By Sandhya Dirks on KQED News
When 11 female book club members, 10 of whom were black, were kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train in September, the incident quickly sparked a viral conversation about racism in Napa — as well as a hashtag: #laughingwhileblack.
The women involved in the Napa Valley Wine Train incident are suing the company for racial discrimination and defamation, but that hasn’t been the only response.
Esperanza Pallana, of the Oakland Food Policy Council, says she wanted to do something to change the narrative of who owns space in wine country. That’s why she organized the Napa Wine Soul Train, which is how, on a Saturday in September, a group of almost 30, including myself, showed up on a corner in downtown Oakland to embark on a different kind of wine tour.
Despite the name of the event, we weren’t boarding a train but a bus — better known as the Mexican Bus. The brightly painted vehicle had an old-school bus feel: hard seats, bumpy shocks and no air conditioning. “That’s why we call it the wine soul train,” Pallana said, “because the Mexican Bus definitely has some funk to it.”
“It’s a big hug out there to the women who were part of that book club, as well as to all the black and brown folk, and all the other people who have been othered,” Pallana told the assembly.
The group was diverse, not just racially and ethnically, but across age and gender. There were food justice activists, hip young black and Latinos, a group of older, impeccably dressed black women, LGBTQ folks, a white couple in neo-hippy attire and two separate women knitting baby blankets.
Pallana admitted she’s never been wine tasting before; she told the group it just never appealed to her: “I don’t really feel like it’s a space that’s accessible to me.” But this trip is different, she said. Plus, the group joked, here we can laugh as loud as we want.
The noise and laughter was immediately evident. To talk, people had to scream above the wind and loud, cranked-up music, but nobody seemed to mind. After all, things could only get louder, it was only 11 a.m. and no one had yet had a drop of wine.
First stop, Maldonado Vineyards in Napa.
Set on the low steps of a wooded hillside, the vineyard only has one real building, a cool and cavernous wine cave — a space that the sun-strained group are more than happy to escape within.
Owner Lydia Maldonado ushered us past giant bins of red grapes that smell sickly sweet and sour, giving off an odor of both rotting and ripening. Inside the building, the smell of cold stone and wet wood take over, wine barrel after barrel stacked atop each other.
Maldonado and her husband, Hugo, like so many who work the grapes here, are part of a lineage of Mexican farmworkers who came to work crops across California.
Both her father and father-in-law came to work the fields, circling through the Central Valley, and up as far as Washington state. But they were some of the lucky ones.
“In the late 60s they secured full-time jobs here,” Maldonado said. “Year-round jobs that then allowed them to bring their families.”
Maldonado’s father-in-law, Lupe, worked for the same company for over 45 years. But when he retired, his dream, she said, was to own a piece of Napa Valley. He found an old hay field on which to stake his claim. The hay field may have never been used to grow grapes before, but it had one thing going for it — it was just inside the area known as Napa Valley. An important distinction, because when it comes to vineyards, it’s all about location, location, location.
“Land in Napa Valley is very hard to come by, it’s very expensive,” Maldonado said. “So you don’t see a lot of us owning wineries, even though we’ve been working in the vineyards forever.”
Maldonado led the group farther back into the depths of the U-shaped room. “It doesn’t seem impressive,” she said, almost as if to apologize, “but it’s pretty impressive to us.”
“Nooo — it’s impressive,” the group roared back, laughing and peppering her with questions about how the wine is made, how long the barrels last, what kind of grapes they use.
And then it’s time to taste the wine — to see, as Maldonado put it, “what wines taste like when you really know the vineyard from the bottom up.”
We walked up the stone stairs to a small perch that overlooks the rolling hills, samples of wine are passed out among the group, including the first taste — Farmworker’s Chardonnay.
