California’s Black Winemakers Navigate the Barriers of a Lily-White Industry

The George Floyd protests catalyzed a racial reckoning in the state’s vineyards.

Ray SmithCourtesy of Ray Smith

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In June, Simonne Mitchelson, a winemaker in Los Olivos, California, had an idea: a scholarship fund to attract Black talent into the world of wine, where non-white managers and business owners are anomalous. Most visitors to the wine region that stretches across the state’s Central Coast notice its natural beauty, characterized by lattices of grape vines cover hilly, green terrain like the grid of blueprint paper, buttressed by a Mediterranean-like coastline. What for some might be less apparent is the racial monotony of the region’s leadership and landowners. For Mitchelson, who is Black, it’s been a challenge to assimilate. “When I bring up that diversity is an issue—and that it’s isolating, people have gotten very defensive,” she said. “From those interactions, I feel like I’ve had to make myself more palatable and not bring it up. I feel like I’m walking on egg shells.”

Nearby Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo has a single Black undergraduate in its nearly 300-member wine and viticulture program. Finding support for her idea wasn’t difficult. Several wineries quickly lined up, expressing interest.* She reached out to some “big voices in this community,”—a vineyard owner and a winemaker—to sell them on the idea. Mitchelson’s appeal was met with enthusiasm, and bewilderment. “I had no idea this was going on,” Mitchelson remembers one potential donor texting her. The winery owner said she came from an “older generation,” for whom the issue is less acute, and that she personally shouldn’t be blamed for the industry’s lack of diversity. Mitchelson understood that while this was not the intention of the industry, it was now their responsibility.

In the mostly white world of wine, conversations on race have largely stayed off the agenda—until now: In the two months since the June George Floyd protests, some Black winemakers have called out the racism in their industry. Everybody has the same problems,” said Dan Johnson, a Black Napa Valley vineyard owner and lawyer practicing antitrust and trade lawyer in San Francisco. “But the problem with racism? Add another 30-pound bag, at least. Instead of carrying three, I have to carry four.”

Dan Johnson of Okapi Wines at a tasting event.
Courtesy of Dan and Kim Johnson

The last 50 years have seen a vast expansion of the wine industry at breakneck speed, leading to jumps in wine country property values and market saturation. Today, wine is a $62 billion industry in the United States; in California, it makes up an entire percent of the $3.2 trillion economy. Napa and Sonoma counties, seen as backwaters of the wine world until the mid-1970s, have become some of the foremost production regions on earth. But not everyone has profited in these boom times. “Most minorities don’t own the dirt,” Johnson says. In fact, those jumps in costs make entry into the sector even more cost-prohibitive. “You understand, this is some of the most expensive soil in the world.”

Wine has always been a risky economic endeavor. Johnson, who owns a three-acre plot of land in Napa, waited three years for a commercial yield of cabernet sauvignon grapes from the vines he put down. Another two years went by before the grapes reached a bottle, and at least another year for the wine to age before it’s sold. “Imagine, you’re out seven years before you’re selling anything,” he said. “That’s the financial reality.” According to James Lapsley, a retired UC Davis wine historian, that seven-year startup period can create a financial barrier that disproportionately affects Black communities. If Black Americans have less access to capital than do whites, either in the form of family wealth or access to banks,” he wrote in an email, “then we would expect [there] would be fewer owners relative to their [population] proportion in America.” 

Listen to Black wine expert Stephen Satterfield on the Mother Jones food politics podcast, Bite:

In California, wine is an industry emblazoned with family names: Mondavi, Gallo, Rossi. Myles Adams, the one Black wine and viticulture student at Cal Poly, says, “I have classmates who are son of who and so and so, daughter of so and so.” Conversely, Black students in those same programs are rare. Even UC Davis, the most diverse of the schools offering notable wine programs, is only 4 percent African American. Those universities host a greater share of Latinx students. Not to mention, the workers maintaining California’s vineyards are overwhelmingly brown. Yet, they too are often blocked out from esteemed titles in the power structure—the higher up the industry ladder, the more white-dominated the surroundings.

The whiteness of these programs is not surprising when you consider the racially biased history of wine advertising. Wine is seen as a luxury product, which means the primary focus for marketers are the white and wealthy. “It’s something thats kind of hammered into the Black community,” Mitchelson says. “That luxury does not belong to you.”

Phil Long
Ron Essex

“I think the challenge was, for me, breaking into an industry that has heritage, that has history, that has establishments, that I’ve never been a part of,” Phil Long, head of the African American Vintners Association (AAAV), told me. That said, Long acknowledges that it was the mentorship of that unfamiliar world’s inhabitants that brought him into its fold. In 2008, when he and his wife opened Longevity Wines in the Livermore Valley, east of the Bay Area, he says, “they didn’t care if I was Black or white or green, and that was great for me.”

Even if in a trickle, the last two decades have brought Black winemakers and owners to greater prominence than in the past. In 2002, the AAAV was established to bring visibility to Black industry members. According to Long, its president, the organization now has about 40 members, including 12 wineries. Notable are the proliferation of Black-owned wine distributors and stores in the Bay Area. Across the continental US, there are events that celebrate Blackness in the wine world. During a tasting she hosted a few years ago in Detroit, Victoria Coleman, a Napa-based winemaker, remembers being shocked by the turn out from the community, challenging her own notions of who’s interested in wine, once offered a chance to be.

