A Tour of Black- and Latino-Owned Wineries Offers an Antidote to #LaughingWhileBlack


By Luka Tsai posted on East Bay Express

Last month, news broke that employees of the Napa Valley Wine Train had kicked eleven members of a women’s book club called Sistahs on the Reading Edge — ten of whom were African-American — off a train for talking and laughing too loudly. Train officials marched the eleven women, one of whom was 83 years old, off the train, and posted — and quickly deleted — a statement on Facebook to the effect that the book club members had been verbally and physically abusive toward other guests.

Napa Valley Wine Train executives subsequently apologized and accepted full blame for the incident. But many observers concluded that the treatment of the predominantly African-American book club was racially motivated — particularly the Facebook post, whose claims the women vehemently denied. The hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack went viral on Twitter.

Now, an Oakland-based nonprofit is offering one potential antidote: the Wine Soul Train, a daylong tour of Black- and Latino-owned wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. The initial tour will take place on Saturday, September 26, with a tour bus that seats 35 people departing from Miss Ollie’s restaurant (901 Washington St., Oakland) at 10 a.m. But if the Wine Soul Train is successful, it might become a semi-regular event.

Esperanza Pallana, director of the Oakland Food Policy Council, was among those who felt a rising sense of indignation as details emerged about the wine train incident. “Those days are over,” she said. “We don’t do that anymore, and when it happens, everybody needs to be outraged.”

Pallana, who is Mexican American, started to think about what it would be like if people of color had their own wine train. What would that look like? How would its priorities be different? The idea of putting together the Wine Soul Train grew out of those initial thoughts.

The Oakland Food Policy Council works to promote equity in the food system, so the appeal of such a tour would be in the way it would highlight and support people of color who are taking leadership roles in a mostly white-dominated industry. And, of course, the tour will offer a setting in which black- and brown-skinned people — and anyone else who cares to join the party — can laugh loudly and have a good time without fear of racial animus.

After all, part of the reason the Napa Valley Wine Train incident resonated with so many people is because of the perception that the wine industry as a whole isn’t particularly welcoming of people of color — that the various wineries and tasting rooms in the Bay Area are by and large, as Pallana put it, “a white space.”

Rafael Rios, who is the Mexican-American proprietor of Justicia Wines, a small, Calistoga-based boutique winery that is, according to its mission statement, committed to “freedom, equality and justice,” is also the president of the Napa Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association. The vintners association currently has fifteen members, and Rios estimates that there are another eight to ten Latino-owned wineries in Napa Valley alone — out of a total of about 450 wineries in Napa. That’s a small percentage, but it’s not as though they, and the small handful of Black-owned wineries, are nonexistent. Their lack of visibility, though, is a big part of Pallana’s motivation for organizing the tour.

The Wine Soul Train’s $100 price tag will include lunch, snacks, and tastings at three different wineries. Pallana and her colleagues at the Oakland Food Policy Council are still hammering out the final details, including the specific wineries that will participate. Justicia Wines was at the top of Pallana’s list; after all, the name alone was perfect for the theme of the tour. But Rios doesn’t have his own physical winery — his wines are made to his specifications at Maldonado Vineyards, a winery in Calistoga owned by his sister and brother-in-law. Maldonado is one possible tour stop, then, and Pallana has also been in touch with three Black-owned wineries: Everett Ridge Winery (in Healdsburg), Sharp Cellars (Sonoma), and Esterlina Vineyards (Healdsburg).


The Oakland Food Policy Council doesn’t actually have access to a private train, but Pallana has come up with a perfect partner for the project: The Mexican Bus, a San Francisco-based charter bus company known for its rollicking, colorfully decorated vehicles — an homage to the kinds of buses that are common in many parts of Latin America. Pallana said touring wine country in one of the company’s idiosyncratic buses would maintain that spirit of supporting businesses run by people of color — and also of addressing a serious issue with a light, humorous touch.

Tickets for the tour are available via EventBrite.

The Wine Soul Train


We support an equitable food system, which includes cultural understanding and appreciation for all the ways people gather and celebrate around what they eat and drink. In light of recent news of the book club, Sistahs on the Reading Edge, being criminalized and removed from the Napa Valley Wine Train, OFPC would like to extend a thanks to the vineyards in the region who have created welcoming spaces to gather, celebrate and organize.

To show our gratitude and highlight the businesses whose values are rooted in racial and economic justice, we have joined forces with The Mexican Bus to offer a tour of Black and Latino owned vineyards! Join us for a magical ride on our Wine Soul Train. Meet business leaders defining our food culture. Learn about agricultural practices, labor issues, and economic leadership to create a just food system.

Tickets Here!

What: The Wine Soul Train Tour

When: September 26th 2015, 10AM-6PM

Where: Napa and Sonoma Valley Vineyards

Cost: $100 per seat (includes lunch and wine tastings)

What to Expect:
We will begin and end our tour at the corner of 9th Street and Washington Street in Oakland, in front of Miss Ollie’s. We will first enjoy some of Chef Sarah Kirnon’s Creole Donuts and coffee before we launch at 10AM sharp.  We head north to visit various vineyards for wine tasting and discussion. We will enjoy our lunch against a panoramic backdrop. We will have the opportunity to taste and purchase wines, as well as meet business leaders in the wine country who are paving the way for black and brown ownership of vineyards and wineries. We expect to return to Oakland at 6PM.
Council Director, Esperanza Pallana, will be following up with day of logistics when you purchase your ticket. If you have further questions, feel free to contact her at epallana at oaklandfood dot org.