The majority of people involved in the hard labor of making wine here are Mexican-American. But there is a growing effort to translate knowledge of the soil into ownership of the land. Part of that is being spearheaded through the Mexican-American Vintners Association, known as MAVA, which boasts 15 Latino-owned wineries as its members, including Maldonado. Still that is 15 vineyards out of about 600 in the region.
Wine on the Vine, and in the Blood
Back on the bus, feeling warm and fuzzy, the music was turned up, and dancing and clapping and singing took over. We were headed to our second and final winery, in Sonoma County — Esterlina Vineyards.
There we were ushered onto a spacious back porch with wooden benches and a view of vineyards lazily looped across the valley below.
After we settled down in the seats and wine was poured, owner Stephen Sterling greeted the group. “What you are doing right now, just having wines and being here at a multicultural winery, is something very few people in the country have done, so congratulations.”
Sterling knows this because he and the vineyard’s other owners — his three brothers and his father — are black. This is one of the few African-American vineyards in America.
The Sterling brothers’ father and grandfather used to make wine back when they lived in New Orleans. It wasn’t a commercial operation, just a tradition of making homemade wine, brought over from France, generations ago.
When the family came to California, their father, Murio, became a cattle rancher in the Central Valley. Farming was very much in his blood. After he retired, he grew grapes for other vineyards.
The brothers, Stephen Sterling said, mostly moved away from working on the land. They became doctors and lawyers and businessmen — but when Eric, the physician brother, got a job in Santa Rosa, he overheard other doctors talking about their vineyards in between operations.
“My brother went to my dad,” Sterling said, “and he said we’ve been making wine for a while on and off as a family for a while, why don’t we buy vineyards here in Sonoma County? And that’s what started it.”
But starting wasn’t easy, Sterling said. “Banks wouldn’t give us a loan, even though we had experience as farmers for over 30 years. They literally said for an agricultural loan we don’t have enough experience.”
Some recent studies have shown that it is harder for African-American’s and Latinos to get small business loans. Eventually, after putting pressure on the bank, the loan came through. But being black in wine country, Sterling said, was always a thing.
“We’d be at a convention, and some ladies turned around and they started whispering really loud, ‘those are the black people, I told you there were some black people that had a vineyard,’ just going on and on.”
Sterling acknowledged there is a disconnect between people of color and the wine industry; they just aren’t the perceived market for wine. But, he said, that actually goes against the history.
The trend of artisanal booze isn’t new, and it isn’t necessarily white, he said. “When I talk to African-American families, in particular in the south, someone in their family made beer, they made some kind of liqueur, they made wine. People that I talk to from Latino- American families, the same thing. Somewhere in their family, someone has done these things. Our family was just fortunate enough to keep these traditions alive.”
They add their own traditions, too — instead of bread sticks as a palette cleanser, we were brought bright orange cheese puffs.
The biggest barrier to black and brown people reaping the rewards of the wine business is the ability to own land here. That sentiment is echoed both by Stephen Sterling and Lydia Maldonado. And it is the difficulty in owning land that leads to the barrier for people of color to feel like they can own the space.
While sipping wine, and looking out at the rolling hills, James Johnson-Piett, who lives in Brooklyn but was visiting for work, paused to reflect on more than just the view. “It’s an access issue,” he said. He’s been to Napa before to taste wine, but he says it was different. “You go there, and you are the only one that looks a certain way, it is uncomfortable.”
It’s not that he didn’t enjoy his other trips here, Johnson-Piett said, it’s just this time, he felt like he had a stake in the space.
“I’m looking at this, and I’m actually like, I could get married here. There’s some Christmas lights that could be run around here,” he said, pointing up at the trees, and you could see him envisioning the place glowing. “It’s nice to know that folks that look like me have the ownership in this whole experience and can host a space for people who look like us.” And also, he added, “ for people who don’t look like us.”
Wine after all, Johnson-Piett said, is meant to bring people together. “Isn’t that the whole point of saying cheers?” he said, raising his glass.
Glasses clinked. People said cheers, salut. For this group, owning space is something to celebrate.