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Black Vintners and Wine Professionals in the Spotlight

The wine world wakes up to Black wine personalities
Robin and Andrea McBride
McBride Sisters Collection
McBride Sisters Collection

In 1940 John June Lewis Jr. opened Woburn Winery, the first American, Black-owned vineyard and winery, in Virginia. Fast forward 80 years and meet Phil Long, owner of Longevity wines in Livermore, Calif. Long was elected president of the small but growing Association of African American Vintners (AAAV) in early 2020.

Phil Long and his late wife Debra in Livermore Valley 2018, Photo Credit: Deborah Grossman

Now that the focus on Black organizations is highlighted on our newsfeeds, Long and the AAAV are garnering a lot of attention.

“We’ve experienced a surge in members by 40 percent and 350% more donations year-to-date as more interest is placed on promoting Black businesses,” said Long. “The goal of our association is to bring awareness to Black vintners, the quality of their wines and to mentor the next generation who follow in our path. We welcome all wine professionals to join.” 

Black vintner Mac MacDonald of Viscon Cellars in West Seattle, Wash. launched the AAAV in 2002. The diverse group of AAAV members include Brooklyn based André Hueston Mack, owner of Maison Noir who produces Oregon wines. Robin and Andréa McBride based in Oakland, Calif. produce McBride Sisters wine from Calif. and New Zealand. 

People want to know more about Black vintners and the AAAV. How many are there? Why aren’t they more visible to the broad consumer wine market and trade and not mainly Black purchasers? What are the successes and challenges of Black vintners and wine professionals? 

There are about 11,000 wineries in the U.S. and a total of about 60 Black-owned wineries plus others who collaborate on wine brands. These numbers translate to less than 0.01 percent of 1 percent of American wineries, said Long.

In 2008 Long opened Longevity as winemaker and co-owner with his late wife Debra. His son, Phil D. Long Jr,. is assistant winemaker. Business was growing when Long entered a partnership with Bronco Wine National Sales and Marketing in early 2020 to nationally distribute a new white Longevity label.

The global pandemic halted his travel to promote Longevity wines—and the AAAV celebratory event for the launch of the John June Lewis Jr. scholarship for Black students pursuing careers in the wine industry. The scholarship, a partnership of the AAAV and Urban Connoisseurs, a marketing and media company, will be maintained by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

Phil Long and his son Phil Long Jr. Photo Credit: Longevity

Until recently, the AAAV has been an under-the-radar group. One of many media articles about Long and the scholarship prompted Susan Suerio, president of Artesa winery in Napa Valley, to phone Long and organize a benefit for the program. During the Artesa re-opening weekend in June, Suerio donated 10 percent of sales and a $10 tasting fee to the fund. “I want to continue the collaboration with AAAV, perhaps hosting scholarship winners for internships.”

Julia Coney, a Black wine writer and consultant in New York City, is familiar with AAAV and Long. “I love his Longevity Livermore Valley pinot blanc and syrah.” Her new, major initiative is to broaden access and work opportunities to Black wine professionals through the launch of the the Black Wine Professionals website to facilitate wine industry connections with talented Black personnel. In a month, Coney added over 150 signees to the list.

Julia Coney in Galicia, Spain. Photo Credit: Julia Coney

To highlight the lack of access for Black wine professionals, Coney draws on her experience as a journalist and wine judge, “The opportunities for Black wine pros to participate on press trips are limited,” said Coney. “On major press trips to Europe, I’m usually the only Black person among the wine media and trade. Also, marketers and sommeliers need to alter the stereotypes about what wine black people drink and offer quality wines equally to all.” 

Tonya Pitts is well-aware of the stereotypes around both what Black wine drinkers want—and the type of wine Black vintners make. Pitts is sommelier and wine director of fine dining One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. In collaboration with chef-partner Mark Dommen, Pitts develops themed wine months. For Black History each February, Pitts creates a list of 10 black vintners.

This year Pitts featured Longevity wines such as Blanc de Blanc sparkling and Livermore Valley grenache. “The only African American Vintner in the Livermore Valley, Long’s wines are thoughtful yet forceful at the same time.” Pitts also listed wines from Viscon Cellars, the McBride Sisters, and Maison Noir.

Tonya Pitts and Andre Mack - owner Maison Mouton Noir. Photo Credit: One Market

“Wines from Black vintners,” added Pitts, “are held to the same criteria—being well-made and balanced—as other wines added to the wine list. These wines are listed all year long.”
André Hueston Mack, owner of Maison Noir Wines, agrees that wines from Black companies are for everyone and not targeted solely for black people.

“I believe for us, one of the biggest challenges is the perception from non-people of color is that Black-owned companies only make goods for Black people,” said Mack.

 Many people are showing interest in Mack’s wines. His direct-to-consumer sales for Maison Noir Wines grew a whopping 850 percent in the last few months.

 Mack’s career segued from investment banking to sommelier and then wine director at top American restaurants. His passion for wine grew from serving it to selecting grapes from Oregon vineyards and learning the art of winemaking to produce wine for top New York restaurants.

