Sisters Robin McBride and Andréa McBride John grew up on different continents, completely unaware of each other for much of their childhoods. How they finally met (and developed a shared interest in wine) is inspiring. But equally impressive is how they went from importing a small lineup of New Zealand wines to building the largest Black-owned wine company in the United States, by volume, over the past 15 years.
In just the past 12 months, McBride Sisters Collection has sold more than 35,000 cases of wine in retail outlets, according to Nielsen, up 40 percent from the previous year. By value, sales are up 43 percent, to $5.52 million.
The sisters started small. First they built a boutique import firm focused on New Zealand wines. After some success, they founded the EcoLove brand in 2010, a sustainable wine company focused on New Zealand wines they sourced from around the country. In 2015, they started Truvée, a partnership with Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines focused on California Central Coast wines.
Now all of their wines are under the McBride Sisters Collection, launched in 2017. There are wines from both New Zealand and California. Their wines can be found in grocery stores across the country.
The sisters recently sat down with Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec, who reviews wines from both New Zealand and California, to talk about how they came together, their shared wine goals and what the industry can do to reach all consumers, regardless of race.
Wine Spectator: Can you tell me about your upbringing?
Andréa McBride John: Robin and I are nine years apart. She likes to call herself the "first" sister, not the "oldest." We were both born in Los Angeles—we have the same father. We have different mothers and the way that we like to describe our dad is that he was a "rolling stone," if you're familiar with the term. By the time Robin was 2, Robin's mum and dad divorced, and Robin's mum moved to Monterey and cut ties with him. So Robin grew up without a dad.
Seven years later, he remarried when he met my mom, who was originally from New Zealand. But he was still that same rolling stone, and my mother wasn't having that and so they divorced. Unfortunately, [around that time] my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was terminal. She decided that she was going to take me back to Blenheim [New Zealand], where my grandparents and my uncle were. She passed away shortly after we got there. I was raised between my uncle and my foster mother.
My family was involved in agriculture, like most families in Blenheim. At the time, it was tomatoes, potatoes and peas. My uncle was a part of a group of guys that wanted to try and plant Sauvignon Blanc to see what happened.
WS: How did you finally meet?
AMJ: One day I came home from school. I would have been nearly 12. The phone rang and I picked it up and this person said, "Hey Andréa, it's your dad." On the phone he let me know that unfortunately he had cancer. But the good news was that I had this big sister and her name was Robin McBride, and his family had been looking for me and they were going to try and find her as well.
He would pass away before we found Robin. But that was sort of his last wish to his family—whatever happened to him, they would find and connect his two daughters.
Fast-forward [four years to 1999], when I'm visiting his family. My dad is from Alabama. My family were sharecroppers in a town very close to Selma. I was with my family and the phone rang, and my auntie answered it and she's super excited and she threw the phone at me and she said, "That's your sister on the phone!" Our family was writing letters to anybody they could find in the country with Robin's name. It's pre-Google.
Normally I would be at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere, but it just happens that I was visiting our dad's family. And the next day, I was scheduled to go to New York. Robin called in sick for work and we met at LaGuardia Airport. I'm 16, and she was 25.
I remember the first meeting in the airport, it was a lot of hugging and tears. I remember seeing her walk off the jetway and as soon as I saw her, I knew that was my sister. We didn't know what each other looked like. She told me later that when she was walking down the jetway she saw me and thought that it was a mirror.
WS: How did the idea of getting into the wine business come about?
AMJ: [After meeting Robin] I went back to New Zealand because I had to finish high school. We started talking about dreams and, you know, sister stuff. Once I graduated high school, I came back to the United States and went to the University of Southern California. Robin had moved back to Monterey and we would drive and meet halfway, so we would always find ourselves either in or around vineyards or tasting rooms.
We started to solidify this idea. We felt like we had a unique opportunity to do something that not a lot of wine companies could do, which was make wine in two different countries in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres that is authentically us.
WS: Robin, how did your background inform your approach to the wine industry?
