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Meet California’s Pioneering Black Winemakers

Plus, 5 bottles that deserve the spotlight during Black History Month and beyond

Janice Williams By February 1, 2022
photo collage of wines by Black producers
Photo illustration by Pix

February marks Black History Month, an annual observance of the triumphs and struggles Black Americans have endured throughout U.S. history. And wine is undoubtedly a part of that. 

The first commercially recognized Black-owned winery and Black winemaker, John June Lewis, Sr. of Woburn Winery in Virginia, didn’t arrive until 1940. It took nearly another 50 years before the first recognized Black Creole American woman winemaker, Iris Rideau, opened her eponymous winery in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Yet Black winemakers in America remain few and far between. Of the more than 8,000 wineries in the U.S., only about 1% of them are owned and operated by Black people, according to Bloomberg

However, of the Black-owned wineries in existence, some are producing incredible wines with complexity and flair. Here are a few bottles experts say are worth pouring during Black History Month and beyond.

5 bottles to try:

bottle of Longevity Wines California Chardonnay

Longevity Wines California Chardonnay (~$14)

What started as a hobby between lovers became a nationally recognized winery when winemaker Phil Long and his late wife Debra Long opened Longevity Wines in the Livermore Valley wine region of Northern California in 2008. Debra Long came up with the winery’s name and its label design in honor of the couple’s long-lasting love for each other and the wines they made. Longevity produces a range of wines, but the winery’s Chardonnay is something that sommelier Nadine Brown always keeps on hand. “It’s a beautiful example of a well-balanced Chardonnay from Phil Long, the president of the Association of African American Vintners,” says Brown, founder of the wine events and consultancy At Your Service in Washington D.C. “Longevity is a great food wine, which I think is what wine is all about. It brings both the lean and more fruit-forward Chardonnay lovers together. The wine always wins over the ‘I don’t usually like Chardonnay’ crowd when I pour it for people.”

bottle of Brown Estate House of Brown California Chardonnay 2018

Brown Estate House of Brown California Chardonnay 2018 (~$20)

From an iconic and historic winery comes this bottle of Chardonnay. It’s produced by Brown Estate, the first Black-owned winery in Napa Valley, which released its first wine — their signature and award-winning Brown Zinfandel — in 2000. “House of Brown is the second label of Brown Estate, and the Chardonnay is from Lodi, a hidden gem wine region that I love,” says Desiree Harrison-Brown, a certified sommelier and instructor at the Napa Valley Wine Academy. “The wine has a ripe tropical flavor and an affordable price point.” It’s also a good one for drinking with food. “Picture yourself pouring copious amounts of this wine while catching up with good friends and eating crab cakes or crab dip,” Harrison-Brown says.

bottle of Sapere Aude North Coast Sparkling Rosé NV

Sapere Aude North Coast Sparkling Rosé NV (~$24)

Pampata and David Airaudi launched their winery Sapere Aude in Napa Valley in 2012 with the sole intent to create an excellent sparkling wine with zero residual sugars, low alcohol, and fine bubbles. Let Harrison-Brown tell it, the pair achieved their goal with their non-vintage sparkling rosé made with California-grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “It’s fresh and lively with flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and cherry,” says Harrison-Brown.

bottle of Cheramie Wine Texas High Plains White Blend 2019

Cheramie Wine Texas High Plains White Blend 2019 (~$27)

This white blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier comes from the Texas High Plains and is made by Cheramie Law and Todd Aho, a former Marine and Army soldier who fell in love with Texas wine following a trip to Fredericksburg on their third date. The now-married couple has since launched a winery and released their first wines in 2021. The inaugural vintage of the white blend is a “beautiful wine,” Brown notes. “Another great food wine that’s fresh and floral with a round mouthfeel.”

bottle of Theopolis Vineyards Yorkville Highlands Estate Grown Petite Sirah 2017

Theopolis Vineyards Yorkville Highlands Estate Grown Petite Sirah 2017 (~$47)

Theodora Lee was a senior partner and trial lawyer in San Francisco for many years before becoming a winemaker and opening up her winery Theopolis Vineyards in Yorkville Highlands, near the border of Mendocino and Sonoma, in 2003. Working with Petite Sirah may be Lee’s true calling, according to Brianne Cohen, a sommelier and wine educator in Los Angeles. Theopolis’ Petite Sirah comes highly recommended as it is a multi-award winner and has consistently received high scores from critics since its first vintage in 2006. “Serving dried herbal notes and velvety tannins, this exceptional wine has racked up more medals than Theodora can count,” Cohen says.