Edward Lee McDonald, affectionally known as Mac, is a trailblazer and a leading voice for diversity in the wine industry. He was one of a handful of African American vintners in California in the 1990s when he launched Vision Cellars, a Pinot Noir specialist in Sonoma. He helped establish the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV). In the latest installment of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, executive editor Thomas Matthews caught up with McDonald to talk about his journey into winemaking, his role founding the AAAV, the evolution of Pinot Noir and how to create a more inclusive industry.
The son of a moonshiner, McDonald was raised in a small town in East Texas that didn't have a stoplight. He caught the wine bug when he was 12 years old after one of his grandfather's hunting buddies offered him a bottle of Burgundy. McDonald used a pocket knife and a stick to open the bottle. That first sip would last a lifetime. "After that I thought I wanted to become a winemaker," he said.
Wanting to learn more, McDonald moved to Oakland, Calif., in late 1962. He eventually found his way to Sonoma County, where he started hanging around the wineries and chatting with winemakers such as John Parducci of Parducci Wine Cellars, even though no one would hire him. "I figured that in life, if you want something, you really got to be persistent at it," McDonald recalled.
But McDonald caught his big break in Napa when he met Charlie Wagner, the founder of Caymus Vineyards. He spent the next 15 years helping the Wagner family while learning about farming and the winemaking process from Charlie's son Chuck Wagner. "That's really how I got into it because they took me in and taught me everything," he said.
McDonald realized his dream of becoming a winemaker when he and his wife, Lil, produced a Pinot Noir in 1996. But McDonald said he didn't understand the grape at the time, and decided to dump the wine when it didn't meet his expectations. The following year, the Wagners helped him locate his first vineyard in the Chileno Valley of Marin County and, at age 55, he released his inaugural wine, from the 1997 vintage. "We've been a happy camper ever since," he said.
Hoping to increase diversity in the wine industry through education and engagement, McDonald founded the AAAV in 2003 with Dr. Ernie Bates of Black Coyote Winery and Vance Sharp of Sharp Cellars. "I thought that if more individuals would consume wine and understood wine it would help the wine industry as a whole," said McDonald, who had been pouring for African American wine clubs around the country. The association has gone from just three members at its founding to nearly 60.
McDonald believes that wine should to be more accessible to new consumers and that the industry needs to bring in more employees of color so they can learn from the ground up. "That's the only way I think they will be successful," he said, noting that it takes a lot of hard work to become a winemaker. "Give folks some opportunities to go out there."
When it comes to making change, McDonald thinks the wine industry may be on the right track. He says a lot of non-African Americans are making donations to the AAAV's Black Winemakers Scholarship Fund, a partnership with Urban Connoisseurs and the United Negro College Fund that offers applicants the opportunity to work at different wineries. "That may be a thing to pull everybody together," he said. "Because I also believe that food and wine bring folks together."
Watch the full episode with McDonald on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET. Tonight, Aug. 11, senior editor James Molesworth will chat with Monte Rosso Vineyard manager Brenae Royal, as part of a month of highlighting Black voices in the wine industry.