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African-American vintners

Jan./Feb. 2009 California Country magazine

Mac McDonald is the face, the voice and the personality of a new crop of farmers looking to make an impact in the world of winemaking.


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A new legacy in winemaking

Enjoying the fruits of his labor isn't difficult for winemaker Mac McDonald, who quit his private sector job to live our his true vision for life: making wine.
Enjoying the fruits of his labor isn't difficult for winemaker Mac McDonald, who quit his private sector job to live out his true vision for life: making wine.

Maybe it's because no matter what conversation you start with Mac McDonald, you eventually end up talking about his favorite subject: wine. Or maybe it's because he gets up each morning at 5 o'clock to check on his grapes and do his first wine tasting of the day. Or maybe it's because of the way he greets you like you've been friends forever, whether it's the first time he's seen you or the 100th time.

Whatever the reason for McDonald's seemingly implausible success, it is a success no matter how you measure it. And it's precisely the reason he encourages others to follow his path, chasing their dreams to become involved in the world of wine.

"At the end of the day, I want to look back and say I gave a Joe or Tom or whoever a chance to taste my pinot noir," he said. "They may not have liked it, but they at least are now open to drinking wine and will start shopping for those they like."

McDonald's signature overalls and straw hat, along with his easygoing approach to selling wine, are indicative of a story that starts far from California. Born deep in the backwoods of Texas, 90 miles south of Dallas to be exact, he developed an early fascination with wine. His dad was an East Texas moonshiner and his mom made wine from whatever fruit she could find.

"One day when I was about 12 years old, they let me taste a little sip of it and I thought it was incredible," he recalled.

After graduating from high school, McDonald ventured to the wine epicenter of the United States: Northern California. To pay the bills, he took a job with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., all while learning from local winemakers who shared his passion. Then one day he decided to take a leap of faith.

"My wife, Lil, and I realized we wanted to do something that we will enjoy for the rest of our lives," he said. "So I told her, 'We have got six months to pay off our bills and then we are going to become full-time winemakers.' And she said, 'Let's do it!'"

Today, McDonald is just that: a full-time winemaker. He owns his own winery in Windsor, which became his home and headquarters after he retired from PG&E in 2000. Vision Cellars is a boutique winery, producing 2,000 cases annually of mainly pinot noir, which is served at such upscale restaurants as Spago Beverly Hills and the Regent Beverly Wilshire. McDonald crafts his wines using grapes grown in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Marin counties and the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County.

"He brings this enthusiasm from the vineyards to the marketplace," said Gary Franscioni of Gary's Vineyard in Monterey. The two have worked together since 2001 and along the way formed a friendship that transcends business.

"He is like part of the family," Franscioni said. "At the end of a long harvest day, he'll come into the house, take off his shoes and kick up his feet and tell us about his day. It's hilarious."

Developing friendships with other vintners like Mark Pasternak, right, has helped Mac McDonald perfect his craft of making wine.
Developing friendships with other vintners like Mark Pasternak, right, has helped Mac McDonald perfect his craft of making wine.

Although McDonald entered the wine business later in life, "he proves that if you have a goal and want something bad enough, you'll get it," said Mark Pasterneck of Devil's Gulch Ranch, who grows the grapes for McDonald's Chileno Valley Marin County Pinot Noir. "He's truly one of a kind."

And the passionate winemaker is counting on his personality as much as his wine to propel him to success in another venture.

McDonald is the face, the voice and the personality of a new crop of farmers looking to make an impact in the world of winemaking. He is one of the founding members of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV), a membership-based organization of eight vineyards working to change the face of an industry that until recently has been devoid of minority ownership. A mix of dynamic personalities from very different backgrounds, they are united by their goal: exposing minorities to wine.

"It's really about promoting wine to all minorities, but with special significance to the African-American community," McDonald said. "And I think it's good for the whole wine industry because there is a market there."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African-Americans account for nearly 13 percent of the total population. Yet in a 2003 national survey of wine consumers conducted by New York-based Scarborough Research, African-Americans represented only 10 percent of U.S. adults 21 or older who had purchased wine in the previous three months.