Robin McBride: My experience prior to being in the wine field was working in the electronics space—companies in the development of Silicon Valley technologies. Working in that space led me to sales and working with distributors in other countries. That brought me into managing the movement of the products around the globe.
When Andréa and I first started thinking about entering into the wine space and being that her background was in New Zealand, we saw an opportunity with those small family-owned New Zealand wines. It was a matter of importing and I was like, "Oh, I can move anything around the planet. I've already got that." So that lined up really well for us to be able to start our journey.
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WS: Did you find wine more complicated to import?
RM: It's much more complicated. Everything else I had experience with was just much more straightforward. You didn't have a million different levels of taxation based on alcohol levels and whether it had bubbles in it or not, and which country it was coming from, all of that. Nothing is insurmountable, but it's definitely a lot more work and a lot more compliance—and a lot more taxes.
WS: How did you evolve from importing some New Zealand wines to where you are now?
AMJ: We knew the best thing for us was not to try to figure out the business of wine while trying to learn how to make wine. We chose to get the importers license in the beginning because Robin had that competency already. After we got set up, we went down to New Zealand and reached out to a bunch of different small growers and asked them if we could bring their brand to California, if we could represent them and sell their brands and then, at the same time, every harvest they could teach us how to make wine.
So we did that from 2005 through 2009, and we made our first vintage [of our own wine] in 2008 … when the world started to melt down. We had created this lovely little company—we had these eclectic, esoteric wines from New Zealand and were knocking on all the doors of really fabulous restaurants in San Francisco and in Los Angeles. But as soon as the financial crisis happened, all those people stopped paying their bills.
If we're going to continue to do this, do we continue to do this with other people's brands? Or is this the time that we figure out how to start our wine company? So we decided to start our own wine company, and that's been our trajectory ever since.
RM: We did start super, super small with just a dozen or two cases of wine from small producers in New Zealand. It was a time when New Zealand wine was booming, and in the States, people were really starting to appreciate New Zealand as a producer. We were really lucky with the timing of it.
At a certain point we started to learn the business of wine here in the U.S., and we started to learn grapegrowing and winemaking back in New Zealand with the families that we were bringing in their wines. We really wanted to work with them to start producing our own our brand and self-import and distribute into the States. It really did grow quite organically. We built off of our success, and we expanded wherever we could—however we could—afford to expand.
WS: Your portfolio now is really diverse. You source and blend wine from numerous growers and producers in multiple regions. What was that evolution like?
AMJ: We started with a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Our preference for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc stylistically is to work with growers from the Wairau Valley. We also have a grower in Awatere Valley with some really interesting components we're going to add to our 2020. But the northeastern part of Marlborough, closer to the Wairau River, tends to be a little bit warmer. We really love to be able to showcase the spectrum of flavor that is green fruit, stone fruit, tree fruit and tropical, and then of course the stereotypical gooseberry, sort of passionfruit that you get from New Zealand.
Now the portfolio from New Zealand spans Marlborough, Central Otago and Hawkes Bay. We have our sparkling brut rosé [from Hawkes Bay], and then from Central Otago we have Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and rosé. And then in the [California] Central Coast we have our Chardonnay. We have a red blend that's usually Merlot and Cabernet from Paso Robles. There's a Santa Lucia Pinot Noir.
Everything that we do within the portfolio of McBride's is a style based on lifted, beautiful aromatics. We're looking for being able to deliver a sense of place with beautiful integration. We're never going to be the loudest in the room. All of the wines that we create we want to be affordable. We've only recently in the last three or four years made our reserve range of wines. We really wanted for people, if this was their everyday luxury, to offer wines that were under a $20 price point.
WS: How do the roles get divided now?
AMJ: Robin oversees all of the winemaking and operations and I oversee all of the sales and marketing.
WS: There's no wrong way to enter the wine industry, but do you feel any resistance from other Black-owned brands about your business model or your success?
RM: Not necessarily. When we started in the business and we learned to make wine, we worked with those families we imported. It's a much simpler method making wine in barrels and bottles versus when you get to a certain volume size. Then you're more of a commercial winery, and that's when we brought in head winemakers.
