The history of Black winemakers in the United States can be traced back to 1940. John June Lewis, Sr., commonly referred to as the first Black winemaker, opened the nation's first Black-owned winery Woburn Winery in Clarksville, Virginia.
“There's a movement happening now with Black culture and wine. We should recognize that wine has always been a part of our culture going back to Africa," shares Dr. Monique Bell, Associate Professor of Marketing at California State University, Fresno of the . "If you have roots in the South, as I do, you may have heard your grandparents or great, great grandparents talking about making their own jug wine. So there really is this long connection between our culture and wine. "
However, today, of the more than 11,000 wineries in the U.S., less than 1% of them are Black-owned. In Dr. Bell's study Terroir Noir: 2020 Study of Black Wine Entrepreneurs, she explores the reason behind this. “The three major challenges emerging from the data are lack of financial capital, systemic racism, and confusing wine regulations. Since the majority of the Black wine entrepreneurs were self-funded, access to capital to grow their businesses was identified as a key challenge.” The lack of inclusivity in the wine industry has resulted in our winemakers not being highlighted, celebrated, and exposed to the market until only recently.
This recent burst in growth and press has been the result of the valiant efforts of Black-owned wine organizations, associations, and directories, including Association of African American Vintners, Black Vines, The Hue Society, Sip Consciously, and Soul of Sonoma.
EBONY spoke with some of these trailblazers in the wine industry who are making a name for themselves and changing the way we enjoy our vintages.
Phil Long, founder of Longevity Wines
Winemaker Phil Long is the founder of Longevity Wines and the president of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV). He is devoted to elevating awareness of African Americans in the wine industry and paving paths to wine careers for all minorities. When it comes to the current state of inclusivity in the wine industry, Long believes that there is a lot of work to do, but change does seem to be happening today at a greater pace than ever before. “One of the founders of AAAV, Mac McDonald, was widely recognized back in the '90s for producing mid-90-point Sonoma pinot noirs. As he began to attend events, he noticed how very few African-American winemakers and owners he met. There were about three Black winemakers that came together, sharing resources and information to forge ahead in this industry,” shares Long.
Like others in the wine industry today, he didn't grow up with dreams of being in the industry. “My wife Debra and I started making wine in our garage in 2002 as a couple’s project. We loved wine, and making it was something to do together,” he explains.
By 2008, their hobby had outgrown the garage, and they decided to go for it and open a winery in Livermore Valley. Ten years later, they were named Livermore Valley’s Winery of the Year. Unfortunately, Debra Long was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and passed away in 2019. One of the best sellers from Longevity Wines is a tribute to his wife, called, Debra’s Cuvee, a rosé of California pinot noir.
Ingrid Best, CEO & Wine Negociant at iBest Wines
As the founder, CEO and Wine Negociant at iBest Wines, Ingrid Best is setting out to spotlight South African wines' underrepresented beauty and variety. As a wine negociant, Best works with top wine producers to source wines, blend them, and bottle them under the brand name. With her experience of over 20 years working in spirits, Best’s goal is to make sure that iBest Wines brings more Black and Brown owners visibility in the industry by holding larger companies accountable to their pledges and commitments of diversity.
“We have a lot of work to do to create a more equitable industry, and I am fiercely passionate and vocal about doing the work. It’s been my personal mission over the past 20 years of my career to ensure the wine industry including suppliers and distributors consider and include Black and Brown people in all facets of their businesses,” says Best. "I am currently in discussions with multiple suppliers about how we can make more lasting change in the industry; this includes looking at investing in Black-owned businesses a little differently than your typical businesses whose communities have not been systematically oppressed for centuries. I’m excited to work with those who have made commitments and actions of change specific to Black and Brown entrepreneurs and businesses to help them see those commitments through."
Lindsey Williams, Owner of Davidson Wine Co. and Charleston Wine Co.
A native of Ohio, Lindsey Williams took an unexpected journey to becoming a winemaker. Formerly an attorney, Lindsey launched Davidson Wine Co. in 2018 in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC and just opened a new location, Charleston Wine Co., in Charleston, SC, which is the city's first and only urban winery.
“After working in corporate America and traveling quite a bit, I was lucky to drink some of the finest wines. However, it wasn't until I took a trip to Italy that I really fell in love with the winemaking process," shares Williams. When I decided to leave my 9-5, I took a year to learn the craft of winemaking and that's how Davidson Wine Co. was born,” says Williams.
As an urban winemaker, she takes globally-sourced grapes from the best wine-making regions of the world and makes them into a variety of blends from cabernets to ports.
Desiree Noisette, founder of Mermosa Wines
Desiree Noisette, the founder of Florida’s first Black woman-owned wine company, is a true renaissance woman. As a former construction lawyer, Noisette knows her way around law and land issues. “When I got into the wine industry, I knew there were not many Black people in the field. The reason is actually pretty simple: Black people were largely excluded from access to land ownership and financing needed to be a part of the wine movement in America,” reveals Noisette.
