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Minority Vintners Plying the Field

More Latinos, Asians and blacks are becoming winemakers, which may open up a broader market for the industry.

August 25, 2003|Michelle Locke | Associated Press

NAPA, Calif. — Rolando Herrera washed dishes, broke rocks and sometimes slept in his car in his struggle to become a winemaker.

Naming his wine was easy: Mi Sueno, my dream.

But Herrera, whose chardonnay was poured at President Bush's first state dinner with Mexican President Vicente Fox, is unusual. The harsh reality is that at many vineyards, minorities are still more likely to be running tractors than wineries.

Slowly, change is coming as Latinos, blacks and Asians stake their claim to wine country.

"We're seeing more doors open," said Sandra Gonzalez, president of Vino con Vida, a wine public relations firm specializing in the Latino market.

Earlier this year a handful of black wine producers formed a trade group, with the goal of raising their profile in the predominantly white industry.

"They're curious that there is an African American vintners' association; they never believed that there was an African American market," said Ernest Bates, co-owner of Bates Creek Winery and a member of the newly formed Assn. of African-American Vintners. "Once we tell them that there is a market, there is tremendous interest."

However, getting into the wine business is expensive -- a key deterrent to minority entrepreneurs with less access to capital. And, as newcomers, minorities are also less likely to have family or other networking connections.

Still, some believe minority winemakers may be in the best position to reach a so far mostly untapped potential market of wine drinkers. Surveys show few minorities are drinking wine and the industry has done little to reach out to ethnic consumers.

"The wine guys really have not done that much marketing to the Asian American population," said Greg Chew, co-founder of DAE Advertising in San Francisco.

Chew is developing a national association of Asian American wine consumers.

With surveys showing only a fraction of the U.S. population as a whole drinks wine -- annual per capita consumption is about 2 gallons compared with about 15 gallons for France and Italy -- there is a push to reach out to new audiences.

"We've kind of run out of the wine drinkers," said black winemaker Mac McDonald, owner of Vision Cellars in Sonoma County. "If we are to increase sales and market shares, then we need to market to the whole big world."

That doesn't mean that minority winemakers want to make "black," "Hispanic" or "Asian" wine. Though they would like to sell to their own communities, they don't want to limit sales to any one group.

"Not to say, you've got to buy my wine because I'm an African American," said McDonald, "but to buy my wine because it's a high quality."

Creating high-quality wines and running a successful business isn't easy, though.

McDonald only began working full time as a winemaker a few years ago. For years, he had made wine in his garage while working for Pacific Gas & Electric.

Herrera's story is similar. Money was so tight when he started out that sometimes he and his brothers, who help with Mi Sueno, would sleep in the car to save money.

Although Mi Sueno hopes to sell 1,800 cases this year, the business is still challenging. In addition to his Mi Sueno responsibilities, Herrera works as a winemaker at another vineyard, as well as a private consultant.

Herrera doesn't have a lot of land, but he does have a small warehouse stacked with barrels of hand-crafted wines. Some are his own pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, priced from $35 to $60 a bottle.

Another man might spend time looking around such a warehouse and reflecting on the long journey it took to get there.

Not Herrera.

"No," he said, laughing. "I look around and think about all the work we have to do!"

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