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Meet The New Generation of Black American Vintners

New business owners are finding innovative ways to enter the wine industry

Janice Williams By July 7, 2022
Aaron "Michael" Coad and Terrence "Lavelle" Low along with their partners, Sommelier Devin Kennedy and Brandon Crump
Aaron "Michael" Coad and Terrence "Lavelle" Low along with their partners, Sommelier Devin Kennedy and Brandon Crump. Photo by Brian Frances of Franceau Fotos.

On July 7, 2020, winemakers Robin and Andrea McBride shared a fact on their McBride Sisters Instagram account: “Less than one percent of wine in retail stores are Black-owned.” 

The post was shared during the #BlackoutTuesday social media campaign — a call for justice following the death of George Floyd. Some people posted black squares on their Instagram accounts to “black out” their social media feeds. Others reflected on what they could do to help create more equality and equity for Black people. 

The McBride sisters used the moment to share a list of 86 Black vintners and asked their followers to repost the list and go to their local wine shops and “tell them about a Black-owned wine brand you would like to try and would support with a purchase.” 

The post went viral.

Seizing the moment

Two years later, while the number of Black people in the wine industry is still low, there have been some significant changes. 

“People who were hesitant to have the conversation, hesitant to get involved, hesitant to be known for having that voice, were starting to get comfortable with the conversation. Big corporations and big businesses were saying, ‘This is enough. What can we do?’” says Phil Long, owner and winemaker at Longevity Wines in California’s Livermore Valley. Long also serves as the president of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV).

Organizations like the Roots Fund have sprung up, offering educational, economic, and mentorship opportunities to people of color. Constellation Brands launched its Focus on Minority Founders program, vowing to invest $100 million in Black and minority-owned wine and spirits brands by 2030. Sapere Aude Sparkling Wine, a winery founded by Pampata and David Airaudi in California in 2012, was among the first recipients of the new venture. 

And now, more Black-owned wines are appearing on shelves. Though many are not winemakers themselves, a wave of new Black vintners have teamed up with industry professionals to produce their own quality wines. According to Long, membership within the AAAV has skyrocketed over the last few years with Black professionals looking to learn the wine business or become winemakers.

Sommelier Chevonne Ball released a Gamay under her Dirty Radish label in 2021. Mela, a new wine and lifestyle brand created by four Black women, released its inaugural California white and red blends earlier this year. Marlo Richardson is set to release her California red blend and Chardonnay through her Braymar Wines label this summer. 

“I think time is on our side,” says Brandon Crump, co-owner of Michael Lavelle Wines, which he launched in 2020 with partners Aaron “Michael” Coad, Terrence “Lavelle” Low, and sommelier Devin Kennedy. “More people have become aware of Black-owned wines, for sure. But the support of Black-owned brands and businesses overall has grown in the last two years. That has definitely been a benefit to us.”

While the events of the last few years have helped brands gain momentum, many of the new crop of Black vintners started their labels as passion projects, often because they wanted to serve their community.

“We would go to different venues and notice a lack of diversity in what was marketed towards us,” says Low. “Our level of wine access changed drastically depending on what neighborhood we were shopping in. We wanted to bridge that gap and to provide quality wine experiences for people who look like us and make it readily accessible.”

Understanding the roadblocks

The road to establishing a wine brand doesn’t come without challenges. For starters, it requires relationships with grape growers and winemakers, which can be hard to foster when you’re a new face in the wine community.

“When we first started, a lot of people wouldn’t take us seriously because they didn’t know us. People were like, ‘Who are these guys?’ They wouldn’t give us the time of day,” says Crump. “We eventually found our first vendor. And then, as we began to scale the business and learn more, we got to navigate the landscape. We had more choices.”

Even for vintners who are working alongside winemakers — picking grapes, crushing, blending, and bottling — the costs are high. Small business grants and partnerships through wine nonprofits have helped vintners, but many have had to fund projects themselves.

Cheramie Law, who launched Cheramie Wines with her husband in Texas in 2019, had to “really hit the pavement” to get her products off the ground. 

