The world of wine is not exactly known to be a diorama of diversity. In fact, a survey of more than 3,100 professionals in the industry published last year by wine news website SevenFifty Daily revealed that 84 percent of respondents were white, with 2 percent identifying as Black or African.
When Dorothy Gaiter, who co-wrote the Wall Street Journal’s weekly wine column from 1998-2010 with her husband, John Brecher, published her essay “Being Black in the White World of Wine” on the same website in June 2020, she stated that “the wine world as a whole lives on its curated image of an exclusive club, with gatekeepers male and female. White.”
Black-American wine writer, Julia Coney tends to agree, as she expressed in her open letter about the lack of visibility of women of color in wine, “Your Wine Glass Ceiling is My Wine Glass Box.” She knows that reasons for the lack of diversity in the wine industry are multifarious, but is determined to play a part in changing at least one of those reasons: the gatekeepers claiming they do not know where to find qualified wine professionals of color. Last year, she founded Black Wine Professionals, a listserv and resource that connects employers and industry leaders with professionals. “The industry can no longer say they don’t know where to find Black professionals,” she said. “There may not be a lot of us, but here is the list!”
As far as lists in the industry go, there is one that is perhaps a lot longer than many would imagine: that of Black-owned wineries and wine brands across the world. Master sommelier Carlton McCoy, who is a member of the newly formed diversity committee of the Court of Master Sommeliers and CEO of Napa Valley’s Heitz Winery, is one such owner who is optimistic about the evolution of the wine world. “Something that society is dealing with right now is the phenomenon of discovering that a lot of organizations and systems were formed in power structures that did not benefit all of those who wanted to be part of those [worlds],” he said. And yet, despite the age-old limitations, Black winery owners such as McCoy who recently purchased two estates along with a business partner, have been doing their bit to add color to the industry simply by setting up shop. This “small but mighty” group of entrepreneurs are making a global imprint by sharing “the gladness of the grape,” taking up Pablo Neruda’s charge from his ode to the bounty of the vine: “let the simple man remember/ to think of the soil and his duty/ to propagate the canticle of wine.”
Here, seven Black-owned wineries around the world and the visionaries behind their success.
Wandering Wines, Maule Valley, Chile
“Wandering Wines is a collection discovered through adventure and inspired by the world”: so says the website of the wine label founded by two-time Super Bowl-winning footballer Mathias Kiwanuka and his friends Adam and Krystina Glasgow. The former New York Giants player and grandson of Uganda’s first prime minister, Benedicto Kiwanuka, came to the world of wine through his passion for journeying around the world itself. During the off-season, Kiwanuka and his wife often traveled to Napa Valley with the Glasgows, where they “started... exploring wines.” When he and the Glasgows visited Krystina’s father’s country, Chile, they became besotted with the process of winemaking and began their mission of co-founding their own label. Though headquartered in Coconut Grove, Florida, all of Wandering Wines’ offerings are produced in Chile’s Maule Valley. Their bottlings include cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, and Chile’s signature (though originally from France) carménère varietal. The original label has now given birth to three others, all also produced in the Maule Valley: Keen, LostFind, and Peaks & Valleys.
Aslina Wines, Western Cape, South Africa
Ntsiki Biyela is South Africa’s first Black female winemaker. After spending a year as a domestic worker, the native of Mahlabathini (a hamlet in KwaZulu-Natal) whose childhood was colored by the milking of cows, received a scholarship to study winemaking at Stellenbosch University. Upon graduating with a bachelor of science in agriculture (viticulture and oenology) in 2003, Biyela served as the winemaker at boutique winery Stellekaya, before going on to launch her brand Aslina—named for her inspiration, her grandmother—in 2016 with three wine varietals: cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. Today, the house has added a fourth wine to its portfolio: a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, which she christened Umsasane, her grandmother’s nickname. Biyela is a woman of many accolades, including being named one of the Most Innovative Women in Food & Drink in 2017 in a joint effort by Food & Wine and Fortune, but it is how she shapes the lives of others with her success that is most impressive. As a board member of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, she supports the technical training and personal development of young South Africans in the Cape Winelands, giving them the necessary footing for careers in the wine industry.
Burgess Cellars and Stony Hill Vineyard, Napa, California
CEO of Napa Valley’s historic Heitz Cellar, Carlton McCoy quotes James Baldwin and Three 6 Mafia alike: The southeast Washington D.C. native is a man well-versed in a myriad of cultures, perhaps none of them more than the world of wine in which he has been soaked since his days as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 2006. The master sommelier (named so at the age of 28 and one of only three African-Americans to share the distinction) sharpened his wine skills at a plethora of revered institutions including Thomas Keller’s Per Se prior to taking up the mantle at Heitz in 2018. In 2020, along with Heitz owner Gaylorn Lawrence Jr., McCoy acquired two storied Napa intuitions: Burgess Cellars (a hillside vineyard and winery founded in 1972, renowned for its cabernet sauvignon) and Stony Hill Vineyard (a family owned winery established in 1952).
“In the sommelier community, we tend to be passionately nostalgic about wines and about Estates,” he said, adding, “We put emphasis not just on the estate, but the type of wines they produce that we love, which tend to be those with a touch more balance and more freshness meant for more long-term aging.” McCoy is equally invested in the community of wine and his cultural community, co-founding The Roots Fund (along with Hue Society founder Tahiirah Habibi and hospitality consultant Ikimi Dubose), a nonprofit established to mitigate the paucity of diversity in the wine industry, specifically amongst Black and Indigenous populations. He believes change needs to come to the industry not only because it is just, but simply because it makes good business sense. “Showing people how these changes can affect that their top and bottom line tends to get a little more fuel into the tank,” he said, adding an allusion to James Baldwin’s assertion that to make change in America, one has to appeal to its capitalist instincts. “The Roots Fund came out of a personal desire to step up and take up a bigger role in connecting my passion for the wine industry and my community, and understanding that a lot of minorities in the US have not felt welcomed as a valued consumer of wine,” he says. The fund launches with 20 scholarships that will go toward education and training. “We are sending our first intern to Burgundy for a full internship this fall,” he proudly shared. “If we want America to truly be a wine-drinking country, we have to include all of America.”
