‘No longer hidden figures’: Association of African American Vintners celebrates 20th anniversary
Association to honor 3 trailblazers May 21 at DeLoach Vineyards
The Association of African American Vintners was founded decades ago in Healdsburg so Black vintners wouldn’t be invisible in the wine industry.
“The most troubling thing 20 years ago was that the wine industry didn’t know we existed,” said Lou Garcia, the association’s vice president and treasurer, as well as the vintner of Stover Oaks Winery in Cleveland. “There were just too few of us.”
The association, which began with a trickle of wineries, is now about 200 members strong and continues to champion diversity and inclusion. It will celebrate its 20th anniversary later this month as members take pride knowing they’re no longer hidden figures.
“Anybody can make wine but the tough thing is to sell it,” said association co-founder Mac McDonald, vintner of Windsor’s Vision Cellars. “Our (initial) focus was on how to make wine, how to market it and understanding costs.
“We were able to move everyone forward in the industry by sharing our experiences, especially things we learned from mentors.”
Creating the association, Garcia said, was crucial to help vintners of color understand they could be successful in the wine industry. The wine industry, he added, is known for being collaborative rather than competitive and this worked in the association’s favor.
“Fortunately we were all in Northern California, close enough to provide guidance to each other,” Garcia said. “We were like family and supported each other.”
In a celebration of the association’s last 20 years, the main attraction will be a fundraising dinner May 21 at Santa Rosa’s DeLoach Vineyards. Wine columnist Dorothy Gaiter, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now senior editor of the Grape Collective, will present awards to member trailblazers in the categories of education, legacy and unity. Current members selected Monique Bell, Theodora Lee and Fern Stroud to be honored.
Honored in the category of education, Bell is a tenured professor of marketing at California State University Fresno. Bell’s studies on diversity and inclusion in the wine industry includes “Terroir Noir: 2020 Study of Black Wine Entrepreneurs.”
In the category of legacy, Lee is a San Francisco law firm senior partner and trial lawyer, as well as the founder and owner of Yorkville’s Theopolis Vineyards. She joined the association shortly after it was founded and served as secretary for many years. Lee is the first Black female vineyard owner in Northern California.
Awarded in the unity category, Stroud is the founder of Black Vines, the longest-standing Black wine festival in the U.S., benefiting local charities. Stroud is also a Black and LGBTQ+ wine business advocate. She created Black Vines as a showcase for winemakers and an opportunity for guests — new and veteran tasters — to celebrate African American culture.
The association will funnel its fundraising dollars to scholarships and a new grant initiative, with at least three $5,000 awards targeted for members who are vintners, growers or negociants.
While the association is unwavering with its mission, MacDonald said there have been positive shifts over the past two decades.
“I see that African Americans are being accepted as being able to make quality wine and that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “We have educated ourselves about the wine industry and its challenges. The door is now open for more people to be involved.”
Garcia agreed, pointing out the association’s success has been multifaceted.
“Many of our members have tasting rooms and are now distributed regionally and nationally,” he said. “Also many of our members participate in all facets of the industry. We are growers, winemakers, distributors, brokers, importers, winery executives, etc. There are many paths in the wine industry and they’re now open for people of all colors and ethnicities.”
Yet a completely fair and equitable wine industry, Garcia said, may be a reach.
“The reason is that it requires a lot of capital to be successful on a large scale,” he said. “However, you don’t have to be a big organization to make good wine. There are 11,000 wineries in the U.S. of all different sizes and we can each participate as we choose.”
While the association was initially created for Black vintners, it has changed its complexion in recent years. In 2019, the association decided wineries don’t need to be owned by people of color to become members, as long as they support diversity and inclusion. Today 15% of its members are not people of color.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the outrage over the murder of George Floyd spurred more people to inquire about memberships, as well as to donate to the scholarship fund, Garcia said. Non-Black members, he explained, said they want to hear from African American winemakers directly about the issues they face so they can help create opportunities for them in the wine industry.
Looking to the future, co-founder Phil Long said he hopes the association will further an equal playing field.
“If a bowl of jelly beans represent all the people across America who consume wine, it would hold a beautiful assortment of colors,” said Long, the vintner of Livermore’s Longevity Wines. “Why does the bowl of jelly beans representing the people who grow, produce, sell and educate about wine look nothing like the consumer bowl? I want those bowls to look the same, reflecting the entire color spectrum.”
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at email@example.com or 707-521-5310.