“Investors aren’t just throwing money around at Black women,” says Law. “It’s been about three and a half years on the road meeting with winemakers, grape growers, and industry leaders to understand the Texas wine industry and get my wines in stores here.”

Harnessing the power of direct-to-consumer sales

Given the difficulties of getting wines into stores, many vintners chose to focus on online sales — which turned out to be a great decision during Covid, when so many people turned to online shopping. Still, a place on the shelf remains the goal for many.

“We distribute wines ourselves in Texas, and we ship to about 37 states right now, which we also handle ourselves through LibDib. We have some bottles in New York and California, but we would love to get on with a distributor who would do the legwork for us. It’s been a really tough segment of the industry to crack,” says Law. 

Desiree Noisette, founder of the Oregon-based winery Mermosa, sells her wines in more than  600 stores across the south, including some big-box chains. Yet the Florida native says she had to “kiss a lot of frogs” to find the right strategic partners to help Mermosa overcome logistical, capital, and distribution issues. 

“Now we’re playing with the big boys — legacy brands. And that is a whole other animal of nonsense and institutional preference,” says Noisette.

“There are so many avenues within wine that people can get involved in. Even if you work in human resources, wineries and wine corporations have HR departments. That knowledge can be used there too. We need more investment than just starting a wine brand,” says Law. 

Why representation matters

While the Black wine footprint is growing, there’s still work to be done. 

Some vintners hope that managing their brands will eventually help them become actual winemakers. Others, like Law, who worked as a merchant selling Texas wine before launching Cheramie Wines, hope to see more Black professionals entering other areas of the wine industry. 

“There are so many avenues within wine that people can get involved in. Even if you work in human resources, wineries and wine corporations have HR departments. That knowledge can be used there too. We need more investment than just starting a wine brand,” says Law. 

“The more Black Americans you see in this industry, the better the benefit to the wine industry overall. It’s been a tremendously valuable experience getting to show the world that Black people are in this space too,” says Noisette.

Though there is still work to be done, it’s clear that awareness of Black-owned wine has grown since the McBride sisters’ viral post — opening more doors of opportunity for the Black vintners and winemakers of the future.   

5 Black-owned wines to try:

bottle of Mimosa Wines Mersecco Oregon Blanc de Blancs NV

Mermosa Wines Mersecco Oregon Blanc de Blancs NV (~$14)

Produced with Oregon-grown Chardonnay grapes, this bubbly made by Noisette is bright and lively with orchard and stone fruit and toasty character. The wine is dry with big and frothy bubbles that are invigorating on the palate. The finish is fresh with clean acidity.

bottle of Michael Lavelle Wines Iris California Rosé 2021

Michael Lavelle Wines Iris California Rosé 2021 (~$22)

This rose quartz-colored rosé is made with a blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Rubired, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah sourced from California. The wine is aromatic with lush strawberry nuances and hints of white flowers. On the palate, the rosé displays fresh strawberry and watermelon notes, while an essence of crushed herbs arrives mid palate. The finish is dry, crisp, and long.

bottle of Sapere Aude Brut Rosé North Coast Sparkling Wine NV

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

Made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Mendocino County and the Sonoma Coast, this California sparkling rosé is clean on the palate, with raspberry and earthy nuances that appear on the nose, as well. The mouthfeel is silky and lively with tiny bubbles that are persistent in the glass from the first sip to the last.

bottle of Cheramie Wine Texas White Blend 2017

Cheramie Wine Texas White Blend 2017 (~$38)

Law works with Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier grapes from the Texas High Plains to make this floral dream of a white wine. Aromas of white flowers, citrus, and honey are abundant, while the palate is drenched in peach, candied apricot, and tropical fruit flavors. 

bottle of Dirty Radish Willamette Valley Gamay Noir

Dirty Radish Willamette Valley Gamay Noir 2020 (~$48)

For an easy drinking red wine, look no further than this bright and light Gamay, made with fruit from the Eola-Amity Hills region of Oregon. The wine is packed with fresh red fruit flavors like strawberry, raspberry, and cherry while high acidity keeps it fresh and lively on the palate.