Winter / Spring 2006
Crafting a Wine Legacy
Some of today’s biggest wines are being made by one of the smallest
group of vintners
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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
“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.