This is part of Rising Black Voices in Wine, a feature from our October 2020 issue. More information on the project can be found here.
We present here a small slice of the burgeoning Black wine community, broken into two groups. You’ll find Trailblazers, those who have firmly established themselves in the wine community and are now mentors to the next generation. You’ll also find that next wave, the Rising Black Voices in Wine, those whose impact is starting to resonate across our whole industry, to the benefit of all.
After graduating from CSU Chico with a degree in horticultural science in 2013, Brenae Royal interned with E&J Gallo. Mentored by winemaker Deborah Juergenson, within two years she was vineyard manager for Gallo’s Monte Rosso Vineyard, a 250-acre site planted in Sonoma Valley in 1886. “She’s less interested in talking about herself and more about the projects she’s working on to help get more [people of color] into viticulture and winemaking,” says Alisha Sommer, the director of marketing at Ruby Hill Winery, who recently visited Royal at Monte Rosso. Royal is paving the way for other Black and female vineyard managers, a field where there have been virtually none. —S.L.
Mac McDonald grew up in East Texas, far from any wine country. He likes to say that visitors used to come drink his father’s corn whiskey, and one day one of them offered him some Burgundy wine in trade, which Mac took sips of— at age 12. Years later, he moved to California and was taken under wing by Charlie Wagner, who gave him space at Caymus to make wine for Vision Cellars. Vision is a pinot noir house, with wines from Mendocino, Sonoma and the Santa Lucia Highlands. Tuanni Price, of Zuri Wines of LA and South Africa, counts Mac as one of her mentors; so does André Mack of Maison Noir in Oregon. —Patrick J. Comiskey
Krista Scruggs left her native California to produce natural wine in Vermont. At Zafa Wines, she works primarily with hybrid varieties such as frontenac and la crescent. And at CO Cellars, a collaborative space she co-founded with Shacksbury Cider in 2018, she co-ferments grapes and foraged apples. Sommelier Bianca Sanon remembers meeting Scruggs at the Raw Wine Fair. “It was an important moment, seeing a Black woman on the other side of the table,” says Sanon. Scruggs is part of the 1.3 percent of farmers in the US who are Black, having acquired land via the Vermont Land Trust to plant her own vineyard. —Sydney Love
Founder & Grower, The Two-Eighty Project, San Francisco, CA
Inspired by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, Christopher Renfro studied horticulture before going on to work in design and restaurants—he was the assistant wine director at San Francisco’s Liholiho Yacht Club before the pandemic. Three years ago, he visited Ted Lemon at Littorai in the Sonoma Coast. “I noticed that I was the only person of color in the vineyard, besides the people doing manual labor,” he says. Renfro asked Lemon for a pinot noir cutting, which he planted on his front porch as a marker of that day.
Renfro has always been on the search for land, having watched his family slowly lose the land his ancestors had purchased in Louisiana as freed slaves. In SF, an overgrown pinot noir vineyard caught his attention, and he asked the farm manager if he could revive it. Renfro sought out advice from winegrowers like Steve Matthiasson, who showed him how to sucker vines via a Zoom call. He calls it the Two-Eighty Project, after the local 280 Freeway and its neighboring housing project. “I’m using the site to learn viticulture,” Renfro says, and is bringing in other people of color to learn with him, hoping to find land where they can build a Black wine collective. —S.L.
Assistant Winemaker, Lumen Wines, Santa Barbara County, CA
Justin Trabue’s parents named her after Justin Winery in Paso Robles, so she likes to think she was destined to work in wine. She enrolled in Cal Poly’s wine and viticulture program straight out of high school. Now, Trabue is working her fifth harvest with Lane Tanner of Lumen Wines, in Santa Barbara County, and managing the tasting room at Ancient Peaks Winery in Paso Robles. “I didn’t meet another Black person in winemaking until last year, and I had to go all the way down to New Zealand,” she says, having bonded with a Black harvest intern there from South Africa.
Back in the States, she met Simonne Mitchelson, general manager for Zotovich Vineyards. “Meeting Justin and seeing her thrive gives me hope for the future of this industry,” says Mitchelson. “We want to be part of the change that we so desperately want to see.” After the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the two women wrote an open letter to Central Coast wineries and raised $14,500 for R.A.C.E Matters SLO. Trabue is open to wherever her career in wine takes her, though she wants to meld hospitality with getting her hands dirty in the cellar. —S.L.
Partner/Winemaker, Sage’s Vintage, Tyler, TX
Studying biology and chemistry at the University of Texas in Tyler, Michael McClendon heard about a research internship at a winery. He ended up working part-time at Kiepersol Vineyards until 2009, when he graduated and the winery hired him as an oenologist. A trip to vineyards in Chile, he says, cemented his desire to make a career in wine. “[When you share food and wine,] you have an intimate look into people’s lives.”
McClendon led eight vintages at Kiepersol, starting in 2012. By 2017, he had partnered with Wes Jensen to start Sage’s Vintage, a custom-crush facility in Nacogdoches. They produced 5,000 gallons during their first harvest and, by 2019, they were handling 20,000 gallons of juice, building relationships with new clients.
The possibilities of Texas winemaking excite McClendon—“The story of Texas wine is being written right now, as we speak. We’re wine cowboys.” Down the road, he harbors dreams of leaving a winery to his family as his legacy. “Ten years from now, my son—he just turned nine—will be as good or better at wine production than I am. He’s learning and experiencing things that I never got to experience growing up.” —Corey Warren
Research on our Rising Black Voices in Wine was directed by Sydney Love and Susannah Smith, who contributed reporting along with Patrick J. Comiskey, Joshua Greene, Stephanie Johnson, Tara Q. Thomas and Corey Warren. Click here for the full list of those who contributed their experiences to this project.
This story appears in the print issue of October 2020.
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