Iris Rideau doesn't wait for opportunities—she makes her own, whether as a successful entrepreneur, a political change agent or as a winery owner. When she was a teenager in Los Angeles, Rideau was working in a garment factory while taking night classes at a local college. After graduating, she worked as a receptionist in an insurance agency. In 1967, she opened her own agency, Rideau & Associates, and then started a finance firm. From 1973 to 1976, she served as chairman of an affirmative action committee started by Mayor Tom Bradley, finding jobs for hundreds of women of color in the city.
In 1989, Rideau found a home in Santa Ynez Valley and fell in love with wine country. She opened Rideau Vineyard in 1997, believed to be the first American winery owned by a Black woman, and was soon selling Rhône grape variety wines to customers who came to enjoy her cooking and hospitable tasting room.
Rideau sold the vineyard in 2016, and she's currently working on her memoir, entitled One Life Between Two Worlds. She recently took a break from writing to talk with Napa bureau chief MaryAnn Worobiec about growing up in segregated New Orleans, finding a passion for wine and how the industry can appeal to a more diverse America.
Wine Spectator: Was there wine on the table when you grew up in New Orleans?
Iris Rideau: My grandmother was Italian and so her father made red wine. It was served in a beautiful antique pitcher, and the kids got a little glass, watered down. Drinking wine since I was seven! [laughs]
WS: When you were a little girl, what did you what did you want to be when you grew up?
IR: Well, I thought I wanted to be a nun because I went to Catholic school. Sister Josephine was a nun I had in sixth grade and she was wonderful.
I grew up in New Orleans as a Creole. I came up through Jim Crow rules, which were very suppressive to Black people, or people of any color for that matter. The rule actually stated if you had one—just one—drop of Black blood you were Black. It created a lot of division in my own family. There was a part that was white and part that was Black. So when I would go out in New Orleans with my Black cousins, I felt all the suppression of segregation. And when I went out with my white family, I experienced all of the advantages of being a white person.
It was very difficult. I didn't understand a lot of it because I'm only eight, nine, ten years old at the time. But I experienced having to step off the sidewalk when white people came by, put your head down, drink from colored fountains—all that horrible, back-of-the-bus kind of thing.
My mother and father separated when I was two, and he left New Orleans and wound up settling in California. By the time I got to be 10, my mother finally allowed me to go to California to visit my father. I was able to go to department stores and try on clothes. You couldn't do [that] as a Black person in the South.
As a result of that first trip, I knew a different life. So I nagged my mother for two more years until she finally let me move to California. We settled in California in a Creole neighborhood, which is what most immigrant people do, right? They create their own community.
WS: What do you remember about that time?
IR: The first time I came to California, when I was 10, I traveled with my grandmother who was Creole. We traveled on the train in the white section and sat in the dining car and experienced all the privileges of being white.
I did not want to go back to the South, and I had to come back with my mother's girlfriend who was Black and we had to travel in the Jim Crow train car. I kept saying, where's the dining room, where we're going to sleep? The chairs were hard and stiff. It was just crowded and cruel. We even had to travel with the luggage of white people squeezed between us.
That alone, I think is what caused me to really realize I wanted to live in California. I wanted to have the that life. In New Orleans, when I went out, I could always run home. But on that train, I couldn't get off.
But the positive thing that came out of that was I learned how to live in both worlds and I've always been able to feel free to go wherever I want, to identify as I want. So I think I took all those disadvantages and adversities and it pushed me to be successful and independent and free. That's really what motivated me. I spent my adult years in Los Angeles and in 1967, I started my first insurance agency. I became the first African American woman to own an insurance agency on the West Coast.
In the '60s, there were no Black-owned businesses to even insure and so that kind of took me into nonprofit agencies, which ultimately led me to City Hall. I was awarded the first major contract awarded to a woman of color with the city of L.A. I started my second company in 1981 and that was a securities firm, specializing in pension planning. I stayed in the political arena. When Tom Bradley was mayor, we started affirmative action together, getting other women and minorities contracts with the city.
WS: When did the idea of getting into wine enter the picture?
IR: I fell in love with Santa Ynez. It's so beautiful, wine country, you know? I bought five and a half acres on the hill [in 1989] and thought it was time to build my retirement home and one for my mom. We stayed there and she enjoyed playing golf.
