limited still for Black and brown communities at large, who were generally not prioritized and often overlooked. And so it leaves little wonder that in the world of wine, as with many other industries, the history, growth, and expansion of Black-owned wine may seem as scattered and small as seeds on the plain. But seeds that are sown and nurtured with care can grow into monumental feats.
We all are familiar with John Lewis, the late Black American representative, statesman, and Civil Rights activist who encouraged all Americans to “never be afraid to make some noise and get in Good Trouble, necessary trouble.” Like it's 2020 predecessor Good Trouble Zinfandel, the profits from sales of Good Trouble Syrah we've released for 2021 will benefit of The Roots Fund, in support of BIPOC winemakers.
You may, however, be less familiar with John June Lewis, Sr. who is recognized as the first Black American winemaker in the United States. John June Lewis Sr. fell in love with wine and viticulture while stationed in France during World War I. Shortly after prohibition ended, he inherited land in Clarksville, Virginia and by 1933 began to grow his first grapes on the land. In 1940, Lewis opened Woburn Winery and sold his wines to locals until he passed in 1974. The Woburn Winery is the first Black American owned winery in the U.S. and believed to have been the only Virginia winery to produce wine solely from its own grapes at the time.
In 1989, Ires Rideau, an entrepreneur and social activist from New Orleans, purchased 6 acres of land in the Santa Ynez Valley. Though she knew little about the wine industry at the time, her business bloomed and six years later she purchased 24 more acres for the aptly named Rideau Vineyard. Rideau was the first Creole American and Black woman to own and operate a winery in the US. Rideau grew several different Rhȏne varietals and focused on making wines that complemented the Creole cuisine of her roots. The winery is still in operation today although Rideau is no longer the owner.
In 1985, the parents of Deneen, David, and Coral Brown purchased what would eventually become The Brown Estate. As the first Black-owned vineyard in the renowned wine region of Napa, CA, The Brown Estate got its start by providing grapes to other local wineries. By 1995, the siblings decided to try their hand at winemaking, growing, blending, and bottling on the estate purchased by their parents. In 2000 the trio saw sweet success with a spotlight in Wine Spectator magazine about their family estate and Zinfandel wines, but the celebrations were short-lived as their warehouse caught fire and they lost all stock of their 1996, 1997, and the freshly bottled 1998 vintages. However, as a phoenix rises from the ashes, so too has this black diamond of the California wine region, producing Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot, and more.
Today, the McBride Sisters are a leading Black-owned (and woman-owned) wine company in the United States. These two sisters grew up in wine regions a world apart from each other – in Monterrey, CA and Marlborough, NZ – and connected over their shared love of wine, with a mission to advance inclusivity and sustainability in the wine industry. One such initiative is their Black Girl Magic collection, designed to encourage consumers to support Black-owned brands.
Andre Mack is the first Black American to be named Best Young Sommelier in America (2003), and runner-up to Best Sommelier in North America (2004) by the world’s oldest and largest wine and food society, the acclaimed Chaîne des Rôtisseur. As winemaker and owner of Maison Noir Wines out of Oregon, Mack makes great wines with eye-catching, Hip-Hop themed labels and names that align with a younger generation of wine lovers.
Many minority-owned wineries can attest to the uphill battle to break into the wine industry. Distribution companies, sales representatives, and banks have historically shown hesitance to work with BIPOC winemakers, leading to limited visibility in the industry. In turn, these winemakers create smaller amounts of wine and often don't have tasting rooms or their own wineries, and so are opting to control their own destiny and startup as Direct-to-Consumer, meaning that you can purchase directly from the winery but not stores. It can take some legwork on the part of the consumer to seek out inclusive wine options, but it is well worth the hunt.
Photo/Caption by Virtual Tasting Host Tuanni Price
With this in mind, many non-profits have started to help elevate and allow access to wine education in both the professional and consumer end of the spectrum. The Roots Fund, for example, was started to "empower Black and Indigenous people in the wine industry". Some nonprofits are specifically targeting consumers who simply want to be more educated when they are buying wine. The Hue Society was created by Tahiirah Habibi to be a safe place for BIPOC to learn and explore, as well as find resources to support their wine journey.
Many of these groundbreaking Black-owned wineries and Black winemakers make a point to "hold the door open" for others who may be looking to learn more about wine and the wine industry. In doing so, they lay to rest some of the assumed pretentiousness that often comes with wine, even so far as offering somewhat unconventional wine pairings such as pairing wine with music instead of food. Sommeliers are encouraging younger, more diverse wine lovers to enter the arena as consumers and professionals as well, with an aim to continue making wine more accessible, and encouraging everyone to enjoy and take pride in it, regardless of their background.
About the Author:
IGT Virtual Tasting Host
Owner/Founder of Let's Talk Wine in NYC
Lover of all things champagne. My current favorite wine is Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé