A Black History Moment in Wine and Me

My introduction to wine came from communion Sundays growing up in the A.M.E.Zion church in North Carolina. Every 1st Sunday of the month, my father who was a Pastor, along with my mother and older sister, would get to church extra early in order for the sacraments to be blessed by a fellow pastor/bishop or elder before church service began. The wine that represented the blood of Jesus was Welch's grape juice. And so as a child, wines in film and tv were just alcoholic sweet Welch's grape juice I sipped on every 1st Sunday. It wasn’t until I was much older, senior year in college when I started dating this fella that I went to my first wine tasting at a local wine store in Durham, NC that offered free wine tastings. But even then it didn’t wow me. And while we indulged in the occasional plum wine and sweet Riesling, I didn’t connect with wine and wine was not connecting with me. 

The moment came many moons later in Atlanta, Georgia when out with girlfriends to hear live music, I asked for sweet wine to seal the grown and sexy vibe. The waitress returned with a glass of Bukettraube wine from Seven Sister Winery in South Africa, seven BLACK sisters from South Africa. Described as a dessert wine from Swartland, Coastal Region, Western Cape, South Africa, I fell in love with wine and the realization that Black people made wine too changed my world. 

John June Lewis, Sr. (1894 - 1974), owned and operated Woburn Winery in Clarksville, Virginia. Not only was Mr. Lewis, the first African American to own a winery in the United States but also his winery, was thought to be the only Virginia winery by the early 1970s to manufacture wine solely from its own grapes. Son of a former slave owner and confederate veteran, Armistead Burwell, John Lewis built Woburn Winery with his own hands after Armistead deeded Lewis land. The winery opened in 1940 and flourished for 30 years before closing in the 70s upon his passing. Lewis opened his winery with a storage capacity of 5,000 gallons and produced table and dessert wines from  Labrusca and hybrid grapes.

It wouldn’t be until a quarter of a century later, that the United States saw a presence of two Black owned wineries in 1996 and one in 1997 with the Brown Family Estate in Napa Valley, Rideau Vineyards in Solvang, CA by Iris Rideau and Vision Cellars in Sonoma by Mac McDonald respectively.  With many more launching across the country.