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Association of African American Vintners honors three trailblazers

Three Black women were honored earlier this month by the Association of African American Vintners for their contributions to promoting diversity and equal opportunity in the wine industry.

Monique Bell was selected for her contributions in education, while Theodora Lee of Theopolis Vineyards and Fern Stroud, founder of the Black Vines wine festival, were also recognized.

Dorothy Gaiter, who broke ground as a former wine columnist with the Wall Street Journal, presented the awards at Santa Rosa’s DeLoach Vineyards May 21 at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the association.

Gaiter, now the senior editor of the Grape Collective, said the bold moves of the three women will inspire next generation.

“We recognize that we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants,” she said of contributions from past leaders in the industry.

Bell is a professor of marketing at California State University Fresno. Her studies on diversity and inclusion in the wine industry include “Terroir Noir: 2020 Study of Black Wine Entrepreneurs.”

Bell said being a woman of color had both advantages and disadvantages for her research on diversity in the industry.

“I think that the wine entrepreneurs who I surveyed and interviewed were comforted that I shared their cultural background and many of the experiences that they had,” she said. “Overall, though, in academia and in business, it can be challenging to be a woman of color because many people have implicit and explicit biases about your knowledge and competence. This may cause you to have impostor syndrome and doubt yourself.”

The Association of African American Vintners, Bell said, has been invaluable to her.

“Members supported me every step of the way with my research,” she said. “They shared their personal stories and connected me with so many others who shared their stories. The membership is incredibly talented, kind and resilient and inspires me to continue on.”

Lee was recognized for her legacy in the wine industry. She is the first Black woman vineyard owner in Northern California. The San Francisco law firm senior partner and trial lawyer also founded and owns Yorkville’s Theopolis Vineyards.

Lee said being a Black woman in the wine industry has had its challenges.

“As a Black woman vineyard owner and wine producer, I face a double-edged sword,” she said. “I not only face the problem of systemic racism but the belittling fist that sexism and misogyny have wrapped around my throat. So, I really don’t know if my challenges in this industry are based on sexism or racism.”

As a Black winery owner, Lee said, many don’t take her seriously.

“Many are surprised to learn that I actually own my vineyard,” she said. “Another struggle has been finding distributors and brokers to get my wines in high-end restaurants and wine bars. Despite a string of gold medals and 90-plus point wines, I still have distributors and brokers question the marketability of my brand.”

In 2004, the year after Lee planted her vineyard, she joined the association and served as its secretary until 2020.

“Back in the early 2000s, the organization was focused on helping members sell wine and educate the public of our existence,” Lee said. “For me, Mac McDonald, one of the founders of (Association of African American Vintners), served as a mentor and someone I could talk to about the challenges of the business.”

The association serves as a “tremendous resource” for its members to network and develop business contacts, Lee said. The anniversary celebration, she added, was an opportunity for its members to network and develop business contacts — sommeliers, distributors and retailers.

Stroud is the founder of Black Vines, the longest-standing wine festival in the U.S. featuring Black-owned wineries. She created Black Vines, held in Berkeley, as a showcase for winemakers and an opportunity for visitors — new and veteran wine tasters — to celebrate Black culture.

“We feel so strongly about what we do,” Stroud said. “What we do is not transactional. It’s relationship building and it’s so important. It’s about community and pushing Black people to the next level.”

Stroud, Lee and Bell said they’re savoring the association’s milestone, noting there are now more than 200 members after starting with just a trickle of wineries. They take pride in how the association has changed its membership in recent years, too.

Initially created for Black vintners, the association decided in 2019 that wineries don’t need to be owned by people of color to become members, as long as they support diversity and inclusion. Today 15% of the association’s members are not people of color.

Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and the outrage over the murder of George Floyd in 2020, more people have been inquiring about memberships and donating to the association’s scholarship fund, said Lou Garcia, vice president and treasurer of Association of African American Vintners. Non-Black members, he noted, said they want to hear from Black winemakers directly about the issues they face so they can help create opportunities for them in the wine industry.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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