Andre Hueston Mack of Maison Noir Wines. Photo Credit: Maison Noir

In 2007 Mack launched Maison Noir Wines and a T-shirt line with playful marketing and serious quality. His wine logo is a “mouton noir” or “black sheep.” The top selling and largest production Maison Noir wine is O.P.P. Pinot Noir, an acronym for “Other People’s Pinot.” Mack noted another best seller, his “beloved” Love Drunk Rosé. The vintner-entrepreneur recently opened & Sons Restaurant and & Sons Buttery store in Brooklyn specializing in American ham, cheese and wine.

The sales of McBride Sisters wine have also seen an upswing. The largest Black owned and operated wine company in the U.S., McBride Sisters is owned by two sisters who were raised independently by single mothers in Monterey, Calif. and Marlborough, New Zealand, Robin and Andréa McBride made the discovery they were siblings and met 11 years ago. The sisters have built a multi-tiered wine business from their native lands. The McBride Collection offers sauvignon blanc and brut rosé from Andréa’s Marlborough while the red blend and chardonnay are from Robin’s roots in Calif. 

The McBride Sisters Black Girl Magic wines are named for the movement and hashtag started in 2013 to "celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of Black women.” This premium collection is produced from select Calif. single vineyards. The latest McBride Sister wines are SHE CAN sauvignon blanc and rosé canned wines. 

McBride Sisters Robin and Andrea in the vineyard. Photo Credit: McBride Sisters

Concerned about the economic impact of the pandemic on Black-owned businesses, the McBrides launched #SHECANTHRIVE2020 which will award grants to Black-women-owned small businesses who need resources. The fund will receive proceeds from sales of She Can wines and other partner donations.

“We also wanted to do our part [on awareness of black businesses] and published a list of 67 black-owned wineries on Instagram that went viral and resulted in sales for those wineries as well,” said Robin McBride. The post included several of the over 50 Black-owned international wineries from Seven Sisters in South Africa to Stuyvesant Champagne in France.

Several celebrity branded wines were also noted. Though some people eschew “celebrity” wines which they believe are marketing gimmicks, many are high quality endeavors. 

Wine lover and Grammy and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter John Legend had long dreamed of owning a wine brand, and his passion caught the attention of Jean-Charles Boisset of the Boisset Collection of wineries which includes Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley. Together they launched LVE wines.

When queried about Legend’s actual involvement in LVE Legend Vineyard Exclusive wines, Boisset said, “From blending in the Raymond lab to visiting the vineyards and the barrel rooms, John has shown commitment to being a part of the process at every level, including the time in stores, with customers, and in label design.” 

A LVE rosé was recently added to his portfolio of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. “Chrissy [Teigen] and I serve rosé to our friends, especially in the summer, making it the ‘Summer of LVE.’” 

There are other celebrity wines—and many, many more Black professionals in the wine world of winemaking, distribution, and viticulture. One of E. and J. Gallo’s most esteemed viticulturists is Brenae Royal, the Black vineyard manager of the well-known Monte Rosso Vineyard.

What is the main takeaway from the attention the world is giving to support Black-owned wine businesses?

Pitts of One Market reiterated a key point: “Most importantly, the color of our skin has nothing to do with the fact that we are vintners, wine makers, and wine professionals. We just all happen to be Black. We are all here because of the love, dedication, and passion we have for the industry. I hope the progress continues but regardless, we will still be here doing what we know and love—the wine industry.”

Additional sources on black wine professionals:
Urban Connoisseurs is a marketing and media company owned by Marcia Jones since 2011 whose mission is to connect Black vintners with wine enthusiasts. Jones holds workshops, seminars, and networking events to encourage more Black partnership and mentorship in the industry and more public awareness of Black wine quality and environmental awareness. Recent events have doubled the followers of her social media accounts. “Collaborating with the AAAV on the James June Lewis Jr. scholarship is yet another way to build Black talent in the wine business. We are also working on a documentary, “Journey Between the Vines: The Black Winemakers Story,” said Jones.

Cuisine Noir is an online magazine founded by V. Sheree Williams focused on the cultural gastronomic movement led by Black chefs and vintners. Cuisine Noir has reported on the burgeoning of Black chefs around the world since 2009. Having publicized one of the earliest lists of Black vintners, we have witnessed more Blacks from around the world getting into the industry as well as influencing what wine drinkers pour into their glass,” said Williams. Though highlighting Black wineries is important, added Williams, “I also include content on other wine brands because wine is just a part of our lifestyle— Blacks consume wine and is a consumer market not to be ignored.”

A last word about advances in Black awareness in the spirits side of the beverage trade:
Though segments of the spirits industry have traditionally targeted the black market, supporting the Black community is growing. Bombay Sapphire selected a black artist, Hebru Brantley, for their first ever artist-designed bottle for new Limited Edition Bombay Sapphire Gin. The company long held an Artisan Series competition. Brantley won several years which helped propel his global fame. In honor of Brantley’s contribution to the Limited Edition, Bombay Sapphire announced a direct donation to the artist’s hometown Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter.

Longevity Winery Cabernet sauvignon. Photo Credit: Longevity

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