Andréa and I know we are not going [to own] larger-scale winemaking facilities and make everything ourselves by hand, and we don't claim to do that. However, we definitely are solely in charge of our sourcing and wine style decisions throughout the process, along with [head winemaker] Amy Butler. But no, we're not stomping the grapes with our feet these days. We also have our winemaker in New Zealand, Diana Hawkins, which is good because we can't even travel down there right now.
You might see people who are a lot of times at the front of the brand who might not really be experts in wine. There are a lot of celebrity brands, and I think it puts a question mark out there for people to wonder, how involved really are they in the process? It's not the case for us.
But it really is a different business model. A lot of the smaller producers are tending to their rows and hands-on all year long. With us, we are just at a scale where that's not feasible for us. We are Black and we are in the same business, but we are operating in a different business model.
WS: What would you like us to know about your experiences as Black vintners?
AMJ: One of the things for us, our purpose and our mission, is to change the face of wine for our community and for our industry. When we talk about our community, who we serve, we find that who is attracted to our brands are women and people of color. This is a really big group of people that the wine industry doesn't do that great a job in welcoming.
For a long time, we have been one of the only Black-owned brands that has national distribution that is available at national grocery stores. We want to leave the wine industry better than when we started. We don't think that we should be the only one. So at the top of the year we talked to our retail partners and Black vintners about how to help them.
We learned about Blackout Tuesday, I want to say eight hours before it happened? I said to everybody at the company, "We should really put a spotlight on Black vintners." We have a really big social media following and we need to help elevate and amplify everybody on a day like this.
We initially posted [a list of vintners] on our Instagram Stories, and it went viral. The next day we created a dedicated post and as of recently it had like 20,000 likes just on our page, and it was shared by Dwyane Wade and a bunch of celebrities. That was awesome because all of the Black vintners that I talked to were selling out and had wine club sign ups and that's what we want. We want to be able to raise up together.
Then we had to figure out, how do we make this a movement and not a moment? Next we posted ways that you can further support—go sign up to a wine club, go to your local store where you buy wine and ask them to bring in the specific Black vintner that you want to support.
It made us realize we really need to empower our community and our customers. Next we told everyone that less than 1 percent of wines at national retail are Black-owned wine companies. Tag where you shop and tell them to bring in the brand that you love and write what ZIP code you live in.
It really advanced a lot of conversations on the business side of things, on a distribution level and on the retailer side. Now I think consumers realize that they have the power to change things.
WS: Do you have any other suggestions or ideas?
AMJ: I think like there are good opportunities for Black History Month. When you look at like the history of Black people in the United States, how we got here, the initial beginnings and agriculture—you could understand why there aren't a lot of black people in agriculture, or Black vintners. Not just the history of slavery but land ownership—Black people were not allowed land ownership in certain parts of the country. That's why we should shine a light and support black vintners during Black History Month.
RM: We launched the She Can wines [their line of canned wines and wine spritzers] which raises money for the She Can Professional Development Fund. The cans are really, really popular—people obviously are super into wine spritzers in convenient packaging. So we're making a lot more of those. We think people are looking for something different than hard seltzers. There's no sugar added. It's just our same bottled wine in the can, with sparkling water and some natural fruit essence and bam, you're done.
WS: How could the wine industry be more welcoming?
RM: There's a huge difference in the backgrounds of the people that we're working with in the industry, the representation of employees, of our distribution partners, buyers, across the board.
But in terms of ownership, higher level executives, I think there's a lot more that should be done in terms of diversity. When you're at that level, those are the people who are really affecting the industry and affecting the culture that's created around it. So we're super excited to see how much change has come over the years and we see that there's a need for some more racial diversity and gender diversity as well in leadership positions.
I think that we're seeing people take earnest efforts to take those steps. I think that's been created by the dialogue of everything that's gone on in this past year. I think it's commendable. Overall the direction that we're seeing and the willingness to talk about these things is really refreshing and really moving in the right direction.