More than you might think.
Among the 8,000 plus wineries in the States, about thirty are owned by black Americans, and the number is growing. They are turning out some delectable, award-winning wines, hand crafted by talented vintners. Since most are family-run businesses, too small to attract major distributors, they have probably escaped your notice. Ironic, given African Americans’ involvement with U.S. viticulture dates back to its inception.
Lucky for us in L.A., Tuanni Price, owner of Zuri Wine, has organized Wine Over LA Weekend, February 19-February 21, where black-owned labels take center stage. Activities include a Friday night winemaker dinner at Planet Dailies (winemaker TBD) and a day trip on Saturday to Rideau Vineyard in Santa Ynez. At Sunday’s “Sip & Shop”, guests can sample more than twenty wines, and meet brand owners Paul Charles (Charles Wine Company), Marcus Johnson (Flo Wines) and Mac McDonald (Vision Cellars).
African-American producers tend to get the spotlight more than usual during Black History Month, when they’re sought after to pour at celebratory events. This extra attention in February is a mixed bag. Vintners want recognition, but as excellent winemakers year round, not only as “black winemakers” on special occasions. That’s not to say there isn’t collective pride for significant advances as a group in an historically elitist, white-male-dominated field.
Still, it’s a good time to reflect on black Americans’ contribution to our country’s wine industry, and for a look at what to drink now.
A call to Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries confirmed that Jefferson’s slaves were some of our first vineyard workers. Smitten with fine wine during trips to France and Italy, he was determined to make his own from European grape varieties. To get things rolling, in 1773 he entrusted 193 acres at the south end of his plantation to Filippo Mazzei, a Florentine banker and horticulturalist, who supplied vine cuttings. Although attempts went on for close to a decade, disease and pests precluded viable vintages.
Tracing a path from slavery to modern-day winemaking is tough, due to spotty written records, but there are some.
In 1888, Orra Langhorne’s book Southern Sketches of Virginia, recounts a visit to the Charlottesville, VA estate of Robert Scott, where she enjoyed, “…an excellent glass of wine made from his own grapes.” Scott was the grandson of Mary Hemings Bell, enslaved by Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. She became Jefferson’s property upon Wayles’ death, and was later sold to Thomas Bell as a common-law wife. Could there be a trail from Jefferson’s vineyards to her grandson’s estate wines?
John June Lewis had the first commercial success with Woburn Winery in Clarksville, VA, open 1940-1960. Lewis was taught viticulture by his white father, Armistead Burwell, at the family’s historic home, Woburn Plantation and Manor House, and by the owner of a neighboring plantation. As a WWI soldier, Lewis was deployed to the Rhȏne Valley, where he also had the great fortune to study with local vignerons.
Burwell deeded Lewis ten acres to start his vineyard, which he planted to hybrid and labrusca grapes. The cellar held 5,000 gallons, sold mostly to neighbors and friends.
The next mention of black winemaking, is on November 20, 1973, when The Day newspaper reports the closing of Fedderman Winery, founded in 1970. This short-lived enterprise was owned by Raymond Fedderman, New York’s first black producer. Even though a distributor agreed to promote his debut vintage, after zero sales, Fedderman’s lender reneged on further funding. That was the end of that.
Fast forward to 1997, when Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars and Iris Rideau of Rideau Vineyard, opened their respective doors. These two are true pioneers among present-day black winemakers, being the first to gain wide critical acclaim and to remain in continuous operation.
Cuisine Noir Magazine maintains a list of black-owned wineries worldwide. Fortunately, the majority, and some of the best, are in Northern California. Make a point to seek them out on your next trip to the wine country.
2011 Black Coyote Reserve Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
2014 Brown Estate Napa Valley Zinfandel
2013 Esterlina Vineyards Cole Ranch Riesling and 2013 Merlot
2009 Indigené Cellars Parenthesis Syrah
2011 L’Objet Noir Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2013 Comstock Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley
2014 Rideau Vineyard “Stainless Steel” Estate Viognier
2011 Vision Cellars Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2014 Vision Cellars White Wine (pinot gris, sauvignon blanc blend)