Despite facing many challenges, she has not let them stand in the way of pursuing her dreams. Overall, she is optimistic about inclusivity in the industry and knows it comes down to actionable steps. “It is time to move beyond the conversations in generalities. What the industry can do better is truly be committed to inclusion by setting KPIs on paper and tying these metrics to compensation. If diversity initiatives are not tied to compensation, then they are not priorities, they are extracurricular activities,” adds Noisette.
Aaliyah Nitoto, founder and CEO of Free Range Flower Winery
With a background in herbalism, biology, and nutrition education, Aaliyah Nitoto launched Free Range Flower Winery FRFW), focusing on utilizing a unique approach to handcrafted, premium wine made from small batches from organically sourced flowers. “While studying herbalism as a nutrition educator, I came across a reference to flower wine in an old herbal recipe book, and I was intrigued," shares Nitoto. "I wanted to re-introduce this magical wine into the broader wine conversation.”
As FRFW grew, Nitoto experienced growing pains, literally. “Up until a couple of months back, I was producing my wine in a 320-sq-ft West Oakland shipping container, which was a pretty tight space for a manufacturing operation, even on a small-batch scale. I would frequently come home bruised and battered from wrestling with equipment or just trying to navigate the space. We had also maxed out our production capacity there, and in order to meet the demand for these wines, we were in the tough position of needing to move and having no idea how that was going to happen,” she explains. After joining the Association of African American Vintners and sharing production challenges with AAAV President Phil Long (of Longevity Wines), I was invited to join him in a new shared warehouse. “This move for us was a no-brainer," says Nitoto. "His generosity and mentorship have been invaluable all along the way. A bonus has been becoming a part of the thriving wine community in Livermore Valley.”
Erica Davis, co-founder of The Sip
Best friends Erica Davis and Catherine Carter created The Sip to fill a void in the industry while building a brand that reflected their interests and boosting diversity in wine. “We wanted to create a judgment-free zone where people could discover new wines and explore their palate without breaking the bank—and offer it all in one convenient place,” says Davis.
The Sip curates sparkling wines and champagnes from around the world into curated boxes delivered to your door as a bi-monthly or one-time subscription. Every box includes 2-3 premium wine brands, with bottles from traditional French houses packed alongside BIPOC brands to challenge the lack of diversity in wine. “Wine can be so pretentious, and we want to bring it down to earth and make it real. Every box has tasting notes that are accessible and use real-world examples so people can learn the flavors they enjoy. Think, 'tastes like a cherry coke’ vs ‘tastes like black currant.’ We want to talk about acidity and ABV in approachable terms that make sense, even if you’ve never stepped into a tasting room before,” explains Davis.
Davis and Carter are also using their platform to giving back to the community with their Take A Sip, Give A Sip pledge. For every single sale on The Sip’s site, 16oz of clean water will be donated to the East Oakland Community Project (EOCP), a multi-service organization that provides emergency and transitional housing to women and families transitioning out of homelessness in Alameda County.
Kimberly T. Johnson, owner of Philosophy Winery & Vineyard
Starting out as a volunteer, wine blogger, assistant to a winemaker, and tasting room associate, Kimberly T. Johnson is now the co-owner of Philosophy Winery & Vineyard, the first Black-owned winery in the state of Maryland.
“Wine is my passion and I have finally found my purpose, exploring distinct agriculture and producing high-quality wine that highlights diverse grape varietals as unique as Maryland itself. Wine is a forever evolving theme. With each taste of an unfamiliar varietal, there sparks opportunity,” says Johnson.
Mentorship and entrepreneurship are also at the foundation of her vineyard. Its mentorship program The Wine Scholar offers women an educational opportunity in which they can learn fundamentals of the business, from pruning the vines to presenting the wines.
Ntsiki Biyela, Founder of Aslina Wines
After 13 years as a winemaker and industry brand ambassador, Ntsiki Biyela founded Aslina Wines—a brand which she named after her grandmother—and became South Africa’s first Black female winemaker and winery owner. Her philosophy is simple: she produces her wines to reflect nature’s offerings as closely as possible and merely provides a light hand of guidance to bring out their innate beauty. Her company's portfolio includes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Bordeaux-style blends.
Biyela is also committed to furthering entrepreneurship, community, and education in the wine industry. “I’m involved with an academy that offers training to young people so that they understand the value chain of the wine industry; the academy also helps organize job placements within the industry. One of its objectives is to train more people who come into the wine industry to get a deep understanding of wines while diversifying the industry through its enrollment criteria.
Nicole Kearney, Founder of Sip & Share Wines
Indianapolis-based Nicole Kearney is a college professor turned winemaker. She opened Sip and Share Wines in 2016 with the intention of creating for wine lovers who are often overlooked and underrepresented by the wine industry. “There are many untold stories of Black winemakers. The lack of visibility and historical records of Black winemakers has resulted in the disparity of both Black wineries and winemakers,” says Kearney.
She evolved the company and now it is the only Black-owned vegan winery in the US. Her- boutique winery produces a diversity of handcrafted vegan wines that do not use any animal by-products.
