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.