Napa’s first Black woman winemaker, Victoria Coleman, encourages others to pursue viticulture

As the first Black woman to be named head winemaker in Napa Valley, Victoria Coleman has been finetuning her style for over 15 years. Coleman wasn't born on a vineyard — although she did recently help her aunt plant some vines in South Carolina — and, frankly, she didn't even really grow up seeing wine on the kitchen table.

"I wasn't into wine at all," Coleman says of her introduction to the industry. "I was actually dating someone that was working in wine ... I will have to come up with a better story than that one day," she jokes.

In actuality, Coleman's story is nothing to kid about. Seeking a change of pace following the death of her mother in 1998, Coleman left her home in Seattle and traded computers for grapes, and soon found herself enchanted by working in the vineyard. Soon thereafter, she decided she couldn't ever go back to a data-driven desk job.

"When the breakup occurred I did think, 'What do I do? Do I go back home?' But I had been working here for a while, and I decided I was going to become a viticulturist and go to UC Davis."

And so she did. With some production assistant gigs and a vintage under her belt going into her first year with University of California, Davis's Department of Viticulture and Enology, Coleman felt like she had a leg up on some of her colleagues. This proved to be a blessing considering that she was simultaneously commuting from St. Helena and working at the winery, and she found herself diving deep into the viticulture bits of her studies.

Despite her initial lacking interest, she has since worked under esteemed winemakers, including Michael Silacci and Mario Bazán, has interned at Château Mouton Rothschild in France, and has now even added a Chinese brand to her portfolio.

In her current gig at Lobo Wines, she is the face of The Caves at Soda Canyon and has multiple vineyards she pulls fruit from.

"I was most comfortable in the vineyard," she said. "I was at Stag's Leap Cellars as a production assistant to Michael Silacci before he went to Opus One, and he is very viticulturally-oriented, so even though I was going through tastings and blending trials, and things like that, I was primarily in the vineyard."

After school, Coleman began consulting, leaning on mentors like Silacci as she cranked out cabs she could feel truly proud of. Her first vintage was in 2005 with Bazán, and since then, she has only fallen more and more in love with wine and the experimentation process.

"I made that 2005 vintage, it was a cab from East Napa in the footsteps of Mt. George, and it was so good," she recalls. "I was scared like, 'Can I do that again?' because I didn't expect it to be so good."

Since this 2005 vintage, Coleman has been able to build a sense of calm confidence, but she says this hasn't always been the case. Her first vintage with Lobo was in 2008 following her graduation from UC Davis, and now, she makes the brand's reds and rosé.

"I think then, I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "I have more control now."

Her mentors tend to think otherwise, though.

"Victoria is the most understated and under-the-radar winemaker viticulturist I know," said Silacci. "Her veil of calm belies an intense nurturing of the vineyard and of her wines ... [She] is thoughtful in her pursuit of perfection, and her quest to allow her wines tell the story of place."

This poetic nature of Coleman's work isn't lost on typical wine drinkers either, though, with those in and out of the industry expressing awe of her natural grasp over the cellar.

"What I think is kind of fascinating is that a lot of winemakers do pick at certain brix or with certain acids or whatever, and she has the bumpers of the numbers there, but it's all taste," said Chris Schreiner, sales manager for Lobo Wines. "I think that resonates because a lot of the winemakers I've known before her are very about the 'Okay, these are the brix, these are the acids, we're picking in two days,' where she's like, 'Well, let's see,' and it's all about taste and how the skins feel ..."

"And, it works."

Unfortunately, being the "first" of anything comes with barriers, especially when you are a Black woman entering the winemaking world. While Coleman says she nowadays doesn't think about the fact that she was the first Black woman — and frankly, person — to pursue many of these opportunities in Napa, she recognizes that this has changed drastically since she landed in California over 20 years ago.

"There have been times where I've been out, I've walked into a room, and thought, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?' or it's a sea of people that don't look like me," said Coleman. "That has happened to me before and it hit me like a brick, but typically, because I have friends who are here now that are out in the tasting rooms, they have other experiences different than I because I have always been in the vineyard or the cellar."

Similarly, she says that her current role has allowed her to get in front of more people to share her story rather than staying cooped up in the cellar — although she wouldn't have any complaints — and before the pandemic, was involved with events like the Oakland Wine Festival.

"Now, more so because I am here at the Caves, I am part of the face of the Caves to our clients here and whoever comes through," said Coleman. "So now, I am more out there and visible, and I think with Lobo, I have become more visible because they're very supportive of me trying to get the wine and get myself out in front of other people."

Being in this position has allowed Coleman to reflect on her experience as a Black woman in wine, though, and she realizes now how the odds were stacked against her when she was pursuing her education.

"It was very cliquey at the time, and I was commuting because I was still here working, so I didn't move or have the study groups or those types of relationships," she said. "I lived there for one quarter, and it was good ... That's when I could connect and study with people, but that was just one."

"So if I could have done that differently, I would have, but I couldn't because I had to pay for that ... So that was really hard."

This isn't to deter others from pursuing a path in viticulture, though, as Coleman hopes to see more and more women and POC in positions throughout the industry.

"It would be nice to actually see someone in production, and actually take a path through UC Davis or even Washington State or any program like that," she said. "There are people that are interested, and that's what I always wanted to do was get in front of my culture, because I know that there aren't many of us that were into wine, and I think it's more so apparent now."

In the meantime, Coleman will keep up her impressive winemaking juggling act, and says she is looking forward to the potential of making a chardonnay with the Lobo Wines brand.

"It's funny because I started out with cab, and so I feel like when I am approached, it's only for cab, but I've gotten a chance to work with syrah here for Lobo and also merlot, and now maybe chardonnay, so they'll have at least people come look at me for other things other than cab," she said. "But I would like to go to Germany, that would be my first [choice] ... Riesling, for sure ... so that's what I would like to do — to try to figure out how to do something like that."

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