This event is sponsored by:

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West Oakland Property Prices Threaten a Food Activist’s Dream


By  posted in KQED News

The property market in West Oakland is booming, but from the corner of West Grand Avenue and Market Street you can’t tell that.

“We looked at that site. That one. That one. The one that’s now been demolished,” says Brahm Ahmadi. There are seven sites he points to, all of which he’s failed to purchase. The cost is just too high, he says.

Ahmadi has worked for years to bring a full-service grocery store to West Oakland — where most food sales in the neighborhood are apparently at liquor and corner stores. Meanwhile, wealthier people are moving in, causing rents and property prices to rise.



Ahmadi says West Grand and Market would be ideal for the market he envisions. It’s one of West Oakland’s major intersections, is served by public transportation and already has plenty of potential customers living nearby. But Ahmadi hasn’t been able to swing a deal with potential sellers.

“We were almost every time floored by the counteroffer and how dramatically more they were asking for their properties,” he says.
Some land in the area is going for three times the amount he offered — well above its assessed value, he says.

Ahmadi’s offers were sad, says George Kim, who helps manage the West Grand Shopping Center owned by his parents — one of the seven properties Ahmadi tried and failed to purchase.

Kim sympathizes with Ahmadi and agrees that the neighborhood needs a grocery store, but Ahmadi’s offers weren’t even close to what Kim wanted, he says. Recently, he says he was offered more than $9 million for the land. Ahmadi couldn’t offer even half of that.

A housing development is going up across the street from his shopping center, and Kim says he will probably wait until it’s finished before deciding whether to sell.

Ahmadi says he doesn’t blame property owners for holding out for more cash. He says that’s the “American way.”

“The problem is, it has a greater negative impact on the community,” he says.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
The idea for Ahmadi’s People’s Community Market spun off of a West Oakland community food organization he founded called People’s Grocery. The organization focuses on food justice programs and has brought cooking classes, produce deliveries and a community garden to West Oakland.



Opening a full-service grocery store looked like a promising venture in 2011. Ahmadi raised $1.2 million from nearly 400 Californians, most of whom were East Bay residents, he says. His efforts were even featured in the New York Times.

The Times article was written in the summer of 2013. Ahmadi’s fundraising campaign successfully ended later that year, around the time West Oakland property prices and rents were just taking off. Ahmadi has been trying for the last 18 months to find property to buy or lease, but he has failed. It was just bad timing, he says.

“What we did was shift to accepting that we’re going to have to pay an exorbitant price to get a piece of land in this neighborhood,” he says.

The City’s Role
The city could help pay for a site. But that would be controversial, says Renee Roy Elias, a volunteer with the Oakland Food Policy Council.

“Do we want taxpayer dollars to go towards this very, very overpriced piece of land?” she asked.

Elias would like to see the city get creative with how it supports equitable access to food and possibly offer more incentives, like tax breaks, to local healthy food projects.

“That would set an amazing precedent for future projects like Brahm’s project,” she says.

The city could also assume a stronger role as mediator between entrepreneurs and property owners, says Elias. A few years ago the city worked aggressively to get a large Foods Co. store to move into West Oakland. The City Council even voted to use eminent domain to secure property from owners who wouldn’t sell. The deal never panned out. But Ahmadi says he would like the city to work just as hard to help his project.

If Not the Government, Then Who?
The city has to be careful about what steps it takes to help local businesses and can’t take too many risks, says Ben Mangan, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

“That’s good sometimes and that’s deeply frustrating at other times,” he says.

Mangan has researched the types of people who do take these risks. They’re called impact investors, and they’re usually philanthropists or others willing to put their money on the line for the public good, even though it could involve making a risky investment.

“You’re often competing in a marketplace where you may be the only one seeking that extra bottom line, and you have to work harder to achieve social impact while your competitors are just looking for a return on investment,” says Mangan.

Ahmadi says he thinks he’s found his impact investor — a former Oakland resident who went to Wall Street, made some cash, retired young and now is back and wants to help. Ahmadi won’t name him, but he says this potential partner, who would act as landlord until he’s repaid, is willing to pay well above market rate for land the grocery store needs. But it would be in a cheaper location than Ahmadi’s dream spot at West Grand and Market.

About a half-mile from that ideal location, at San Pablo Avenue and 32nd Street, Ahmadi is looking at a couple of properties where his market might be built.

But the area comes with more risk. Across the street, there’s St. Andrews Plaza, a compact concrete triangle sporting a few eucalyptus trees. Ahmadi says there is drug use, prostitution and violence around the park. Community groups have been trying to work with the city to find a solution to clean up the area, he says.

“I feel if this problem is here and we try to open our doors, the sense of a lack of safety will be a major deterrent to a lot of people shopping here,” he says.

Still, this is his best shot, he says. There are two property owners he needs to convince to sell in order to have enough space for his grocery store. One deal may be signed this week, he says.

The second property hasn’t been easy. He’s had no luck contacting the owner, and the city isn’t helping out, he says. If he fails to secure the second property, Ahmadi says, his longtime campaign to bring a full-service grocery to a community that badly needs one could be over.