The wine industry is a $34.6 billion-industry and more and more African-Americans are entering the business.
TNJ.com talked to three Black-owned wine companies.
Two sisters are behind eco.love. And while they didn’t grow up together, their love of wine united them. Andréa McBride was born in Los Angeles and raised in New Zealand, while Robin McBride was also born in L.A.
Andréa learned the wine business from her uncle in Marlborough and it was while studying at the University of Southern California that she got the idea to go into the wine business. Robin loved the idea and decided to join her sister in the venture. Soon eco.love was born.
And now the sisters are on the verge of opening another winery.
TNJ.com: What led you to get involved in the industry?
Andréa: Coincidentally, we both grew up among vineyards which led each of us to develop our own appreciation for the craft of winemaking. Robin was raised in Monterey, California around coastal tide pools and forests, and I was raised in New Zealand where I learned the art of grape farming from my uncle in Marlborough.
Robin: While we do share the same father, we were both raised by our mothers on different continents. Because of this, Andrea and I both grew up thinking we were only children. It was our father’s final wish to find and connect his daughters. With the help of our aunt, we met for the first time in NYC in 1999 when I was 25 and Andrea was 16. Once we realized we both had a passion for wine, we started a wine import business. In November 2010, eco.love Wines, a craft wine company from New Zealand, was born. We grow and source the grapes from Marlborough in the Rapaura and Spring Creek regions, in addition to the Redwood Valley in Nelson. We make Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir. And soon we will be unveiling Truvée Wines made in the Central Coast of California. All of our wines are bottled with the McBride Sisters crest.
TNJ.com: What are some of your challenges?
R: I would name the biggest challenge being that men traditionally dominate the industry – both in the States and abroad. There are over 3,700 wineries in the state of California; however, only 10 percent of those wineries have a woman as either a winemaker or consultant.
A: We hope to bring a refreshing outlook to the industry by breaking the mold. We believe our story is a big part of that process, as well as each of our unique experiences growing up around vineyards. Robin and I hope our story resonates with women who are intrigued by aspirational and high-quality wines brands.
TNJ.com: What do you love about the business?
A: We are able to tell our story through our mutual love: wine. What could be better than that?
With my background in global business from USC and Robin’s expertise in import and exportation, we’re able to grow our business while delivering a great tasting wine. We are able to think differently about the wine industry and mold the wine to reflect our personal style. As the first African-American sisters to found a wine company, we have left our mark on the world, and there is no greater satisfaction.
TNJ.com: Please tell me more about the second winery.
R: My sister and I partnered with Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines to create elegant, finely balanced wines that express distinct individuality from select AVA’s in the Central Coast of California. Our new wine, Truvée, will launch in January 2015 with a lightly-oaked Chardonnay and a Grenache based Red Blend. The grapes sourced from the vineyards to produce Truvée were all located in the regions within the Monterey County, Edna Valley, San Benito and Paso Robles AVAs. The Truvée Red Blend is rich with dominant notes of blueberry, blackberry, caramel, cocoa and red cherry, creating a smooth and decadent flavor. While the Truvée Chardonnay exhibits a complex and lavish taste with hints of citrus, pear, honeysuckle, green apple and pineapple integrated into a clean, crisp finish.
A: The name Truvée is derived from the French verb “to find,” and it is truly a reflection of our shared vision that grew out of our two individual stories. Truvée embodies the spirit of our story, while naturally reflecting our signature winemaking style. We are offering wine drinkers a high-quality wine that is approachable and sophisticated. With Truvée, we stylistically combine old world and new world winemaking philosophies to bring affordable luxury to contemporary wine drinkers. Robin and I are excited to share our story and these amazing wines with everyone. We hope wine lovers can discover connections and bond over a glass of wine just as we have.
For the Sterlings, wine is a family affair. The California-based family has been making wine generation after generation. What makes the family’s wine different is the process they use. They prefer the “small quantity, high quality” style of winemaking, and use fruit from premier appellations–appellations well-suited for growing the various wines we offer. As the website for Esterlina Vineyards & Winery explains: “Unique to Esterlina Vineyards is our 253-acre Cole Ranch appellation – the smallest appellation in America. There, we grow Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. Our vineyard is the sole vineyard in this unique appellation.”
TNJ.com: How did wine become the family business?
Stephen Sterling: My grandfather and his grandfather were home winemakers. When he moved to California with my
father in the ’40s, they kept the Creole food and family winemaking traditions. He was also a farmer. Although they migrated to a more urban setting in the Bay Area initially, they settled in the country and my father raised us primarily in rural settings. Growing up, we raised beef cattle along with row crops such as oats, alfalfa and corn. We got involved with wine after my brother, Eric, moved up to Sonoma County to start his emergency medicine practice after med school. My father thought it would be a good idea to get involved with grape growing since they were in a premium grape growing region and had a family history of winemaking and farming.
TNJ.com: What have been some obstacles?
