At events marking the 20th anniversary of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV) this year, Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald, the winemaker and owner of Vision Cellars in Windsor, California, looked on with a sort of parental pride. What he had helped start with two other Black winemakers—Vance Sharp and Ernie Bates—at a home barbecue had grown to more than 200 members, 60 of them Black-owned wineries.
Those members also now include corporate behemoths like Bronco Wine Co., Boisset, Constellation Brands, The Wine Group, and Total Wine. They all support the AAAV’s mission of spotlighting Black winemakers, making careers in the industry accessible to people of color through scholarships and mentoring, and cultivating wine consumers of all types, especially Black ones.
Even with all this support, AAAV’s mission remains critical; the numbers may have grown since AAAV was founded in 2002, but of the more than 11,000 wineries in the U.S. today, less than one percent are owned by Black people or have a Black winemaker.
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“In the wine business, to be successful, you have to have people from multiple cultures appreciating your wine,” says McDonald. “Nationality, gender—it doesn’t matter.”
As he celebrates his 80th birthday, McDonald reflects on the community he’s fostered, the legacy he’s built, and what lies ahead for AAAV and Vision Cellars.
Developing a Black Wine Community
It’s hard to overstate McDonald’s significance in American wine. While McDonald lives an open-hearted creed of inclusivity, he started the AAAV because the only Blacks he saw at winemaker functions were those two men, Sharp and Bates. When he and his wife, Lil, now 73, started Vision Cellars in 1995, he knew there needed to be more. Wine was a growing industry, a wonderful product that could bring people together, he said, and there was a huge untapped Black market out there. Jo Diaz, a local wine publicist, agreed and helped get the AAAV off the ground. “I just kept getting people together” after that first barbecue, says McDonald. “I want to see people be successful and the way to be successful is sharing your knowledge.”
As a result, it would be hard to throw a cork at any sizable gathering of Black people in any facet of the wine world today, near and far, and not hit someone who had been helped in some way by McDonald. Tuanni Price, a certified sommelier and the founder of Zuri Wine, which conducts tastings and tours in the U.S. and in South Africa, was an AAAV volunteer and counts McDonald as a mentor. “He should move to South Africa,” she said recently, overlooking a vineyard in Stellenbosch. “We need him here.”
Theodora Lee, the founder of Theopolis Vineyards in Yorkville, California, was growing prized grapes when, after a buyer rejected her fruit, she called McDonald to help make her 2012 Petite Sirah, an experience that not only transformed her into a winemaker, but won her wine a gold medal from Sunset Magazine.
“Mac has not only been a mentor of mine but also a fatherly figure, not only guiding me through the wine world but providing sound life advice as a father, husband, and a human,” says André Hueston Mack, the winemaker and owner of Maison Noir Wines in Oregon. “It wasn’t until I met him that I understood the value of having someone who looked like me doing something that I thought was impossible for someone like myself. He was the blueprint and gave me hope.”
In his trademark overalls and straw hat, McDonald has traveled the world since shortly after Vision Cellars’ first release in 1997, doing winemaker dinners, in-store tastings, and attending wine festivals. He often pours the wines of other Black-owned brands alongside his own to help lesser-known brands gain visibility. “I just want people to enjoy wine,” says McDonald. “It doesn’t have to be mine.”
Building a Legacy
McDonald is from East Texas, where his father made moonshine. The young McDonald discovered fine wine when he was 12 after one of his grandfather’s hunting friends gave him a taste of Burgundy, which put him on the path to becoming a winemaker. After high school, in 1962 he moved to California, where he met his wife and worked for 30 years at Pacific Gas & Electric.
On the weekends, he would leave his home in Oakland to visit Napa and Sonoma, asking questions and watching people work various winemaking jobs. “Nobody would give me the time of day,” recalls McDonald. But there were a few exceptions, like the late John Parducci of Parducci Cellars in Mendocino County, and the late Charlie Wagner of Caymus, who saw something in McDonald. Wagner took him under his family’s wings, teaching him about the growing, making, and marketing of wine, and helping him start Vision Cellars.