From 1990, when I built my home, to 1999, I commuted from the Santa Ynez to L.A. because I had to, I was still involved in politics and contracts. I would come every weekend, wine tasting and meeting friends.
I didn't know a soul here, by the way. When I moved it was because it was where I wanted to live. But I met so many beautiful winemakers, winery owners, and I just had to get involved.
There were 22 acres adjacent to my home and an old adobe that happened to be a Santa Barbara County historical landmark, built in 1884. I got into a restoration program that took me two years to complete. And during that time, I got my license and permit for a winery.
WS: When you were in Los Angeles working on your securities and insurance business, would you go out to restaurants and enjoy wine?
IR: What really got me was a 1981 Châteauneuf du Pape, so I started off making Syrah. But I really got into California wines.
WS: Not everyone who likes wines decides to start their own winery.
IR:I believe that if you run a successful company, you're an entrepreneur by nature. I mean, I wasn't going to be a winemaker. I was going to be a business owner and I always hired the best that I could.
I thought that since I am from the financial world, I could do this a little faster than most people, but it didn't work that way. But I love the challenge. I think that's basically what it is. I just love it. And I love the idea of entering into a white man's world.
WS: When you started, did you feel accepted by the local community?
IR: There weren't that many wineries either when I started. But not only were they supportive, they would send people to my winery.
I tapped into my Creole heritage—I made Creole food in the kitchen because I love to cook. I would make a pot of gumbo or jambalaya on the weekend, grab a bottle, bring it to the kitchen and pair it with what I was making. People would gravitate to the kitchen. I would hang my Mardi Gras beads on them, send them up the wine trail and then they would go to my neighbors.
WS: Sounds fun.
IR: I'm telling you, it was like the best chapter of my life. I started with 300 cases and within 10 years, I was up to 95 percent of cases sold out of the tasting room. No wholesale.
I saw people of all colors coming to my tasting room, too. I would walk across the property and see Black and white people getting together, talking to each other, enjoying their company and learning about each other over a glass of wine.
WS: Do you think that Black wine lovers sought you out specifically because of your heritage?
IR: Word got around. There's another part too, because I was so involved in L.A. politics. Ladies from L.A. would come on busses. It was very successful, and that came from my making a pot of gumbo in the kitchen on a Saturday. I stopped doing that and created a monthly event.
WS: So why step away from the wine industry?
IR: I'm always looking for the next step. I'm never, never satisfied with a challenge. I have to succeed there and go on to the next thing. So, the next thing I did, I retired. The first year, I loved it a lot. And the following year, I started my book.
WS: Race and representation in wine has become a regular topic of discussion lately. With your experience, where do you think wine stands?
IR: It's become a part of my everyday thoughts, coming from segregation and suppression. We have come a long way, but we've got a long way to go. I think that we've made a lot of progress but it's slow.
I think that finally with George Floyd, that incident allowed me to hurt and the world to see what Black people have always been saying about suppression and systemic racism.
This country really has to understand what the average American person goes through. Not just Black people, but poor white people, the uneducated, anyone not having the exposure to opportunities. I saw that most successful businesspeople grew up in the business world. So that's one thing that I learned as an entrepreneur is that I didn't have that basic background—I had to learn while I was working.
Now people in America are willing to look, to ask questions. They want to know about my experiences and then talk about their experiences. Invariably now they are saying the same thing that I said about people crossing my tasting room, wanting to know each other.
We have to deal with each other. We have to socialize. We have to understand that we're all the same. We all have the same needs. We want to raise our children, give them a good education, Give them that kind of compassion to love each other, respect each other. I think that's one thing that's going to help America heal and more specifically in the wine industry.
WS: You managed to make wine more welcoming, but do you have advice about how we can all be more welcoming to people who are curious about wine?
IR: It's about creating opportunities. Even things like land ownership for African Americans has not happened until recently. So of course not many have owned a vineyard. It's expensive. You've got to have financial backing and capital. It is a very expensive business to start.
I had this conversation the other day about how do I approach this. I have to be sensitive, especially to my Black friends who didn't have it as easy as me. I want to be able to assist with scholarships and nonprofits, giving them the opportunity to become educated. So this is a wonderful chapter of my life as well.
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