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Winter / Spring 2006
Napa Sonoma Magazine

Crafting a Wine Legacy

Some of today’s biggest wines are being made by one of the smallest group of vintners

By Jackie Krentzman

On a crystal-clear afternoon this past fall, a group of 80-odd people gathered in Glen Ellen to enjoy top-notch California wines and food. It seemed like any other Indian summer gathering in wine country, but this event was a bit different: The majority of the group was African American, and the food was decidedly southern. The occasion was the annual Association of African American Vintners wine tasting and greens cook-off.

In a region not known for its cultural diversity, this third annual event marked the continuing growth of African American winemakers. In a state of some 900 wineries, there are only a handful of black vintners; in the world, there may be as few as a dozen. And these vintners are making some of the best wines around. Along with the event host, Windsor’s Vision Cellars, these winemakers include Brown Family Vineyards (not a member of the association), Sharp Cellars in Sonoma, Esterlina Vineyards and Winery in Mendocino, and Black Coyote Chateau in Napa. 

The African American vintners association has two purposes: to promote African American vintners and to serve as a platform for educating African Americans about wine. According to research, African Americans drink less wine than other ethnic groups in the United States. “The association is the best thing to come along
in a long time, because it gets people to start drinking wine who have never drunk wine on a routine basis,” says Mac McDonald, one of the group’s founders, who travels throughout the country conducting wine tasting seminars for African Americans. “And it’s not just good for the African American vintners; it’s good for the whole wine industry.”

“Sometimes the wine industry forgets the ethnic markets,” says Jaimie Douglas, executive director of the Sonoma County Wineries Association. “We have been working with the Hispanic and Asian markets for a while, but for a long time the wine industry did not really look at all the diversity we have in United States, and we were not marketing to African Americans.”

Dr. Ernest Bates of Black Coyote thinks African Americans are underrepresented as wine drinkers not only because fine wine can be intimidating to anyone not familiar with its intricacies, but more important, because wine drinking is correlated with income, and historically, African Americans have had lower incomes. “But that’s changing,” he says. “When I was growing up [in upstate New York] my family drank a lot of wine. They would go to the supermarket and buy wine by the gallon. It’s not that there weren’t expensive wines out there, but we didn’t drink it because it was too expensive. But as disposable income goes up, people want better things.”

And those better things include the wines from Vision Cellars, Esterlina, Sharp, and Black Coyote, which have received awards and accolades over the years—including being served at a White House dinner this past summer.

Moonshine Roots

Mac McDonald, founder and proprietor of Vision Cellars, can pretty much always be found wearing the same garb: coveralls and a big straw hat. McDonald, who has run his winery from his Windsor headquarters since shortly before retiring from PG&E in 2000, doesn’t see any reason to hide his country roots, even when mingling with the glitterati of the Bay Area wine world.

The 63-year-old was born “in the sticks” in East Texas. His father was a moonshiner and his mother made wine from whatever fruit was at hand. Mac grew up hunting possums, raccoons, deer, and squirrel (he likes to joke that his wines go well with squirrel). His wine epiphany came at the age of 12.

“I tasted a Burgundy wine, and it changed my life,” he says. “A doctor who had hired my grandfather as a hunting guide gave it to us. I remember people calling this doctor a communist because he was drinking foreign wine. To this day, I still remember what that wine tasted like.”

With the flavor of that Burgundy lingering, McDonald moved to California when he graduated high school. He began learning from home winemakers; then he met Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, who became his mentor.

Today, Vision Cellars is a boutique winery, producing 2,000 cases annually of mainly Pinot Noir. The grapes are purchased from vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties, and in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County. (McDonald just purchased eight acres in the Russian River Valley for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.) Vision wines have won many awards, and are served in high-end restaurants including Rubicon in San Francisco and Jean Georges in New York.

As lead evangelist in the African American vintners association, McDonald lectures on wine around the country. “It used to be that my audience at these events were all African American, but now it’s pretty much 50-50,” says McDonald. “I’m passionate about introducing folks to wine, not just African Americans. And once you get folks introduced to wine, they start drinking more wine, and then, when they go to restaurants, they are no longer intimidated.”

An Agricultural Aspect

Most winemakers come to their craft from the aesthetic angle, bringing a love for wine, gourmet foods, and the good life. The Sterlings, proprietors of Esterlina Vineyards and Winery in Mendocino County, stand out because they came to the wine industry from the world of agriculture. They believe that making exceptional wine is all about vineyard cultivation.

Before they entered the wine business, the Sterlings were cattle ranchers and grain farmers in the Central Valley and in Mendocino County’s Potter Valley. The family patriarch, Murio Sterling, along with his son, decided it made sense to expand their operations, and the Sterlings bought their first vineyards in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley in the early 1990s. After buying up more land in Sonoma—and selling the grapes to the likes of Jordan and Franciscan wineries—they took the plunge into winemaking in 1998 and bought Pepperwood Spring Winery in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley.

