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WINE, Part 2 — The Blacker the Berry

On both sides of the Atlantic, black winemakers are slowly building a presence in one of the world’s most ancient industries.

September is National Wine Month. Until a day or so ago, I never knew there was such a thing, but I’m glad there is.

It gives me the perfect excuse to talk about the small but growing presence of Africans and African-Americans among the world’s winemakers.

But don’t get it twisted. These folks are not making what one Web site refers to as “bum wines.” No black-owned versions of Thunderbird, Cisco or Boone’s Farm. We’re talking serious wines that pull down serious prices, wines that are winning recognition and awards, nationally and beyond.

For me, it’s one more reminder that while we may be flying under the radar in some activities, that doesn’t mean we’re not around.

On the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, at least three black winemakers are now making their mark in South Africa:

In North America, meanwhile, you can now find some 20 wineries in California’s world-famous wine country that are black-owned and operated, with four more on the East Coast and another up in eastern Canada.

There are enough black-owned wineries, in fact, for these passionate winemakers to come together and form their own organization, the Association of African-American Vintners.

One of those California wineries, TwentyFour Wines, is owned by Oakland Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson.

He was first exposed to serious wines and winemaking as a Raider rookie 15 years ago in Napa, where the Raiders hold their training camp. According to the winery’s Web site:

“He was intrigued when he noticed that everywhere he went people were enjoying a bottle of wine. It didn’t matter if it was an opulent dinner, low key lunch, or lazy afternoon. He was drawn to the fact that people seemed to slow down and come together over a glass of wine. Being the curious type, he not only wanted to participate in this ritual, he wanted to learn how to create it himself.”

(I would love to chat with C-Wood about TwentyFour Wines, especially since he donates $10 from every bottle sold to the CS Mott Children’s Hospital & Von Voightlander Women’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But I can’t — not only because he’s now busy with the 2013 National Football League season, but because the league bans active players from doing or saying anything to promote the sale of alcohol. Understandable, but a pity nonetheless.)

That’s not the only frustration when it comes to black-owned wineries in the United States.

There are now enough black winemakers in this country to allow them come together as the Association of African American Vintners, based (where else?) in Napa, CA. But despite the fact that these wineries are gaining the respect of their peers, they don’t get much love from retail sellers. You’ll find it hard, if not impossible, to find their wines on store shelves.

Of those 20 African-American wineries I mentioned, my neighborhood BevMo distributor carries only one — the Brown Estate Chaos Theory, a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Sirah. Cost: $36.99 for Club Bev member, $44.99 for everyone else.

I told you these wines carry serious prices.

Nor is that the only challenge. Unlike a lot of their competitors, few of these wineries are set up to receive visitors or hold tastings. The association had been holding annual events to let wine enthusiasts sample the wines of multiple association members, but this year, held no events.

There are a few exceptions. Rideau Vineyard near Santa Barbara, CA, founded by New Orleans native Iris Rideau, does daily wine tastings. So does Esterlina Vineyards & Winery in Northern California.

Vision Cellars holds dinners to pair their award-winning wines with soul food. Further north in the Napa Valley, Brown Estate will do tastings by appointment.

But it’s not all just about making great wines. It’a also about finding great venues for them, which is where Khary and Selena Cuffe enter the picture. They’ve turned their love of South African wines into a million-dollar distributing business, Heritage Link Brands, bringig the wines of black-owned and operated South African wineries to the world.

It shows what honest, hard-working, business-minded black folks can achieve when they reach across our diaspora and work together. All we need now is for someone to step up and do for black American winemakers what the Cuffes are doing for their South African counterparts.

No one has to tell us to stay thirsty, my friends.

WINE, Part 1 — The Undiscovered Countries

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