“Where are The Black Winemakers?”

By John Ward

“Hello, welcome. What can I help you find today?” When you enter CoolVines Newark, inside the downtown’s Hahne Building, you will hear this greeting. It is a quick way to welcome and engage our customers to start talking about the products that most interest them. It is an interaction that happens all day every day, a phrase repeated so often that it becomes second nature.  So when the reply makes you pause for a second and think, it’s usually because the response contains a request that is super rare or niche. In 2020, people started asking us for something we did not carry.  Multiple people were looking for a product that was not readily available anywhere in Newark. When people started answering our welcoming queries with the same question over and over, we took notice. This question concerned not just the vendor, CoolVines, but our distributors, importers, the industry as a whole. It was time to find an answer to, “Where are your wines from Black winemakers?”

I’m John Ward, the General Manager of CoolVines in Newark and Hoboken. CoolVines is a family-owned small business that focuses on small production, low intervention wines, local craft beer, and artisanal craft spirits. We operate four stores altogether, two in Jersey City and one each in Newark and Hoboken. We love supporting other small businesses in our community, like the Newark distillery, All Points West, and Ironbound Cider, brewed just down the highway. That’s us; that’s our wheelhouse. At CoolVines we pride ourselves on not stocking our shelves with whatever big brand celebrity-endorsed products you can find at any other store. We have a seven-person Wine Council that tastes every wine before it qualifies to be offered to our customers. We rank the wines and evaluate them for quality, value, and fit with our standards before we ever bring them into our stores. We curate the products we present to our customers with pride. For this reason, our customers thought, if any store would have some cool unheard of wine from an awesome Black winemaker it would be CoolVines.

In the past, I had attempted to bring in the McBride Sister’s wines. Robin and Andréa McBride are two Black winemakers from California with a couple of different product lines, including their popular Black Girl Magic wines. The McBride Sisters’ wines are not currently available to distribute or sell in New Jersey. I reached out to them directly to ask how I can get these wines. Unfortunately, at this time, they are still unavailable in the Garden State.

I hit some other dead ends trying to find Black winemakers that distribute in New Jersey. In 2020, like everyone else, we were confronted with a new set of challenges. It has been a hell of a year navigating this “new normal,” but we are pleased to have some positive changes come forward. The demand for social justice and equality for all citizens is leading to changes everywhere; the wine industry has its own role to play in this dynamic.

When meeting with importers and distributors, we passed this question along: “Hey, where are the Black winemakers in your portfolio?” It didn’t take long for that message to travel up the lines of distribution. As the search developed, we encountered some amazing hand-crafted beautiful wines, newly available to us. Wines that were not just owned or partnered with but actually Black-made, handcrafted by vintners with skill and passion for the wines they produce. One of the wines that jumped out to our Wine Council was “Where’s Linus” from Chris Christensen. “Where’s Linus” is a delicious, unfined and unfiltered Sauvignon Blanc that captures the breezy citrus vibes of Northern California. At only $18 a bottle it’s a perfect fit for CoolVines — great value, small production, naturally made, sustainably farmed, and it tastes amazing.

Photo by John Ward

Another Black vintner that stood out with his amazing collection of South African wines was Tinashe Nyamudoka. Tinashe produces wine under his Kumusha label. Kumusha in the Zimbabwean Shona language translates to “your roots,” “your origin,” or “your home” — all three of which are proudly displayed on the front of his Kumusha wine bottles. So much of wine making is about crafting a wine that is representative of your land, your terroir, your region. Tinashe has done a masterful job of creating beautiful wines that capture the bright sun and minerality of the South African Cape. If you are looking for white or red wines, from more serious occasions bottles to playful everyday bottles, Kumusha has you covered. Every wine we tasted from his collection was absolutely fantastic. Again, minimal-intervention wines, natural fermentation with indigenous yeast, expressive of the styles of South Africa — this is the type of wine our customers deserve.

The work is never done and the search continues. I will be excited to report back to the readers of The Newarker as new developments are made in the wine industry and also talk to you about Black-owned/made spirits and beer, like Wandering Barman from Brooklyn or 4 City Brewing in our neighboring Orange. On a personal note, I am grateful for the opportunity to interact with customers here in Newark and to reiterate that people drove this movement. It started with us asking our customers a simple question, but it was Newarkers’ answers that instigated changing and elevating our industry.

Featured image by Pexels