But back in west coast wine country, the margins of representation are still small. Shae Frichette, a Black winemaker and part-owner of Frichette Winery in Washington’s Red Mountain AVA, remembers a conversation two years ago when she learned she was the only Black female winemaker and owner in the state. She remembers thinking, “I don’t want to be the only one. I don’t. It would be very sad if in the next five years that’s still the case.” But, she told me in a line that ended with a laugh, “It has just come to my attention that there’s another Black female winemaker in the state!”

Shae Frichette
Gary Paulson

Six hundred miles south, in Napa Valley, a greater interest in wine by minority communities is starting to take root. Victoria Coleman arrived in the valley in the mid-2000s to work a temp job, before serendipitously falling into a vineyard gig at Stag’s Leap, the legendary winery whose 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won first place in the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine competition blind taste test, effectively carving out a place for California vintages amongst serious wine drinkers.

Without much prior wine knowledge, she was suddenly exposed to numerous high end vintages. Then, there were no Black people in town, “maybe just a couple.” Now, more than a decade later and making wine for another vintner, Coleman plays a game. “When I’m downtown,” she told me, “I just start counting how many [Black people] I see in a day. And I always include myself. In two blocks, I’ve counted 15 of us.” Coleman chalks up those numbers, from none to a few, to a lack of exposure to wine for Black communities. Part of her personal mission has been to help expose friends and family to the world she’s grown to revere. She remembers bringing home a bottle of white Burgandy for her father to try, one trip home. “His eyes lit up, and almost popped out of his head,” she said. “We were like, ‘This is you, this is your jam.'”

But for vineyard owners, solvency isn’t putting bottles into the hands of family members, it’s getting your vintage into the grocery cart of strangers hundreds of miles away. And for Johnson, whose brand, Okapi Wines, produces 300 cases annually, the game of marketing in a wine industry as a Black-owned business becomes a fraught enterprise. “There are people out there who don’t wanna work with you,” he says. “You don’t wanna buy wine cause of who we are? That’s fine. But we make premium wine, and it’s Napa Valley cab, and it doesn’t get better than that. I did this because I liked it, and I hope you liked it too.”

Some winemakers I talked to told me that confidence in their product wasn’t enough to transcend racial barriers. Ray Smith’s relationship with wine goes back to 1989, when he began a 20-year career in bottling and barrel-making, working with wineries across the state of California. A decade ago, he began working with a longtime vineyard owner in Carmel Valley, and Smith eventually acquired some land and vines when he retired, which would become Indigené Cellars. Before long, he sought to expand his operation with a tasting room—but he repeatedly ran into the same problem. “After many times, every time a place became open, I applied,” he says. “I never got an okay to get a tasting room in Carmel Valley.” Even after a friend of Smith’s with a tasting room promised to pass his space over to Indigené, the application was denied. “They wouldn’t let him,” he told me. Smith suspects bad faith by a local business owner who leased the area’s tasting rooms to nearby wineries. “After that, I never questioned it anymore,” he said. Instead, Smith found a tasting room in Paso Robles, more than 100 miles south.

Mitchelson, the winemaker in Los Olivos, says that over the course of her career, patrons have often been surprised by her knowledge of wine. “There’s a lot of emotional labor attached with trying to learn your craft, and to be a part of this culture, when people are bombarding you with, ‘You don’t look like you belong,’ or, ‘How do you know that?’ and constantly questioning your intelligence,” she says. Earlier in her career, when she lived in Sonoma, someone asked her if there were so few Black people in wine because it reminds them of cotton fields. “She looked me in my eyes and said that,” Mitchelson said.

Since the George Floyd protests catalyzed a movement for racial justice across the country, the Black wine industry has greater visibility than ever: In June, Julia Coney, a Black wine critic and writer, created a database called Black Wine Professionals, which contains just that. “People don’t have the option to say they don’t know a black person in wine,” says Mitchelson. According to Long, the AAAV president, some wineries have begun sending portions of wine sales to the organization, which saw a “350 percent jump in donations” over 2019, the majority in June and July alone. Since 2019, the AAAV, in concert with Urban Connoisseurs, another organization that focuses on Black wine professionals, has offered a scholarship to Black college students pursuing a degree in viticulture or enology. Coleman, like Mitchelson, is also working to establish a scholarship program.

Some in the wine industry worry that the symbols and expressions of support could dissolve into nothing more than virtue signals. “You have six people on the panel and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, great, we have a bunch of white men and one white female and we’ve checked the box of diversity,'” Frichette says. “I don’t want the industry to just jump on a bandwagon to make themselves feel good.” Changing cultural norms in wine country will be hard, too: On July 6, at a local tea party meeting, the San Luis Obispo County sheriff described Black Lives Matter protests as having “no purpose, other than destruction.”

Yet Black winemakers told me that for them, the struggle is worth it. “I really believe in wine,” Mitchelson said over the phone one morning. “It opened up a completely new world to me. And I know that I won’t leave it. I know that this industry has a lot of power and I want that power to be accessed by people who don’t think this industry is for them.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the status of fundraising efforts.

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Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

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Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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