HAPPY HUMPDAY PRAGOBOTS!
We continue our series on African American Winemakers with…
Sonoma Valley, California
From “A Vintner’s Vision”, SF Chronicle May 2008:
Spend 10 minutes visiting with Mac McDonald, and within the same breath he’ll likely pontificate on his favorite wine grapes and a recent visit to Harlem. To the (then) 65-year-old winemaker, the color of his Pinot Noir is just as significant as the color of his skin.
Under his Vision Cellars label, McDonald plays in the same league as other top American Pinot Noir producers. But as one of a handful of African American vintners in the country – he estimates the number to be no more than 20 – he’s desperate to bridge the gap between his heritage and a market that’s still overwhelmingly dominated by white consumers. To that end, he’s equally comfortable pouring at a fancy wine dinner as he is speaking to an African American audience in the depths of inner cities, or getting his hands dirty in the vineyard.
While he’s grateful for the recognition he has enjoyed over the years from a primarily upper-class white audience, McDonald still speaks frankly about his frustrations given the lack of customers of color in the industry and marketplace. It’s what led him to start the Association of African American Vintners with Bates and Vance Sharp III of Sharp Cellars.
McDonald also hosts an invite-only annual greens cook-off each year which, he says, is yet another way to get people of color into wine. This year will be the eighth annual cook-off, where he’ll have guests bring the greens and other dishes to pair with wine.
“You’ve got to draw folks in somehow,” he explains.
McDonald plays the part of laid-back farmer quite well, but it’s all part of a story that begins in the woods 89 miles south of Dallas; a tale he has retold countless time over the years, both to charm his clientele and to encourage those with similar humble beginnings to get into wine.
“I was born the son of an East Texas moonshiner,” begins McDonald, reciting a line that’s splayed across the back label on most of his wines.
He grabs a stalk of asparagus from the cluttered vegetable garden that his young granddaughters helped him plant, snaps a piece off into his mouth and continues walking.
“When I was 12, there used to be these doctors and lawyers that would go hunting with my grandfather, and afterward they would drink my father’s moonshine.”
After one such hunting trip, a man had a bottle of Burgundy, and was taking heat from the others about drinking “communist wine” in Texas. He opted to share it with McDonald instead.
Leaning against the fenced-in chicken coop, he recalls the moment like it was yesterday. ” ‘Boy,’ he said to me, ‘how would you like to have this wine?’ “
McDonald gladly accepted. He cut out a portion of the cork with his pocket knife, pushed the rest in with a stick, and downed half the bottle (hey, he grew up on corn whiskey, what’s half a bottle of red wine?). “We didn’t have child protective services back then,” he says with a grin.
In McDonald’s eyes, Burgundy beat moonshine by a mile, and from that day on, he had his sights set on becoming a winemaker.
“I was as far out of the wine business as you could get at that point,” he says. But this is a man who doesn’t believe in barriers.
A basketball coach suggested McDonald head out west, and he moved to California soon after high school. He knew not a soul, but initially got a job washing cars in Oakland, and finally wound up at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. During this time, he began taking trips to visit wineries – one of those was Caymus Vineyards in the Napa Valley. “I’ve always felt that if you want to be good, you have to hang out with someone who’s good,” says McDonald. “And I thought Caymus was good.”
To this day, he credits owners Charlie Wagner and his son Chuck with much of his success.
“I started hanging out there, and Charlie Wagner would always talk to me and tell me all about grapegrowing,” he says fondly of the older man, who passed away in 2002. He and Chuck have been friends for many years.
“The way Mac enters a room today is the reason I was drawn to him then. He’s amiable to say the least,” says Chuck. “He can go into the room a stranger and leave with everyone thinking positively about him.”
It’s this personality that wins him an audience with wine aficionados across the country. He spends countless hours marketing himself, and his wine, to a wide swath of wine drinkers.
It usually just takes one meeting with McDonald to fall under his spell, but in a sense, he had more than three decades to hone his craft. While working at PG&E, he dabbled in wine for 33 years.
At PG&E, McDonald wore many hats, including line crew training, dealing with overhead line equipment and running the operating centers. “It was a great job, it’s just that I always wanted to do this,” says McDonald Winemaking was more of a hobby. He had some of his own equipment and would play around making small amounts in his garage. The Wagners ultimately convinced McDonald that he could really be in the wine business.
“I’m not sure why they put it into these words, but they said, ‘You’d be good for the wine business.’ They thought I would be really good at this. And I said, ‘I don’t have the money.’ And they said. ‘We’ll help you.’ They’ve been assisting me ever since.”
His first bottling was in 1997, and today, Vision Cellars wines are still made at Caymus Vineyards. Currently, he’s making about 2,000 cases a year.
Under his label, McDonald experiments with a few light and sweeter wines, like a Sauvignon Blanc-Pinot Gris blend, a rosé blend and a Santa Lucia Highlands Riesling.
Riverside International Wine Competition
Check out Vision Cellars for more information.