"I didn't have a background in wine—I didn't have an education in wine," admits Marcia Jones. "But I gained an appreciation for it." That's an understatement—since founding Urban Connoisseurs in 2012, Jones has been on a mission to support American winemakers of African descent (her preferred term for Black Americans). She's held many roles in this endeavor, including wine-club manager, sales and marketing guru, public speaker, scholarship founder and vintner. Currently she's working on adding author and filmmaker to her credits.
Urban Connoisseurs is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Black winemakers and encouraging others to enter the industry. Jones has set an ambitious goal of increasing the number of American winemakers of African descent by 50 percent within the next decade.
Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec recently sat down with Jones to discuss her passion for wine, her current work on a documentary film and book, the Black Winemakers Scholarship Fund and how to bring more people into wine.
Wine Spectator: To start, I noticed that you use the term "American winemakers of African descent" on your website. To be clear, is this your preferred term?
Marcia Jones: I believe something being lost in conversation is that we are all descendants from somewhere else. We are also all Americans, so yes my preferred term is "Americans of African descent." But I'm not offended by other terms—in fact, my film is called Journey Between the Vines: The Black Winemakers' Story.
WS: Tell me about your film.
MJ: It is my baby right now. I've been working with a lot of these winemakers for years, since about 2012 for some of them. I feel it's easy to forget about the story behind the wine. I know a lot of people are like, "We just want wine! We don't care where it comes from!"
But I believe we need to know their story, their journey. And it is so diverse when you're talking about winemakers from African descent. They didn't inherit the land; they didn't come to this from a generational story. Rather, they come from so many backgrounds.
But COVID put everything on hold. I still have two more film shoots. People's lives have changed and I've had to step back. In the meantime, I've been writing a book [laughs].
WS: Let's talk about your book then.
MJ: I already knew that the documentary was not going to cover everyone [it focuses on winemakers]. I had been working on putting a book together that's more all-inclusive [including winery owners]. I don't think I can get everyone. Some people just aren't known—that's OK. I thought, "Just do your book, Marcia. There can be a Volume 2."
So the book is a little more comprehensive and gives more detail about everyone. I also put a highlight on the first commercial winery by an American of African descent, [Woburn Winery winemaker and founder] John June Lewis, Sr. When I was interviewing John June Lewis' son, he was telling me he was worried no one was going to know about his dad—it feels like he was skipped over in the story about Virginia wine. I told him the name is not going to be lost. I'm going to make certain. We were both getting emotional.
It's the truth, though. If you don't tell it, who will know? If you don't share it, who will know? When I went to where the actual winery stood, the vat is down in the basement. [John June Lewis, Sr.] built the winery by hand. We have to look at stuff like that—here was this man who was raised on the plantation. How much access did he have to things?
WS: How did you get interested in wine?
MJ: I was on a trip in South Africa—a business trip—and it seemed like every evening we were having wine with dinner, and that was unusual for me. I became fascinated. And one night I was in Johannesburg, and we were at a Zimbabwean restaurant. The owner asked if we wanted to pick out our own bottle.
The opportunity to go down in the cellar and select a bottle—I thought that was so cool. I hadn't experienced that before—wine was only an occasional drink for me. But then he brought out the bottle, presented it, and the whole experience of him opening it and decanting it. That set me on a path. Later, closer to home, I went to Black Coyote winery, which has since closed. [Black Coyote was founded in Napa in 2000 by neurosurgeon Dr. Ernie Bates, a founder of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV).] But the hospitality experience I had with them? It set me on the journey.
WS: Why do you think there aren't more Americans of African descent in the wine industry?
MJ: It's a combination of reasons. One, we are who we see. If you don't see, you tend to believe we're not there. That can be any race.
Two, I've talked to people who have said, "I tried to get into this position or that position and didn't get hired." Was it race? I don't know because I wasn't there in that situation. But I think it plays a huge part in the wine industry because it plays a huge part in every industry. When you walk into a place and there's a diverse consumer base but behind the scenes it's not diverse, then that's a problem.
WS: How did Urban Connoisseurs come about?
MJ: When I started it, I wanted a wine club. That was 2012. And then a friend convinced me to do a weekly podcast. I had "Wine Talk with Marcia" every Saturday, and I would invite people in the wine industry to talk about what they were doing, their journey. I even had chefs who cooked with wine.
Then I was doing some sales and marketing and helping some winemakers get distributed. It's all based on relationships. I did a tasting two years in a row for the Capital Jazz Cruise. I did a festival tasting in Austin, [Texas,] by someone who found my name on Facebook. It's relationships like that.
Then I have my own wine brand under Longevity [the winery of Phil Long, current president of the AAAV], the JBV, [named for the documentary, Journey Between the Vines]. I love doing things around wine that are fun, so I invited several winemakers to help. It was fun watching them have this discussion. We sat down around the table [to decide the blend], we had samples of five different varietals—I knew I wanted a Rhône blend. It was so great. There was no flexing of mastery, so to speak. They all were engaging, they were all asking, "What are your thoughts?" They recognized each and everyone's expertise and respected that. Sales of the wine go to promote the documentary.
Now I'm working on the Black Winemakers Scholarship Fund. I had to do a presentation to the United Negro College Fund and explain why we needed a scholarship. You have to start somewhere. You have to help people along.
WS: What part of wine do people need help understanding?
MJ: We have to work to change the narrative. Millennials think of wine as labor, period. They are not laborers. They are into tech. They don't even walk across the room to turn the fan off, they have a remote control. It's, "Alexa, do this for me." And that's OK, but I want to try my best to try to help them to understand there is beauty in winemaking. There's art, and there's even tech.
And relationships. My skills are people skills. I worked in nonprofits and corporate America. That's what I honed in on—getting to know people. I think it's one thing to show up on someone's doorstep or through email and say, "I want your wine wholesale," but to say, "I've spent time with you, I've bought your wine for personal consumption, I have your best interest in mind." The power of relationships is so strong.
WS: What could the wine industry do to be more welcoming?
MJ: Just be welcoming. Have an understanding that pretty much every culture drinks wine. Does everyone? No. But every culture—every country—makes wine. Can you think of any country that doesn't? Why are we shocked by that? Every state in the country makes wine. I was in Niagara Falls—they make ice wine. I was somewhere on the East Coast and there were wine slushies. I was driving through Arkansas, boom, there's a vineyard.
Just be welcoming, be open and be hospitable. A lot of people in the wine industry don't know diddly about hospitality. Instead of only focusing on how to make wine, a hospitality course should be required for every winery.
WS: Have you experienced bad hospitality?
MJ: I have, up in lovely Napa. I took my cousin, and we sat outside on a patio a long time before someone finally came around, and it wasn't even a friendly experience. We didn't stay long, and we usually want to sit back and drink some wines.
We need to stop making assumptions. Get to know people before assuming. I don't know how that could be easier. I was speaking with one distributor who was looking to get a more diverse portfolio, and I asked him why he hadn't reached out before. He said, "We only want to sell fine wine." I don't think that he realized what a racist thing that was to say.
If you have a bias, what brought you there? Don't just change because of the climate. I'm glad things are happening now. I hope it's not just seasonal. Think about what equity is about. If there's balance on the consumer side, there needs to be balance on the other side.