Charlie Wagner, who died in 2002 at the age of 89, had told McDonald that he would be good for the wine industry, McDonald remembers. Neither McDonald nor Charlie’s son, Chuck, thought that the elder Wagner was referring to McDonald’s race. “He may have meant that, but I don’t know if that was the twist,” said Chuck when asked about it a few years ago. “What we need in our industry is personalities. We don’t need stodgy, know-it-all, my-shit-don’t-stink, vanity winemakers. What we need are real people, so I would say that might have been what my dad thought.”
Today, Vision Cellars is a 1,300-case winery that specializes in Pinot Noirs; a rich, structured wine simply called Red Wine, Napa County; and a California white wine. The McDonalds previously owned a 10-acre vineyard in the Russian River Valley that they had planted themselves to six clones of Pinot Noir, but after 12 years they sold it. “My sons make too much money at what they do and they weren’t as interested in working as hard as I was, and I saw a water problem coming,” says McDonald, explaining why they sold the vineyard. “There were three wells on that property and all three have dried up.” For years, McDonald has bought fruit from prized vineyards, and he makes his wine at a winery owned by Joe Wagner, the grandson of Charlie Wagner.
Vision Cellars has made the wine lists of some of the nation’s top restaurants, gaining new fans and opening doors for other wineries owned by people of color. And while many efforts to make the wine industry more diverse sprouted after George Floyd was killed in 2020, the AAAV has been focused on that mission for 20 years. Most of its biggest corporate supporters showed their respect for that dedication by sending top officials to this year’s anniversary events.
McDonald turned 80 on November 28, and at the 20th anniversary celebration, people lined up to thank him for his impact on the wine industry. The celebration included the Inaugural AAAV Awards Ceremony at DeLoach Vineyards, and McDonald, the only one of the three original founding winemakers present and still making wine, took the microphone.
He was at turns serious, noting that support for AAAV and Black winemakers had grown following the killing of George Floyd, but he cautioned the group not to rely solely on that type of support. “One of the things that we have to keep in our mind is that we can’t rely and relax on the past.” And at other turns he was playful: “I can only talk to three stupid people a day, and sometimes that’s the first three calls I get—and then I’m done for the day.”
Winemaking is grueling work, even without nature hurling fires, heat waves, and droughts so, naturally, as he enters his ninth decade, the question of what’s next has arisen. At the AAAV events, there was much discussion about how winemakers can pass on vibrant businesses to the next generation that can assist their communities.
McDonald has put the AAAV in capable hands, having groomed his successor, Phil Long, the founder of Longevity Wines in Livermore Valley, California, to take over the Association. Now, McDonald takes on the title of AAAV founder and chairman.
The pandemic forced McDonald to stop his constant traveling to represent Vision Cellars and the AAAV, and friends and family are hoping he’ll slow down and continue writing his memoir. He’s been asked about signing a lucrative national distribution deal, but has so far declined. “I didn’t want to work that hard, getting on planes and trains. I like to have control of what direction I’m going. There’s the possibility of making a lot of money, but you have to have the space and you have to sell a lot of cases,” he says. So he and Lil have set up a trust to maintain family ownership.
McDonald’s younger son, Jeff, has traveled with him to distributor meetings, winemaker’s dinners, and tastings for years. The current plan is for Jeff to one day manage the business while one of Jeff’s daughters, who is currently studying to become a winemaker, makes the wines. “I’m going to let them decide what they want to do, when they want to do it,” he says. “And I’ll keep it going until they take it over because right now Lil and I are using the money to put [our grandchildren] through college.”
Jeff is concerned that he won’t be able to draw crowds like his father, McDonald shares—but he has no doubts. “I told him, you do you. You have to figure out your own way.”
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Dorothy J. Gaiter, senior editor of The Grape Collective, conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal’s wine column, “Tastings,” from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. They’ve written four wine books and created the “Open That Bottle Night” annual celebration of wine and friendship. Gaiter has been a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and The Journal, which twice nominated her work on race for the Pulitzer Prize and once for “Tastings.” She’s won awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and National Association of Black Journalists.