For close to 20 years, a dedicated group of black vintners and other industry members has worked to change the lack of diversity in the U.S. wine industry. With more Americans challenging systemic racism and looking to support black-owned businesses, the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV) is hoping to highlight their members' hard work and excellent wines and encourage a new generation to see opportunity in wine.
The AAAV was founded in 2002 as a nonprofit organized to promote awareness of African American vintners, create a deeper sense of community among its members and reach out to wine consumers. Currently the group has more than 30 vintner members and counts numerous other professionals in the industry as members as well. Since the protests sparked by George Floyd's killing began, there has been a surge in membership across the board, as well as donations to the organization.
In partnership with Urban Connoisseurs and the United Negro College Fund, the AAAV helped form the John June Lewis Sr. Scholarship Fund to support African Americans pursuing careers in the wine industry. Its namesake, John June Lewis, was the first African American to own a vineyard and winery, Woburn Winery in Clarksville, Va., which he acquired in 1940.
Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec recently sat down for an interview with the current members of the AAAV board—founder and chairman Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars in Sonoma, AAAV president Phil Long of Longevity Wines in California's Livermore Valley and board member Lou Garcia of Stover Oaks Winery in the Sierra Foothills.
Wine Spectator: How did the AAAV get established, and how has it evolved over the years?
Mac McDonald: I started it because as I went to various wine events throughout the country, I didn't see folks who look like me. I was doing wine dinners all over the U.S. and I didn't see that. I just thought that maybe we should be doing something to get more African Americans into the wine business.
It was myself, Dr. Ernie Bates [of Black Coyote Winery] and Vance Sharp [of Sharp Cellars]. I would see them at some of these events and I would think, you know, maybe I should talk to these two gentlemen. We got to talking about how we could get more African Americans to drink wine. Then we started thinking, what can we do to have more folks understand this wine business?
Lou Garcia: As to how it's changed, when Mac started this organization and I joined a couple years later in 2004, we knew every African American–owned winery, because they were all members. There were probably what, eight or 10 of us? And that was it.
It's very different today. Every day I find there's another new African American–owned winery. We've had several join in the last few days. To me, that's the difference. How many are there? Maybe there's 60, maybe there's 100. It's still very small. But now we just don't know all of them. We're trying to get them to join—that's our challenge, to increase the number of members.
Phil Long: Our primary goal at this point is awareness. Most people today don't even realize there are African American winemakers, at all. So it's really about promoting awareness that we are here, we do exist, and we make great wine.
And we're trying to get that message across many platforms. Because I didn't know winemaking was an option when I was a kid. So we're trying to open more paths to younger African Americans who want to come down this path to this industry, through scholarships, internships and mentorships. And that's our goal now—to grow our voice as a whole, to grow awareness as a whole, and to make a path for younger minds.
We're trying to broaden our scope. In the early days of AAAV, we were really [focused on] making wine or growing wine. Today there's obviously many, many opportunities for African Americans—not just being a winemaker, not just being a grapegrower—like being a sommelier, or going down the road of chemistry but applying it to wine. There are many paths to the industry, and we're trying to expand our vision, targeting a broader number of students.
WS: Speaking of many paths, how did you get into the wine industry?
PL: Well, I have a degree in architecture [laughs]. I grew up in Inglewood, not exactly wine central. I really didn't know anything about wine. I went to Cal Poly Pomona; it's an agriculture school. But we thought agriculture was these guys in cowboy hats and cowboy boots that smelled like cows. That's all we knew.
I think that's the biggest challenge: No. 1, people in general don't know the industry exists. No. 2, they don't know that it's an opportunity for African Americans. And No. 3, how do they even start a path forward?
I didn't learn about wine until way after college. I've been a creative all my life. The short story is that there was a company in Northern California that had been looking for a creative director for years. They found me and moved us up here. Debra, my wife, and I had a passion for wine that just grew. Because now we're in Wine USA, right? At some point in the early 2000's we started making wine in the garage … and here we are.
LG: About 20 years ago [my wife, Janice, and I] were still living here in Ohio; we had a strong interest in wine. While I was between jobs, my wife and I went to look at a winery in northern Ohio that was for sale. While that was going on, I got a job offer in San Jose, so we moved out to California, and I took a job as a CFO.
