IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Defying assumptions, one bottle at a time

One of a handful of African-American winemakers in the nation, Mac McDonald is convinced that a healthy African-American wine market could exist. But he's committed to making top-notch pinot noir -- for everyone.

Mac McDonald makes an impression, never more so than at those wine events where glasses are raised high and noses even higher.

Over six feet, black and — if he's doing his wine spiel — probably dressed in earth-tone overalls and a straw hat, the Windsor, Calif., winemaker quite intentionally looks and sounds nothing like your typical vintner.

"The wine industry has not done a lot to go out and find other wine drinkers beyond the status quo," McDonald says.

One of a handful of African-American winemakers in the nation — California, the largest wine producing state, has just seven — McDonald is convinced that a healthy African-American wine market could exist, if only the wine biz were willing to expand its horizons just a bit.

To that end, there is a sense that his eye-catching entrances are meant to remind the wine community just how closed its borders are. His story, more often than not, is framed as part of a trend of the wine world's newly budding diversity.

"You have to know, in most cases, you're a sore thumb when you go to these events," he says.

Vision Cellars, McDonald's winery, survives on what he puts into the bottle — and on that front, he's had noted success. Since his first released vintage in 1997, McDonald has gotten a hand from some big names in California wine.

He bottles his small-batch pinot noir at Napa's renowned Caymus Vineyards, whose winemaker, Chuck Wagner, helped McDonald get under way in the business. McDonald sources grapes not only from Marin County (itself a rare choice) but from the highly coveted vineyards of Santa Lucia Highlands eminence Gary Franscioni.

The results are apparent. Rounded and full of fruit, Vision's wines hold their own with some of the most well-loved pinot houses in the country, and get reviews to match. They have appeared on wine lists at New York's Per Se and San Francisco's Rubicon.

Mac's shtick certainly doesn't hurt, and the African-styled artwork on his labels catches the eye, but he insists the wine still has to sell on its merits.

"You see a beautiful woman walking across the yard, but if she's got nothing inside her head, there's nothing there," he says.

A taste of BurgundyMcDonald's path to the pinot noir he loves is improbable. Now 62, he was born in 1942 on an East Texas farm near the town of Butler. His first exposure to liquor came from his father, a hunting guide and — as Mac tells it — the state's best moonshiner. His mother, Elbessie, concocted sweet fruit wines.

But his first taste of good wine came when Mac was 12 and a visiting huntsman brought along a bottle of 1952 Burgundy. Mac inevitably includes this whole chain of events into his self-introduction on the road.

Born into a booze-making family, he took his time to get around to crafting wine. He spent more than 32 years working full-time as a laborer and manager for Pacific Gas & Electric, tinkering with wine in the garage for 15 years before going full-time. Vision remains a small operation, with Mac as hands-on vintner and his wife Lil helping on the business side.

Now he divides his time between making his wine in Sonoma and traveling the country to sell it — from Pittsburgh wine dinners to Alabama country clubs. 

His message is not simply that black Americans should be drinking wine (and not just his wine) but that the wine realm needs to examine just how stark its color lines are. A key founder of the Association of African American Vintners, McDonald is, as Wine Spectator columnist James Laube wrote, "the unofficial dean of black winemakers."

'A big step'The difficulty McDonald now faces is getting customers to buy his wine without what the industry calls "hand-selling" — a retailer, or the winemaker himself, touting its virtues. Mac is an untiring enthusiast, but the trick will be to get the wine to sell itself without his presence. McDonald may produce just 2,000 cases annually, but not even he can personally greet every customer.

"He just really puts off a great personality that people attach themselves to, and with that they're attaching themselves to his wine," says Bryan Maletis, a brand manager for Winebow Inc. who distributes Vision Cellars in the Northeast. "But it's a big step to introduce it into the market without his presence here."

Vision's prices have also been a sticking point.  By no means do serious drinkers flinch at a $40 pinot, but those bottles usually come from well-established producers.

McDonald has worked with his distributors to drop the price, and with more grapes from small Sonoma vineyards ("backyard wine," he says), his entry-level bottles now begin around $25, even amid top-notch reviews that might justify a price hike.

Quality aside, it's often said you need a good story to sell wine — the boozy equivalent of what old-school marketing types called a "unique selling proposition." Though McDonald hasn't shied away from the hook of being a true minority in a hidebound industry, his vision clearly exists beyond that. Take the label off his wine, and it would taste just as good.

"From where I started in the back woods of Texas ... it's just progress," he says. "When people tell me we haven't made progress in this country, I say, what rock are you crawling out from?"