SS: The biggest challenges for our business has been access to capital and distribution. Banks do not see very many multicultural families in farming. It is a complete paradigm shift for them. Regardless of our farming background and track record, banks have been as lenient with credit terms and lines of credit as they have been with other farmers in our areas of operation. Even when lending terms were looser than they are currently.
Distribution has also been a major challenge for us. Very few medium to large distributors have been willing to give our brands an opportunity to be discovered by mainstream wine consumers. They generally do not believe that people of color consume much wine. U.S. populations, demographics, and disposable income are noticeably shifting more wealth to multicultural families. The wine industry completely ignores this population.
TNJ.com: Has there been an increase in Black-owned wine companies?
SS: Actually there are very few Black-owned wine companies per capita. Of the nearly 8,000 wineries in the U.S., there are less than 80 that are owned by African American, Latino or Asian families. That is less than 1 percent, which does not come close to mirroring the proportion of those cultures in our society. If you take into account that over 50 percent of those 80 wineries produce less than 1,000 cases which is very little. There are about 25 “real” minority owned wineries. There less than a dozen nationwide that have tasting rooms!
TNJ.com: What do you love about winemaking?
SS: I enjoy working with my family. My parents are in their 70s and I think it is a blessing to be able to interact with them and my three brothers to execute a combined dream. One brother is a practicing physician, one is an attorney and has an MBA in small business, and one manages our vineyards. I have an MBA in marketing management and I am on the board of directors for Sonoma State University. I also teach a wine business course. As a family, we have a lot of solid background for running a wine business.
Mouton Noir is more than just wine. Founded by sommelier André Hueston Mack in 2007, Mouton Noir could be dubbed a wine lifestyle brand.
It is a brand that encompasses Oregon wine and an apparel line. “The wines are unique and distinctive garage wines, initially created for some of New York’s best restaurants for whom Mack was a sommelier. And now, it is available nationwide. Mouton Noir apparel is inspired by wine lifestyle/street culture of skateboarding, punk and hip-hop cultures,” explains the website.
Mack left a successful career with Citicorp Investment Services to pursue his passion for wine. And while working as a sommelier in San Antonio, Texas, Mack was awarded the prestigious title of Best Young Sommelier in America in 2003 by the highly regarded Chaine des Rotisseurs. Mack was the first African American to win the title.
Mack soon ventured into winemaking and created Mouton Noir Wines.
TNJ.com: Why the wine business?
André Hueston Mack: I originally started out as a waiter to put myself through college and afterward I did a brief stint in the world of finance and realized that that wasn’t my calling in life. So I went back to restaurants where I later trained to become a sommelier. Once I immersed myself in this culture, there was nothing else! I eat, sleep and sh** wine every single day! Wine became a prison and I’m serving a life sentence; I’m firmly institutionalized. I eventually found myself working for one of the best restaurants in the world, The French Laundry in Napa Valley. I later went on to move to New York to work for Chef Thomas Keller’s equally famous Per Se restaurant. But after five years of longing to be closer to wine and to be an entrepreneur, I left the restaurant business to start making my own wine.
TNJ.com: What have been some challenges you have had to overcome?
AHM: There are several challenges in this business and I think it really depends on what stage you are in. At the beginning, for us, raising money was huge. This is a capital-intensive business and you have to lay out a lot of cash before you can get started. This business is also highly competitive; there are lots of brands on the shelves which means lots of choices for consumers. I find that there’s no competition in making wine. All the competition is in selling it.
TNJ.com: Are you seeing more Black-owed wine companies?
AHM: Late last year, the United States had passed France as the largest consumer of wine, so wine-drinking in this country has continued to grow and blossom. It’s been really great to see other African-American wineries pop up as well. I don’t really have to look further than our own growth to see that things are changing. We watched our business grow over the last several years from 300 cases to upwards of 25,000 cases, which I believe puts us as the largest African-American owned winery. There is a fair amount of us out there but we still represent less than 10 percent of the total of all the wineries in the United States.
TNJ.com: Why do you love the wine business?
AHM: This business is all about the amazing people who you get to meet and if you’re lucky you get to forge lifelong relationships with them. I must admit the travel is pretty great and you’re privy to some of the most amazing meals on the planet.
Bodkin Wines, Healdsburg, CA
Brown Estate, Napa, CA
Earl Stevens Selections, California (owned by rapper E-40)
eco.love Wines, San Francisco, CA
Esterlina Vineyards, Philo, CA
Everett Ridge Winery, Healdsburg, CA
Flo Brands, Silver Spring, MD (founded by jazz musician Marcus Johnson)
Heritage Link Brands, New York, NY
Indigenè Cellars, Paso Robles, CA
J Moss Wines, Napa, CA
L’Objet Noir, Healdsburg, CA
Longevity Wines, Livermore, CA
Marke Wines, Napa, CA
Mouton Noir, McMinnville, OR