La Fête du Rosé, Saint Tropez, France
It all began with a party. Some 15 years ago, founder of La Fête du Rosé (which translates from the French to “The Rosé Party”), Donae Burston was celebrating his 30th birthday with a coterie of friends, sipping the pink elixir in the warmth of the famed tropezienne sun, when it occurred to him that “there wasn’t a rosé brand that spoke to or represented us.” With the acumen afforded to him by his background in the beverage business (he managed accounts like Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon at LVMH despite a background in math and engineering), Burston set out to create the sort of rosé he felt was missing from the market. In 2017, he connected with Charles Moreau, the owner of St Tropez’s Domaine Bertaud Belieu and launched his rosé label, which is produced at the domaine, just two years later. His pesticide-free wine is a blend of 80 percent Grenache, 14 percent Mourvèdre, and 6 percent Syrah. The Miami-based entrepreneur is committed to being an agent of advancement, donating $2 of every bottle sold to programs that send underrepresented youth on unique travel experiences, as well as to organizations that fight every day for racial justice, like Color of Change.
Maison Noir Wines, Willamette Valley, Oregon
In 2007, André Hueston Mack, the first African-American to win the “Best Young Sommelier in America” honor, bestowed by the Chaine des Roisseurs, founded Maison Noir Wines (originally called Mouton Noir Wines). The Willamette, Oregon maison is figuratively a duplex house, producing not only wine, but also selling wine-inspired T-shirts online. Mack gave up his initial career in finance at Citicorp Investment Services to honor the call of the grape at the age of 30. Once he won the coveted Best Young Sommelier award—while living in Texas, no less—a deluge of opportunities rained upon him. He soon found himself in the position of head sommelier at culinary giant Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star outpost Per Se in New York City, managing a 1,800-selection, award-winning wine list. The ambitious Mack left his coveted position at Per Se after just three years. He set off to the vineyards of Oregon to found his label, where you’ll find allusions to ‘90s hip-hop, punk, and, skateboard culture not only on Maison Noir’s T-shirts, but also on the labels and in the names of some of the house’s wines, including “O.P.P” (Other People’s Pinot Gris and Other People’s Pinot Noir), a nod, no doubt, to the Naughty-by-Nature song of the same name. “Wine is not a beverage reserved for the elite, but can and should be enjoyed by everyone. A wine's place is on the table right next to the salt and pepper, as a compliment–even a condiment–to the food,” said Mack.
Nyarai Cellars, Niagara, Canada
One might call Steve Byfield’s Nyarai Cellars a Schrödinger's cat of winery: it is, and yet it isn’t. Byfield’s is one of a handful of Canadian “virtual wineries” whose vintners own neither vine nor brick-and-mortar outpost. Instead, Nyarai (the Shona word for “humility” which is pronounced na-rye) operates under the license of another company, Di Profio Wines in Jordan Station, Ontario. Both brands are run independently, however, and Byfield does source his own grapes. While studying music and playing in a Jazz band at York University, a summer job at a home-winemaking outfit shifted Byfield’s focus from groove to grape. “Bitten by the wine bug” as he put it, he worked at a string of wineries for eight years, amassing a wealth of knowledge which, coupled with time spent in agriculture school studying chemistry and microbiology, culminated in the launching of Nyarai with his business partner Rod Ingram in 2009. The label produces three wines using a minimalistic approach (“simple is perfect” summarizes the brands ethos): Folklore, a “Spumante-inspired” sparkling white that is an aromatic blend of l’acadie blanc, chardonnay, muscat ottonel, sauvignon blanc, and a “splash” of gewurztraminer; Field Blender’s White, a blend of vidal blanc with viognier, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay musque; and Cadence, a red blending of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and malbec.
Il Palazzone, Tuscany, Italy
“We drink all we can and then sell the rest,” is reported to be the jovial motto of Brooklyn-born, New Yorker Richard Parsons. Parsons is the owner of Il Palazzone, a boutique, environmentally conscious producer of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG in the Tuscan terroir of Montalcino. The winery, which boasts the practice of agricoltura responsabile (responsible architecture) and “prides [itself] on making hand-crafted wines that are an authentic expression of vintage,” released its inaugural vintage in 1990. Parsons, armed with a Juris Doctor degree from Union University’s Albany School of Law, began his career as a lawyer on the staff of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. It is Rockefeller he credits with inducting him into the realm of wine. The former Time-Warner CEO and economic advisor to Barack Obama suffered a coup de foudre for the verdant hills of Toscana and purchased a 20-acre vineyard there in 2000. Though the estate is managed by Laura Gray and consulting winemaker Maurizio Castelli, Parsons is, quite literally, hands on when he visits biannually: “yeah, we go into the fields and pick grapes." Il Palazzone produces some 18,000 cases of vino a year and counts Quincy Jones and Bono amongst their loyalists. Besides their Brunello (made from the sangiovese grape)— “the best of the Italian reds” as Parsons deems the varietal, with Gray describing the 2010 vintage as “the vintage of the millennium in Montalcino” —Il Palazzone also produces two other wines: Rosso del Palazzone (which Parsons describes as a “baby Brunello”) and Lorenzo & Isabel IGT (a “Super Tuscan” named for his late parents).