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African American vintners hopeful over future after Black Lives Matter movement

The Black Lives Matter movement to spur change for racial progress has cast a spotlight on many sectors of the American economy. In the overwhelmingly white wine industry, it has illuminated some notable advancements — along with a realization that much more can be done to advance African American professionals and promote Black-owned wineries.

There have been a number of noteworthy moves: Carlton McCoy this February was appointed chief executive officer at the fabled Heitz Cellar in the Napa Valley, making the 35-year-old master sommelier a rare Black head of a North Coast winery that his family does not own. E. & J. Gallo Winery, the largest U.S. wine company, posted a potent social statement that read: “We are angry at the unjust killings and racial inequality that Black men and women endure.” It also went to great lengths to promote its Black employees, notably Brenae Royal, vineyard manager for Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma County.

The rapid change was readily apparent at Tympany Vineyards in Healdsburg. The winery, which makes 100 cases annually, attracted new interest in 2020, including an invitation to participate in a San Francisco Wine School virtual event with other Black-owned wineries this summer. “Absent Black Lives Matter … I doubt that would have occurred,” said co-owner Louis Jordan, who produced his first vintage in 2007 with grapes from his estate property.

The big question now: Will the recent publicity and awareness carry over to systemic change within the typically conservative wine sector?

“It's really important that it's not just lip service,” said Monique Bell, a marketing professor at Fresno State University who is working on research about Black people within the U.S. wine industry. The topic has been rarely studied, as less than 1% of U.S. wineries are owned by African Americans.

Within the North Coast, the nation’s premier wine region, there is a noticeable lack of Black people at wine events and conferences. Some with the highest profiles are entrepreneurs who have parlayed success in another career into a wine venture. Jordan worked in finance management positions at Nike and Gap. Ernest Bates, an esteemed neurosurgeon, established Black Coyote Winery in Napa Valley. The Sterling family started with a farming background and grew Esterlina Vineyards and Winery with siblings who had careers in the law and medicine.

In 2002, a few local vintners such as Bates and Vance Sharp of Sharp Cellars formed the Association of African American Vintners to help promote their brands and encourage growth of Black professionals in the sector. It now has 60 members.

Mac McDonald, owner of Vision Cellars in Windsor, also helped form the group. He worked his way up in the business, starting under Charlie Wagner, founder of Caymus Vineyards, then used that winery experience to launch his own label. His first vintage was the 1997 harvest.

“It takes a lot of money to get going in the wine business,” McDonald said. “A lot of these African American (entrepreneurs) don’t have the bags of money.”

The recent social movement is also resulting in changes at large companies in the wine industry, where the top three companies account for about half of overall U.S. wine sales amid continuing consolidation. Those also are the companies that have the financial resources, scale and geographical spread to recruit more Black employees into the field.

Some were quick to put out statements of support after the death of George Floyd. Others are working to diversify their workforces and support Black employees. Gallo, for example, has an African American employee resource group, which holds an annual multiday summit. This year it was held virtually. Jackson Family Wines, the largest wine company headquartered in Sonoma County with 1,700 employees globally, has established a diversity task force to find ways to hire more African Americans, said Rick Tigner, chief executive officer.

Tigner said he plans to follow a path the company created to increase the role of other underrepresented groups. It began with the hiring and promotion of women at the family-owned company and then expanded its focus to Latinos. Today, more than 40% of senior management at the company are women, he said.

“My whole opinion has been that we've got to do a better job of recruiting, bringing Black candidates not only into our company but also into our community,“ Tigner said.

Sonoma County has a Black population of about 2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, Blacks account for 13.4% of the U.S. population and make up an estimated 11% of American wine drinkers in the United States, according to the Wine Market Council.

Expanding college recruitment beyond California is one key area, Tigner noted. Colleges and universities also have a role to play in specialized fields such as viticulture and enology. “They're going to have to do a better job of recruiting and training and bringing people into that curriculum,” Tigner said.

There has been a realization at UC Davis — the nation’s preeminent viticulture and enology school — that it must do a better job of attracting Black students. Over the last decade, the department has gone from about 10% of students who come from underrepresented backgrounds to now about one-third, said Karen Block, director of industry relations with the department.

“We are very proud of these advances and our program has benefited from having these great students. On the other hand, our population of Black students has remained low, fluctuating between 1% and 2%,” Block said an email.

The university is now ramping up efforts, especially on scholarships for Black students in the program. “We are now working with several organizations to increase recruitment and retention of a more diverse population, as the first step is to get a diverse group of students interested in a career in the wine industry, when they may not have been exposed to careers in agriculture through their families and peer groups,” Block added.

While much of the focus in the sector is thrust upon winemakers and vineyard managers, the reality is that wineries need personnel in other disciplines such as finance, marketing, information technology and sales to be successful. And the multitude of those positions offer up many more opportunities for Black professionals, such as people like Isaiah Fitzgerald-Palacio.

Fitzgerald-Palacio, 32, grew up outside Atlanta and studied accounting in college, then ended up working for the National Park Service. He later switched careers and started working in small wineries in Sonoma County while also obtaining his master’s degree in wine business administration at Sonoma State University. He now works as a senior accountant at the Allen Wine Group in Santa Rosa but dreams of starting his own wine label.

“You don't have to come from winemaking/viticulture or any of those other avenues. In fact, you can come from a business background if you're interested in starting a wine business. The segue may not be directly going to winery but it may be a marketing company or a wine accounting firm. There are a lot of different avenues that potentially could be really helpful,” he said.

His hopefulness stands out even amid obstacles, most notably financing for projects.

The Sterling family borrowed money from Bank of the West to expand Esterlina, then lost the winery in bankruptcy proceedings in 2016. The family accused their lender of discriminatory lending in a court case that still has not been fully resolved.

Despite the loss of their winery, co-owner Stephen Sterling said the family was welcomed by the local wine community as they built their business in Sonoma County. He singled out people such as Rob Davis, the former winemaker at Jordan Winery, and the Bacigalupi family, which owns some of the most coveted vineyards in the Russian River Valley, as particularly helpful. The Sterling family’s problem was on the bank side, never with fellow vintners and growers, he said.

“As they saw that we were one of the few wine families that did not look like theirs, that was insignificant to them. They just saw us as another family that wanted to make wine and enjoy the wine industry,” Sterling said.

The new focus also allowed Jordan to consider ways he can help younger Black winemakers. Tympany is a labor of love with his wife, Lynda, but he has given more thought to providing seed money to other Black winemakers who want to start their own label.

“We have some flexibility to do some things financially if we choose,” said Jordan. “These are excellent winemakers. They just don’t have the financial support to run their own label.”

The potential options range from partnering or purchasing small labels, Jordan said. The Black Lives Matter movement has created more possibilities of consumer awareness that were not present a few years ago. For example, he would like to see retail shops with a section for wines from Black-owned wineries, just like they do for different varietals and wine regions.

“There’s a lot more left to do in this area. I truly believe we’ve only started,” Jordan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell

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