African-Americans and Wine
© by Linwood Slayton

It seems both fitting and proper, as we celebrate Black History month in February, that we take a look at a number of issues relative to African-Americans and wine. This is the first in a series of columns that will be devoted to how and to what extent African-Americans are involved with the wine industry as vintners, consumers, enthusiasts and advocates.

My passion for wine and all of the attendant social pleasures that attach is constantly evolving. I like to call this evolution my "wine journey." In articles written over the last four years or so I have reminisced fondly about which wines I used to enjoy and how my palate matured over time with the help of some good friends and continued exposure to the diversity of wine.

One of my earliest columns (An Evening With Kendall-Jackson, December 2001) focused on an observation that African-Americans tended to prefer Kendall Jackson wines - especially Chardonnay - more than any other brand. I struck up a dialogue with some of the folks at KJ and we looked at whether this was an accident or the result of a marketing thrust by KJ. I was informed that KJ did not target the black community in any direct manner and, in fact, did not have much data to suggest that there was a higher incidence of consumption of their Chardonnay than any other ethnic market segment.

I was a bit surprised at their response at the time until I began doing additional research and discovered that the wine industry in general had essentially ignored or overlooked the size and bite of the African-American wine market. This discovery led me to begin hosting wine tastings and dinners in Atlanta with the goal of increasing awareness and exposure about wine and its diversity.

Four years later, I decided to take another look what African-Americans drink and why and what we spend our wine dollars on and why.

In the ensuing five years or so, there has been a significant increase in African-American inclusion and involvement in the wine industry. A few years ago, the Association of African-American Vintners was formed and now has seven wineries among its membership (Black Coyote Chateau, Esterlina Winery and Vineyards, Marc Norwood Vineyards & Winery, Inc., Poston Creek Vineyard, Sharp Cellars, Stover Oaks Vineyard & Winery and Vision Cellars) and one additional member - A Color of Grape Wine Tours. There are two more African-American wineries in California: Brown Estate and Rideau Vineyards.

Yet, I daresay that not many African-Americans have had the opportunity to drink and buy many of the fine wines that these wineries produce and market. Why?

Clearly a major obstacle is finding distributors willing to deliver their wines to market, given the small quantities of wine that they produce annually when compared to the mega-vineyards like Sterling, Gallo and Kendall-Jackson. This is also compounded by the fact they find it difficult to compete in the price niche of $10-$15. The average bottle produced by AAAV members is about $30. This necessitates their reliance on direct orders; and given that many states still have restrictive laws limiting or prohibiting direct internet and mail order and shipping, the woes continue.

I have enjoyed Vision Cellars' Pinot Noir as well as a red from Rideau Vineyards ( though I had no idea at the time that Rideau was a black vintner) but have never seen or had the opportunity to taste any of the wines produced by the other black vintners. Obviously, this lack of exposure is due to the inability of the AAAV wineries to market extensively and especially on the East Coast. I wrote the following observation in 2002:

I have come to learn that marketing is a key for wines that are intended to reach the masses and are designed for casual drinking. Price and quality are obviously essential variables and people will repeatedly buy those wines that they like and that sell at an affordable price. This factor is even more essential when it comes to holiday wine drinking. I, for one, find that I am much more cost conscious when I am buying wines for a group gathering. A difference of $2 or $3 per bottle adds up quickly when you are buying a case or two for entertaining purposes. (December Is a Good Wine Month, Dec. 21, 2002)

So, if the AAAV wineries don't have the ability to compete with the mass market wines, what are their options? Clearly, they have to market and appeal to the fine-wine enthusiast who is willing to pay high end prices for quality wines. Mac McDonald's Vision Cellars Pinot Noir is available in stores and restaurants in Atlanta and is priced in the $35-45 range retail. I had the pleasure of meeting Mac at one of my wine tastings a few years ago, and he enthralled the crowd with his charisma and presence ... along with his trademark straw hat. I later met up with him again at an event sponsored by the 100 Black Men of Atlanta and again at the annual convention of The National Bar Association, an organization of Black attorneys and Judges from across the U.S.

What's the message here? Mac McDonald took the time and spent the money necessary to market his product to black professionals who don't have a problem spending $40 for a good bottle of wine. This is a lesson learned and mastered by Martell, Hennessey and Remy Martin, as black folks comprise 60 percent of the Cognac market.

As I did my research for this series, I stumbled upon the website of a group of Boston women who call themselves Divas Uncorked. I made contact with them through their PR person and was forwarded some very interesting material. I will devote a future column to the group itself and how it is a unique collective of women who, like me, enjoy wine and the social pleasures that accompany their passion. What was intriguing about the Divas is that they have launched a business venture designed to "help vineyards develop ways to reach the expanding market of diverse wine consumers, promote socially conscious messages, and create word of mouth and increased brand awareness."

Divas Uncorked has recently entered into an agreement with three leading California wineries - Parducci Wine Cellars, The Hess Collection and St. Supery Winery - to form The Divas Uncorked Collaborative Consortium as a joint venture to "improve wine marketers' neglectful attitude towards women consumers" and people of color. Needless to say, I am impressed and excited about their daring and creative move. They are doing what I envisioned back in 2001 as my wine journey led me to dialogue with Kendall Jackson. Just a few days ago the AAAV became the newest member of the Divas Uncorked Collaborative Consortium ... makes a lot of sense to me.

So, we see that there has been some positive movement in the African-American community relative to wine and I sense and feel that this is only the beginning of something big that is about to happen on a much larger scale. Black folks spend money - big money - on wine. According to a 2003 Scarborough Research Report while only 6 percent of the total adult American population of drinking age will spend $20 or more on a bottle of wine, 39 percent of African-Americans will do so, and 10 percent of all black consumers purchase wine. African-Americans spend an estimated $300 billion on goods and services every year. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out what the market potential is here, does it?

Stay tuned for the next column in this series which will continue to look at African-Americans and Wine.

Wood

Feb. 6, 2005

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