By Tamara Shiloh
Winemaking is a centuries-old profession originating in Old World France. Socioeconomics, however, has played a role in the lack of Black connoisseurs and producers of wine in America. Fine wines have always been a staple in exclusive clubs and upscale restaurants; establishments traditionally filled with white patrons. Even today, little is revealed about the rapidly increasing growth of diversity in the industry. Despite their absence from the narrative, so-called anomalies within the Black community were growing plump grapes and distilling them into bottles — one being John June Lewis Sr. (1894–1974), owner and operator of Woburn Winery.
Lewis’ passion for winemaking developed while stationed in the European Rhine Valley during World War I. He came to love the land, the soil, and especially the grapes. After his tour, he returned home to his father’s Clarksville, Va., plantation where he worked in the lumber business until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. After his father’s death, Lewis would inherit land. Still holding on to his passion, he planted 10 acres of labrusca grapes in the Ivy Hill area of Mecklenburg County. The cellar held 5,000 gallons, sold mostly to neighbors and friends. Later, in 1940, it would grow into Woburn Winery.
Woburn is thought to have been the only Virginia winery by the early 1970s to manufacture wine solely from its own grapes, and the only Black-owned winery in the US. Dubbed, “the Virginia Carolina Brand,” Raisin Wine and Virginia Red Grape were the only two varieties Woburn produced.
Only 25% of Blacks drink wine, as opposed to 34 percent of their white counterparts, according to Batya Ungar-Sargon, managing editor of VinePair. This may be the result of the way wine is marketed (or not) in the Black community. Although Blacks are “12% more likely to shop for wine online than their white counterparts, wine sellers and their marketers continue to refuse to reach out to the African American consumer,” Ungar-Sargon writes.
“I’ve never seen any (wine) advertising or marketing directed at African Americans,” Tony Harris, vice president of an African American wine tasting group in the East Bay told SF Gate. “This is clearly a missed opportunity.”
Still, Black winemakers are navigating the maze of a tough and unwelcoming industry through vineyard ownership. Of the more than 11,000 wineries based in the US, less than 1% of those are Black-owned or have a Black winemaker.
Lewis made wine from labrusca and hybrid grapes for more than three decades until his death in 1974. The winery closed soon after. Today, Virginia is home to more than 300 wineries and wine brands but fewer than five are owned by African Americans.
Get advice on navigating wine lists, purchasing wine, and drinking more diverse and interesting selections at home from Brooklyn sommelier and winemaker André Mack in “99 Bottles: A Black Sheep’s Guide to Life-Changing Wines.”