Almost two years after a push for inclusivity and despite challenges, Black winemakers continue to emerge and thrive.
When a customer walks through the doors of Jenny Dawn Cellars, the first word they are likely to hear is “welcome.” The boutique urban winery and tasting room, housed in the historic Union Station in Wichita, Kansas, is committed to providing an inclusive space with congenial staff to all who enter. It’s the antithesis of what founder Jennifer McDonald experienced in her travels to wineries across the United States before becoming an industry professional.
“I am a well-dressed, well-spoken, educated Black woman. And when I walked through the doors of wineries, I wasn’t even greeted,” McDonald recalled. “I wasn’t even spoken to, said hello to, or made to feel welcome in their establishment as a paying customer.”
The slight was one of many reasons that propelled McDonald to create her own wine business and offer the kind of white-glove service all patrons should expect. Jenny Dawn Cellars has 14 handcrafted wines, all made and bottled onsite including a Union Station Chardonnay, Black Locomotive Crimson Cabernet, Red Caboose Dry Rosé, and Semi-Sweet White. Her wine and education class — cleverly dubbed winuecation — allows patrons to sample six global wines paired with three appetizers. “I always go out of my way to be very approachable and down to earth and make the experience fun,” said McDonald.
Winuecation has also been turned into a podcast that pulls back the curtains on the inner workings of Jenny Dawn Cellars and a cookbook. The woman who started making wine as a hobby in her basement — and after spending over a decade in corporate human resources — is now an award-winning winemaker.
In 2020, the traditionally exclusive wine industry came under scrutiny for its overwhelmingly white composition and elitist veneer which has largely made it inaccessible to underrepresented and marginalized groups. Online platform SevenFifty Daily, which reports on the business and culture of spirits, conducted a survey in 2019 that found out of approximately 3100 beverage alcohol professionals only 2 percent identified as Black or African compared to the 84 percent of respondents who were white.
“Money talks,” Carissa Stephens shared bluntly. “And honestly, if you have the capital, the savings, or the investment to really be an established brand in this industry, there are people that will work with you.“
Stephens, together with her husband Kenneth, is the owner of Pur Noire, the first and only Black-owned winery in Houston. The couple fell in love with wine in 2015 while on a trip to Italy. There, in the hilltop town of Todi, they discovered a world where fine wine is communal, relatively inexpensive, as well as accessible and sought to bring that access to a typically underserved demographic. Carissa, who made her career in oil and gas, and Kenneth, an attorney who manages a law firm, decided to invest in developing their own wine brand.
“We fell in love with the winemaking process and as business-oriented people were very intrigued by the business side of wine.”
The couple’s first vintage was a five varietal red blend as they aimed to create “art in a bottle.” A planned launch in March 2020 went virtual at the start of the pandemic but their entire inventory still sold out within 90 days. Pur Noire currently offers eight varietal types with a ninth coming down the pipeline in the first quarter of 2022.
“We’re constantly listening to our customers and deciding what wine we’d like to bring to market next,” said Stephens.
Boston native Abner Montfleury founded Montfleur Duvin in August 2020 to diversify the wine space after noticing “there weren’t many people who looked like me.” His first varietal was Yvonne, an aromatic white wine made with Gewürztraminer grapes honoring his grandmother and Haitian heritage. A red blend soon followed as an homage to Montfleury’s mother Carline. Montfleur Duvin is available in 20 locations and ships to over 40 states. The brand has enjoyed partnerships with the Haitian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and even their own ice-cream in a collaboration with The Charmery. But Montfleury is still trying to overcome what he calls the “gatekeeping mentality” inherent to the industry.
“We’re still lacking that representation in liquor stores,” he said. “You’ll go around and be like, ‘Hey, where are the Black-owned wines or spirits?’ and you won’t find those. So I’ll say just having more of a presence in stores and restaurants. And marketing. We still do not see us when they’re marketing our wine.”
McDonald echoed Montfleury’s visibility concerns but pointed to some of the strides are being made.
“Some of the key notable publications like Wine Enthusiast; they’ve really started to highlight, showcase and celebrate black professionals, whether they be sommeliers, winemakers, or winery owners,” she said. “They started to highlight what we are doing in the industry.”
Organizations amplifying underrepresented voices in the industry like Wine Unify and The Roots Fund also make resources and financial support available to minorities. Urban Connoisseurs continues to offer its Black Winemakers Scholarship Fund in partnership with the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV). The award supports the pursuit of a career in the wine industry with a Science degree in viticulture, enology, or another science-related field. Lift Collective teamed up with wine brand Avaline to provide budding entrepreneurs with eight Self-Made Scholarships to assist in the launch of their businesses. Established educational institution WSET is also re-evaluating its standards, Pinch Chinese wine director Miguel de Leon told Wine Enthusiast.
“I definitely think there’s constant change there,” said Montfleury about the current state of the industry. “There are a lot of companies, Black-owned companies, that are being manifested and that are coming about now.”
Here are a few Black-owned wineries to support right now:
Robin and Andréa McBride’s Black Girl Magic Wines — which includes California Riesling, Rosé, and Merlot — helped turn their company into the largest Black-owned wine brand in the United States.
Founded by negociant Chrishon Lampley in 2014, Love Cork Screw is a wine and lifestyle brand offering virtual tastings. Try their range of vegan wines including a smooth Sauvignon Blanc and medium-bodied Pinot Grigio.
Twin sisters Nichelle and Nicole Nichols traded in their day jobs to create a pipeline for both minorities and women in the wine industry. What started as a cocktail kit business is now a full-fledged lifestyle brand. Pre-order their Peach Mango Bubbly, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
Coviello Salinès used his biochemistry and petroleum engineering background to produce the world’s first natural blue wine. Amour Genève takes its name from the Swiss city of Geneva, a favorite of Coviello’s late father Freddie.
Kindra Harvey became the first Black female-owned wine label in Loudoun County, Virginia with the debut of her new wine label. Her collection includes Dulce Zaiya, a Chambourcin blend named after her daughter, Stride Pear Wine with notes of honey, vanilla, banana, and baking spices, a tropical-flavored Petit Manseng, and a Bordeaux-style wine with chocolate notes.
Vintner Kimberly Johnson and sommelier Denise Matthews opened Philosophy, Maryland’s first African American women-owned winery. Their portfolio includes a 2019 Cabernet Franc, 2020 Virtuous Viognier, and 2019 Reign Rosé. Johnson and Matthews have also created a mentorship program that will guide young women through the entire winemaking process.
The family brand was created in 2008 by Debra and Phil Long. The delicate heart logo is a play on the artisan glass heart Phil gifted his wife each Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, Debra passed away in 2019 with pancreatic cancer. But not before Longevity Wines was named Livermore Valley’s Winery of the Year.
This boutique, family-owned wine business only produces 1,100 cases of wine annually. But they are committed to using only the finest varietals from the best growers to produce their Zinfandel, Symphony, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. The company also collaborates with winemakers of award-winning wineries to expand their product offerings.