Black American Winemakers Featured at Obama Summit Dinner

Ernest Bates was a pioneering neurosurgeon and Mac McDonald the son of a moonshine-maker. The award-winning winemakers come from very different backgrounds while sharing a rare trait in their field: They’re black.

Their labels, Black Coyote Wines and Vision Cellars, won spots as two of the three wines that President Barack Obama served at last night’s White House dinner for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, highlighting the niche they occupy in the U.S. wine market.

A 2013 Black Coyote sauvignon blanc “Napa Valley” was paired with a chilled spiced tomato soup starter, while 2010 Vision Cellars “Las Alturas” pinot noir held its own with grilled dry-aged beef with chermoula and crispy plantains.

A Virginia sparkling wine, Thibaut-Janisson Brut “Monticello,” was served with the final course. Crooner Lionel Richie helped with the digestion.

Selection for any White House dinner is an honor that elevates winemakers’ profiles and can boost business.

Having the spotlight in this case is all the more special, Bates and McDonald said in telephone interviews, because it’s an opportunity to encourage more black Americans to develop an interest in a pastime where the barriers to entry were long a mix of cost, education and cultural tradition.

“I always wanted to be a pioneer,” said Bates, 77, founder of American Shared Hospital Services, who was one of the nation’s first black neurosurgeons and black CEOs of a publicly traded company before starting his winery in 1998. Today the winery’s president and majority partner is Vanessa Robledo, a fourth-generation Hispanic grape grower.

Growing Number

“We want the world to know that African-American and Hispanic-American people, once they’re given the opportunity, can succeed and make a product that’s as good as any,” Bates said.

There are about a dozen prominent black American winemakers or winery owners today in the U.S. -- most in California like Bates and McDonald. There are more than 8,300 wineries producing wine in North America, mostly in the U.S., with a plurality of those in California, according to a January report by Wines & Vines magazine.

A growing number of black celebrities, athletes and investors are lending their names to wine ventures or bottling small numbers of cases. The Association of African American Vintners was founded in 2002.

‘Popping Up’

“They seem to be popping up everywhere,” said McDonald’s wife, Lil. “One gentleman called and said he’s inheriting his grandfather’s property in Jamaica and how does he start a winery.”

Whether the White House’s dinner wine selection this week is meant to send a diplomatic signal to African leaders or a message to U.S. wine consumers, McDonald, 71, whose wines also have been poured at dinners under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said it’s good “to see people of color having their wines served at the White House.”

“It’s beginning to be a change in the culture, but I don’t think it’s there yet,” said the son of a Texas moonshine maker and a onetime gas and electric company manager who started his label in 1995. “Nobody has really marketed it to the African-American community.”

Racial Preferences

Statistics compiled for the Wine Handbook 2013 by the Norwalk, Connecticut-based Beverage Information Group show a racial difference in the type of wines consumed. Whites are more likely to choose table wines, while blacks are more likely than whites to drink coolers, sparkling, and sweeter wines.

The group also found a high correlation with education level, with 49.3 percent of college graduates drinking any kind of wine compared with 27.9 percent among Americans whose education stopped with a high school diploma and 19.8 percent among those who didn’t graduate high school.

Andre Hueston Mack, 41, a black former New York sommelier and designer and owner of Oregon-grown Mouton Noir wines, said African-Americans are increasingly drawn to fine wine while there still aren’t enough black winemakers.

“You fall in love with wine and you start to make it, but when you lift up your head and look around, you notice there’s not a lot of people who look like you,” he said. “It’s very rare -- unicorn rare.”

In many sectors of American society, Mack said, “The landscape has changed. There’s an African-American in the White House. It’s a reinforcement when you see someone that looks like you doing something different, that makes them believe they can do it as well.”

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