A couple years later, I thought it was time to look around and get into the wine industry as a CFO. As I tell the story, no one wanted a CFO without any wine experience. We looked at wineries all over, and bought one in Placerville. One year later, I got the job as the GM and CFO at Roshambo Winery in Healdsburg. [Garcia later worked as controller and CFO for Hall Wines in St. Helena from 2009 to 2015.]
MM: I didn't grow up in the wine business. I always liked wine since I was young … and corn whisky [McDonald's father was a moonshiner in Texas]. Moving to California, I wanted to learn about wine. So I stuck my nose in everybody's face who would talk to me, including John Parducci. I ended up with the Wagner family [of Caymus], who took me in like a kid.
WS: Do you feel the wine industry offers people of color enough opportunities?
MM: I don't think they offer enough opportunities in the business. I've been around for a long time, and I've done a lot of stuff, and not just talking about California. I'm talking about all over the United States. When you walk into a place, there's an assumption that you really don't know anything about wine. That's going to turn you against the wine industry. And I see that even to this day.
Example: I was in a restaurant and I told the person to bring me an ice bucket because I had a red wine and it was probably 72 degrees. I told him to put the wine in the bucket. And he goes, "Sir, that's a red wine." And I said, "I know. If you want a tip out of me, bring me a bucket." He brought the bucket, and when I paid the bill I gave him my card. And he said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't know you were Mac from Vision Cellars."
It doesn't matter. He was under the assumption I didn't know what temperature I'd like my wines.
So I think those types of things still exist—there's an assumption that you don't know anything about wine. And when you walk into a wine shop, it's kind of like, "Oh, you must be looking for sweet wine." It's stereotyping, and I really don't like that. Even if you like a little more residual sugar, you shouldn't assume everybody does.
I think the wine industry can do more of that. We are trying to understand wine and appreciate wine.
PL: There should be more opportunities, but again, the numbers relatively are so small. And the relative numbers we're compared to are ginormous. So trying to get steam rolling when you've got the juggernauts of [large wine corporations] … that's a difficult thing to do. So that's part of what [AAAV] is trying to do. Get us to band together, to give us a larger voice, a larger footprint, a larger platform to help us move things along.
LG: From my perspective, there are a lot of people now of color in the industry—sure the percentages are still tiny. But the people that are getting in are getting in at a later age. That's why a scholarship fund is so important. Because if we can get folks to get in it when they're 20 or 22 years old, just out of college or go to college for this, that will be a massive change.
WS: I'm sure you've seen a lot of people publishing lists of African American-owned businesses that people can support. Do you feel that helps?
PL: I like the fact that people are paying attention. I think that's the bigger picture. And it's not just black people paying attention—it's everybody paying attention to it. And I think that narrative now where we're all in support of the same thing, and moving forward, and the support of the African Americans in business in general and not just the wine business. I think for me that's the bigger picture. Now people are paying attention. It's a positive step in the right direction.
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LG: I think that there are so many wineries, it's really hard to get your wines noticed. I think more publicity about black-owned wineries out there will help for people to at least try it.
You go to the store now, you just don't know. Phil is a good example. As he goes nationwide with his [Longevity white label wine] when it's sitting on the shelf, it's sitting there with hundreds of other labels, and they don't know to try it. So hopefully we can get more publicity, and at least they'll give it a try. It's an African American-owned label. If you like it, you buy it again.
WS: What could the wine industry do to be more welcoming?
PL: I'll give you a current example. Napa was opening up last week. Susan Sueiro, the president of Artesa, reached out to me. She proposed a portion of the proceeds from the tastings and sales for the entire weekend will be donated to the AAAV.
The cool thing that Susan wrote to me was, "We'd like to do this, but we'd sure like to do some further collaborations down the line." I think things like that are really going to start joining the industry hand in hand.
First of all, we're just getting the word out that we exist. I think that's really going to help.
LG: We've had another winery in Oregon—Janie Brooks Heuck of Brooks Winery reached out. They're having a read and sip event—profits from that will be donated to AAAV.
PL: In our current environment of what's going on, I think the good thing that's come about through a tragic incident is that people are now talking about it. They're using the subject now to voice their opinion, and tell you what they feel about it. Where before, it was like, "hmmm … yeah …" But people are now saying, "OK, we're going to talk about it."
As a general statement, for let's say Wine Spectator magazine? Keep talking about it. That would be my wish. Just keep talking about it. Otherwise, it's just going to fade back into oblivion again. We don't want that.