Meet the Black Women Transforming Wine Culture in the U.S.

ZORA


For centuries, wine has been a coveted beverage that many have often found enamoring and mysterious. With unique wine regions in parts of Australia, the United States, and South Africa and grape varietals from chardonnay to pinot gris to Bordeaux, there is something special for every palate. Today, wine has become more than just an alcoholic beverage enjoyed with a great piece of steak or a delicious charcuterie board; it has grown to become a cultural experience. The Silicon Valley Bank’s 2019 State of the Wine Industry Report cites the United States as “the largest wine consuming country in the world,” with sales growth projected between 4% and 8% this year alone.

Like many industries, the wine industry in the United States is primarily White and male dominated. According to the Wine Institute, there are 3,900 bonded wineries in California, many of them family owned and multigenerational vineyards. Over the past 25 years, however, vineyards like Brown EstateTheopolisAbbey CreekRideau, and others have become staple names in the Black wine community and are providing wine drinkers at all levels the chance to experience the sights and sounds of a lifestyle that was once unfathomable to us.

Today, Black women like Krista Scruggs and Theodora Lee are not only creating their own vintages, communities, and experiences but also tending to the very land that grows cabernet franc, merlot, and sauvignon blanc grapes and turns them into succulent bottles of wine. There is even an Association for African American Vintners, a membership-based nonprofit organization established in 2002 that aims to “increase the quality of wine communications to all with special emphasis on African Americans.”

Dawna Darjean Jones, the owner and first-generation winemaker of Darjean Jones Wines, made her first vintage of merlot in 2010. Though based in Houston, Texas, she has built relationships with vineyard owners in California’s coveted Napa Valley and Sonoma County to source grapes for her artisanal wines, which means her wines are crafted one barrel at a time rather than in a mass-production process. The choice to harvest grapes in Napa stems from her doctoral studies of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. Over the course of her five-year program, Jones visited and researched close to 20 vineyards in Napa Valley, Sonoma, Temecula, and Davis, getting to know the region’s grape varietals very well.

Viticulture, the cultivation and harvesting of grapes, is a rare skill. It’s a multistep process that requires a love for science, great patience, extreme attention to detail, and hard work when harvest time rolls around.

“The love and attention that goes into each barrel is what makes it different,” Jones says. “You taste each barrel individually and collectively and then see what changes need to be made.” And while Jones doesn’t own her own vineyard, she sources from vineyards she trusts and knows exactly which row and which vine her grapes grow on.

“The fermentation is the initial magic — the first step in the process of winemaking,” Jones says. “I love the smell of the process, because it’s almost as if you can visualize every step it takes to make a great bottle of wine.”

When Jones discovered she wanted to move from the study of wine grapes to winemaking, she was inspired by another Black woman and fellow Louisiana native, Iris Rideau, to take the leap. Rideau was the first Black woman to own and operate a winery in the United States. She sold her vineyard in 2016, but it still carries her name in Santa Barbara County.

“Rideau went from business to wine; I can go from science to wine,” Jones thought. “Making the wine is a piece of cake, but the business and marketing part has definitely been a challenge.”

Viticulture, the cultivation and harvesting of grapes, is a rare skill. It’s a multistep process that requires a love for science, great patience, extreme attention to detail, and hard work when harvest time rolls around.

For Brenae Royal, vineyard manager at E&J Gallo, her degree in crops and horticulture from California State University, Chico, made it easy to start working in viticulture because she had a basic understanding of plants, water and resource management, and general agriculture, but it was her self-confidence in her ability to be successful in the wine industry that presented challenges early on her career. “Here I was, this green farmer coming onto the well-renowned Monte Rosso Vineyard, and I had to learn certain farming practices that helped craft the unique wine style at twice the speed of my colleagues, who at least studied viticulture and enology in college,” Royal recalls. “I realized a couple years later that [E&J] Gallo wouldn’t have hired me if they didn’t think I was the best person for the job, so if they could see that, then I needed to recognize and own my abilities and my successes of doing my job well.”

Now almost seven years in the game, Royal is responsible for managing the 575-acre vineyard in Sonoma County that has vines as young as four months and as old as 130 years — a job she doesn’t take lightly. “As my career progresses, being a steward of the land means leaving the vineyard better than it was when I got there,” Royal says. “As we get smarter about our agriculture practices and continue to manage limited natural resources, I want to make sure that the soil we are working on will always be viable.” Royal believes you don’t make good wine from bad grapes, so she takes pride when the final product is successful and consumers love it.

Dawna Darjean Jones, the owner and first-generation winemaker of Darjean Jones Wines. Courtesy of Darjean Jones Wines

Like Royal, Jones believes in being close to her winemaking process, so much so that she has hand-numbered every bottle of cabernet franc since the 2013 vintage. “Writing on each of the bottles not only adds a personal touch,” she says, “but gives me the feeling that I am putting my final seal of approval on the vintage.”

As Black women continue to stake their claim in the wine industry, there is a huge opportunity for wineries across the country to tap into both the influence of Black women and our incredible buying power through curated experiences, products, and services. More important, our impact will cause a shift in the status quo and present opportunities for more of us to be seen and our stories to be told.

“When you recognize your ability to be successful,” Royal says, “that’s when you’ll inspire that young Black girl watching to have the confidence to do whatever it is that she wants to do.”

WRITTEN BY

Chasity S. Cooper

journalist. wine enthusiast. chicagoan.