Dexter and Marilyn Meadows, owners of Meadows Estate Vineyard
The Meadows Estates Vineyard and Winery, located in Oakland, Oregon, produces an impressive array of estate wines featuring rare varieties and styles including Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Gewurtztraminer as well as Grenache-based blends that take inspiration from the classic blends of France and Spain, like their 2014 Cote de Umpqua red.
As new members to the wine industry, the Dexter and Marilyn Meadows have been embraced by the region's veteran community of grape growers, winemakers, and the community at-large.and bolstered their practical and wise advice. "The harvest for this year was nothing short of perfect yielding very healthy fruit, and so far, flawless wine. It is because of the [community's] support that we have received that we feel comfortable as fruit growers and wine producers," shares Meadows. "The goal this year will be to improve wine sales. Our greatest challenges have been the impacts of COVID-19 and the cumbersome regulations that regulate the industry.”
Artie Johnson II, Winemaker for Le Artishasic Wines
Artie Johnson's illustrious career has taken him across the United States, from Houston, to Austin, New York City, Miami, and now Napa Valley where he is the proprietor and winemaker at Le Artishasic Winery, named after a combination of the names of his wife, daughter, and son. Johnson's Napa career began at the prestigious cult winery, Harlan Estate. For his next role he was recruited to join historic Mayacamas Vineyards as Director of Hospitality before moving on to found Le Artishasic winery in 2015 under his parent company, WINEXYZ, a consulting firm that he formed to help small family-owned wineries excel in direct-to-consumer strategies.
“Being a winemaker is an evolution of my career. Working in the restaurant business taught me about service, persistence, & people. Working in Austin, New York City, & Miami exposed me to culture and diversity. All of these elements are in my wines today. Taking calculated risks in your career can pay off in a big way down the road. Sometimes a direct path is not exactly the best path,” notes Johnson.
Johnson's goal with his winery is "to make well-balanced Napa Valley wines in the old world style while displaying beautiful California fruit." While a majority of his wines are sold DTC, they also can be savored at some of the best restaurants in Napa, such as Bouchon, Meadowood and The French Laundry.
3 Top Sommeliers Share Their Pairing Picks
There are so many different wines made around the world, but it is all about individual preference. Attending wine tastings and trying as many wines as possible until you find the ones that satisfies your palates a great way to find the wines that you like, says Wayne Luckett, CEO and President of Brandwar Wine Distributing Co.
"When in a restaurant, ask the resident sommelier or wine steward to suggest a wine pairing with your menu selection. This is why they are there," adds Luckett. "They'll help you in selecting the right wine, so your meal becomes a delightful and memorable dining experience."
For those who are new to exploring wine, Teron Stevenson, a co-founder of Westside Winos and Natural Action Wine Club offers some advice. “I think light to medium-bodied red wines tend to grab people's attention. Maybe a Pinot noir, or a Grenache are good places to start.” Some of his favorite Black-owned wines include Scotty Boy / L’arge D’oor, Ashanta Wines, and Aslina Wines from South Africa.
Below, three Black sommeliers offer up of some ripe pickings.
Ray Sholes, Head Sommelier at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
"One of my favorite pairings is a Michael Lavelle wine with a strawberry field salad, it is fantastic," says Sholes. "
"Also, be adventurous, taste different things, don't get turned off by a particular wine varietal. You may not like California Chardonnays, but you may like Chablis from France (it’s still Chardonnay, just a different style)," he adds.
Whitney Pope, Natural Wine Educator and Sommelier
"I am a big advocate of drinking what makes you happy, conventional wisdom be damned. Drink what's relatable to you with foods that are usually found on your table," advises Pope. "While I do respect the notion of 'what grows together, belongs together,' I think with the current evolution of wine as a lifestyle and the growing emphasis on inclusion, food heritages, and openness to use one’s native language to describe wine instead of the Eurocentric descriptors that have long been held as the standard, is ushering in a whole new world of 'favorite pairings.' The last great pairing I had was Domaine de Clovallon's—a winery in the town of Bedarieux in The Languedoc held by mother and daughter duo, Catherine and Alix Roque—'En Noir et Blanc' with Crispy Rice Toast, Uni + Roe, Fermented Black Bean Butter. The pairing is the personification of 'an umami party-in-your-mouth.' The uni and roe toast was incredibly decadent. 'En Noir et Blanc' which is a blend of Pinot Noir and Riesling. The Riesling kicks up the acid of the otherwise supple and soft wine to balance the dish's smoke, saltiness, and fat.
Lamar Covert, Partner of BlacOak Wine Club & Tasting Room, and Certified Sommelier
"I love dark chocolate, so I usually go for a new world Cabernet Sauvignon since they can be riper on the palate but bold enough that the chocolate won’t overpower. I’m pescatarian so my scallops and halibut usually are washed down with a lightly oaked Chablis. Recently I’ve fallen for Oregon Pinot Noir and grilled/baked salmon. The fish is dense enough to stand up to the red but the flavor won’t outshine the wine.