Like his mentor Mac McDonald, Daniel Bryant is committed to teaching people the fundamentals of wine. Bryant not only owns a winery, but recently started a wine tour and education business.
Like his mentor Mac McDonald, Daniel Bryant is committed to teaching people the fundamentals of wine. Bryant not only owns a winery, but recently started a wine tour and education business.

"It's just about introducing new faces into the wine experience," said Daniel Bryant, owner of Running Tigers Wine and another founding member of AAAV.

A protégé of McDonald's, Bryant started his own label at the older man's urging, producing his first vintage, Running Tigers Dry Creek Valley Syrah, in 2004. It was a hobby at first, but Bryant has graduated to full-time winemaker and now has his wine on menus across Northern California.

"I love supporting Daniel, not only because he makes great wine, but he's doing great things within the wine industry," said Rick Mahan, executive chef of The Waterboy restaurant in Sacramento, where Bryant's wine is served.

Eager to follow in his mentor's footsteps of teaching people the fundamentals of wine, Bryant recently started a wine tour and education business called A Color of Grape.

"We need to educate a diverse population of wine drinkers and we need to educate the vintners and the wine industry on how to reach the market," Bryant said.

The tours are all customized to the client: what they like in wine varietals, style, tastes or geographic location--and what they know or don't know about wine.

"Our goal is to take the mystery out of wine," he said.

Demystifying wine is also the primary goal of several national wine-tasting societies targeting African-Americans. Divas Uncorked, based in Maryland, is for women of color interested in the field, while the African American Wine Tasting Society aims to enhance knowledge about the cultural legacy of wine and wine tasting. The organization has active chapters in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Raleigh-Durham and Seattle.

"Many African-Americans haven't been exposed to wine, so I think it's just an educational process that needs to take place," said Vance Sharp, owner of Sharp Cellars in Sonoma and another founding member of the AAAV.

Sharp was born in Baltimore, crossed the globe as a member of the U.S. Air Force and then returned to the States to retire. After his kids graduated from college, he moved to California, took over the well-established Sonoma Sausage Co. and then began making wine.

"People always ask me what I like more: making wine or making sausage," he said. "But that's like asking me to pick between my children. I love both equally."

Sharp and his wife, Monika, own 55 acres of grapes and their vineyards, Tyla's Point and Hailey's Creek, are named after their grandchildren.

Esterlina Wineries is another founding member of the AAAV. The Mendocino County business is owned by the Sterling family, which hails from the agricultural side--farming the land and making wine from their own harvests for more than 30 years. Rounding out the association are Black Coyote, formed by Ernest Bates, the first African-American neurologist; Marc Norwood Vineyards and Winery; Poston Crest Vineyard; and Stover Oaks Vineyard and Winery.

While the group is small in size, their impact on the wine sector continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Back in 2002, the group's first event drew only about 20 people. But this year they hosted their annual event at COPIA in Napa, where McDonald estimates upwards of 500 to 600 people turned out. The crowd came to listen to the stories of AAAV members, taste their wines and chat with other experts who offered advice on getting into a business that had previously been a puzzle to many.

"You don't have to just drink wine. There are more opportunities in the wine industry and that's what we're trying to teach people in the African-American community," McDonald said. "We really don't care what wine or whose wine people are drinking. As long as you enjoy it, we, as a group, are successful."

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or tsellers@cfbf.com.

To learn more

Association of African American Vintners: Grape growers and wine producers dedicated to increasing the quality of wine communications to all, with special emphasis on African-Americans. www.aaavintners.org

Divas Uncorked: Especially for women of color interested in wine-related products, services and trends. www.divasuncorked.com

African American Wine Tasting Society: Formed to enhance members' wine knowledge and enjoyment in a relaxed atmosphere, open to all. www.aawts.org


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