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To get a sense of the past challenges in marketing wine to the African-American community, vintner Stephen Sterling keeps a bottle of wine from years ago.

The bottle from a 2005 vintage is not from his winery, but from a now-defunct brand put out once by a major winery. He said he was tipped off about it by a marketing consultant who was asked to find out how well it would sell in the East Bay.

Sterling said he was floored by what he saw: a label with monkeys on it and whose name when translated referred to primates.

“Why hasn’t wine taken off in the African-American and Latino communities?” Sterling asked. “Attempts like this.”

Sterling’s frustration is compounded by the potential that black wine drinkers represent and how lucrative an untapped market they are.

Sterling knows a lot about the subject. He is vice president of sales and marketing of his family’s Esterlina Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg and part of the prominent black winemaking family in Sonoma County. The Sterlings are noted for their Everett Ridge Winery in the hills above Healdsburg’s West Dry Creek Road; their wines have won medals at prestigious wine competitions and have been served at the White House.

“It’s a slower rate of adoption and it’s going to come,” said Sterling, citing various studies done by research entities like UC Davis and Nielsen that show a more multicultural wine market. “That shows that there is this pent-up aspiration.”

The data support his observation.

The black population in the United States is 13 percent, yet from 2000 to 2014 that demographic grew 35 percent faster than the total population. And the African-American population skews younger than other racial groups at a median age of 31.4 years in 2014. Their household income also is on the rise, compared to non-Hispanic whites.

African-Americans account for about 11 percent of the adult population (those 21 years and older) and they are a similar 11 percent of national wine consumption numbers, according to Danny Brager, senior vice president of the beverage alcohol unit at Nielsen.

Their consumption is a little underrepresented in table wines — especially in imported table wines, where they account for only 7 percent. However, they are significant consumers of sparkling wine at 19 percent, Brager noted in an email. The major challenge for wineries is to take those wine drinkers and turn them into wine lovers.

Only 6 percent of all high-frequency wine drinkers are African-American, according to John Gillespie, founder and chief executive officer of Wine Opinions, a research group for the industry.

This is the group of approximately 35 million wine drinkers, out of about 100 million wine drinkers, who drink wine either several times a week or daily, and they account for more than 85 percent of all wine purchases, Gillespie said. That makes them the most coveted by vintners.

Beyond the statistics, some African-American vintners said they see much potential even though their numbers are small. Sterling estimates there are about 100 minority vintners nationwide out of more than 10,000 wineries licensed with the federal government. The vast majority of the wine industry is controlled by the top 10 companies.

The wine industry has typically lagged behind the spirits and beer industry in outreach, Sterling and other black vintners noted. Examples such as Hennessey cognac or Coors beer, promoted by actor Jamie Foxx’s commercial campaign, have paid dividends for those brands. The only recent wine example has been Myx Fusions, a fruit-infused moscato from a company co-owned by rapper Nicki Minaj.

But there are signs that the tide is turning. It’s in the voice of Theodora Lee, a black San Francisco lawyer and vintner who owns Theopolis Vineyards in Yorkville. “The market is exceptional,” said Lee, who made about 800 cases last year and specializes in petite sirah and a wine made from the rare symphony grape. “The African-American community has totally embraced Theopolis Vineyards.”

Lee participated in the Oakland Wine Festival last year that drew about 500 people and had participation from notable wineries such as Rombauer Vineyards and Chappellet Winery, both in St. Helena, which signaled to her that wine companies are paying attention to black wine drinkers.

“Black folks have a sense of pride, especially when they can buy from their own,” Lee said. She noted that she has traveled to cities such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Houston and has seen crowds of African-Americans turn out for such events.

It can be seen locally. Last week at San Francisco’s 1300 Fillmore restaurant, more than a dozen black-owned wineries were represented at an event called “Sips with Soul.” Brown Estate Vineyards and Black Coyote Chateau, both in Napa, were there, as was vintner Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars in Windsor.

“You have to get someone from these wineries and it’s not going to happen overnight,” said McDonald, whose average production is about 4,000 cases annually and whose highly regarded pinot noir sells for as much as $122 a bottle.

McDonald did mention that E & J Gallo Winery, the nation’s largest vintner that sold 75 million cases in 2015, has made significant outreach efforts in recent years into the black community, much more than other large vintners.

The barriers into the wine industry are significant as the old axiom about the business — “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large one” — is largely true. Most high-profile examples of African-Americans entering the industry have come from other areas, notably sports, such as former Oakland Raider Charles Woodson with his Twenty Four Wines and Dusty Baker, manager of the Washington Nationals, with his Baker Family Wines in San Francisco.

There is some recognition that greater diversity is an imperative. UC Davis has the most highly regarded viticulture and enology program in the country, yet its department chair David Block said in a statement that the number of African-American students who have come through the program is very small. The lack of black students comes as Asian and Asian-American students have been growing significantly over the past five years. For the past two years, the department has been fundraising for a program called “Broadening Horizons,” with the goal to increase its student enrollment of traditionally underrepresented groups.

Change will ultimately come with more diversity in the management ranks, said Sterling, who also serves on the board of directors at Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute.

“They are not represented in terms of ownership and they are not represented in terms of management at the big companies,” he said.

Last year, in an incident that went viral on social media, a group of African-American women were kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train for allegedly being too loud. The women have filed a discrimination lawsuit. But vintners interviewed said that incident has not been an obstacle to their business. Sterling’s winery has had several black groups come up to visit in the aftermath, with those customers specifically searching for African-American wineries.

Instead of the continual focus over exporting wine into China, McDonald said vintners should be asking themselves: “How do we get wine into east Oakland?”

Wine education will be the main ingredient, vintners said, so more African-Americans will know the difference between a pinot noir and pinot gris and how the soil and terrain can affect the taste of the wine. Lee noted that many blacks have a palette accustomed to sweeter wines.

“The biggest challenge is to introduce and educate people about wines besides sweet wines,” she said.

Ultimately, the key will come with the pairing of food and wine, highlighting cuisine that goes well with wine, vintners said. Such pairings have been successful in the Latino winemaking community to grow wine knowledge and sales.

“In the African American community, people aren’t used to the food and wine pairing in general,” Sterling said. Most have highlighted zinfandel because it pairs well with grilled foods, he said.

McDonald, for instance, has an annual greens cook-off that he pairs with wine.

The economic benefits can be seen even away from the North Coast. Tuanni Price, whose Zuri Wine Tasting in Los Angeles has run a tour in Napa and Sonoma counties with a stop at Vision Cellars. Her business specializes in minority outreach. Price started her company as a second job in 2010 because she was embarrassed she couldn’t tell the difference among varietals when she ate at high-end restaurants. She is now studying for a level-one sommelier certification as her business continues to grow.

Price has seen change in the industry. She would attend certain wine events a few years ago and she would be only one of six African-Americans in attendance; now it can be up to 25.

“People want to drink more when they learn more,” Price said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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