“Some of the premium wineries would taste wines made from our various vineyards, both before we bought those vineyards and after, and they would realize that with the re-engineering we did, the wines they made from our grapes were much better,” says vice president of marketing and sales Stephen Sterling, one of four brothers who run the business.

The Sterlings ventured into wine as hobbyists, hanging on to their day jobs. Craig, winery general counsel and VP of operations, has an MBA and a law degree; winemaker Eric is a physician; vineyard manager Chris has managed several vineyards along the coast; Stephen also has an MBA and was a manager at AT&T Wireless. All four caught the wine bug, and now put their energies into viticulture pretty much full time.

It’s paid off. Esterlina owns 300 acres and produces approximately 8,000 cases of wine annually, and it is opening a second winery in Sonoma County. Esterlina’s focus is Pinot Noir, but it also bottles Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Riesling, as well as port. Its wines have won their share of awards, and are served at Wolfgang Puck’s and Bradley Ogden’s restaurants, and the Bellagio in Las Vegas, among other upscale establishments.

Old World to New

When Vance Sharp III was coming of age in Baltimore in the 1960s, the only wine he knew was sold in gallon jugs. He had to go to Germany to find out what real wine tasted like.

Sharp was in the U.S. Air Force and based in Germany when he met his wife, Monika. Her father was a wine connoisseur who introduced Sharp to fine wines. “Ironically, it was this German man who introduced me to California wines, when we were on a trip to Switzerland,” says Sharp. “Before I met Monika, the only wines I knew were Manischewitz and the other crap teenagers were drinking in Baltimore.”

Sharp, now 57, owned a car dealership and an insurance agency in Germany, but wanted to come back to the States. The family moved to Sonoma in 1997, and broke ground on an all-organic vineyard in 1998. Today Sharp has 18 acres in Sonoma (planted with Zinfandel and Petite Syrah) and a 50-acre parcel in Carneros (planted primarily with Pinot Noir, as well as some Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc vines). The business is a family affair of sorts, as most of the vintages are named after his grandchildren. The winery produces about 2,000 cases a year.

“It’s addicting when you walk into a wine cellar and just inhale,” Vance says. “It’s like a junkie walking into a glue factory.”

Doctor Vintner

Dr. Ernest Bates knows something about overcoming obstacles. He was one of the first African Americans admitted to and graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Arts and Sciences, one of the first handful of African American neurosurgeons in the United States, and the first to practice in Northern California. He founded and still runs American Shared Hospital Services, one of the first African American–owned companies to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.

Dr. Bates’s latest pioneering effort may not have the gravitas of his other endeavors, but in some ways it is equally daunting: He is attempting to become one of the top players in the premium California wine market.

“I want to make a wine [about which] everybody says, ‘I don’t care what the color of this guy’s skin is, he’s made a great wine,’ ” says the 68-year-old Bates. “All my life I’ve been shooting for perfection—to try and do things that other people haven’t done—and this is no different.”

Bates bought his 9.5-acre property east of Napa in 1997, after living in San Francisco for 35 years. At first he intended it only as a weekend retreat to escape the fog. He had always appreciated fine wines, but soon he caught the wine bug. He formed a winemaking partnership with three associates, Dr. Olin Robinson, president emeritus of Middlebury College and president of the Salzburg Seminar; Jack Ruffle, former vice chairman of the board and director of J. P. Morgan & Co.; and Stanley Trotman Jr., former managing director of PaineWebber’s healthcare group. At that point, Bates changed the name of the winery from Bates Creek to Black Coyote.

Bates, whose wines are served in such high-end restaurants as Fringale and Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, and Press in Napa, has attempted to keep his wine affordable for African American consumers.

“African Americans were not drinking high-priced wines for obvious reasons,” he says: “Some don’t have the income. So I wanted to make a wine that would sell for between $20 and $30 a bottle, which is inexpensive for a nice Cabernet.”

Recently, however, the owners of Black Coyote, which makes about 500 cases annually, decided to make some higher priced wines as well. Winemaking is an expensive proposition, and producing wines that sell for less than $30 was becoming difficult. Bates also wanted to introduce the growing affluent African American population to higher-priced—and higher-quality—wines.

Of course, making high-end wine is also personal for Bates. He still recalls a birthday dinner thrown for him at Per Se in New York, where he shared a bottle of 1998 Screaming Eagle Cabernet. Bates thought, “Wow, everybody should drink this wine. Let’s shoot for that.”

Like everything else in his life, making great wine is part of his quest for perfection.

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