A place at the wine bar, a place at the winery
The maiden voyage of the Wine Soul Train was a response to the debacle last August in which 11 women in the Sistahs of the Reading Edge book club were marched off the Napa Valley Wine Train and met by police at the station—for the ostensible crime of being loud.
Oakland Food Policy Council director Esperanza Pallana said, “I personally felt compelled to organize this event as a big hug going out to the women, and all other Black and Brown folk who are ‘othered’ and left to feel that they are somehow wrong, unwanted, and devalued.”
Pallana, who is Mexican American, started to think about what it would be like if people of color had their own wine train. What would that look like? How would its priorities be different? The Wine Soul Train, held on September 26, grew out of those initial thoughts. “Our event was to challenge bourgeois access and the Eurocentricity of luxury food culture.”
Edris Rodriguez, a young labor lawyer in Oakland, was spurred to buy tickets when he saw the upcoming tour reported on local news. “Everyone heard about the experience the women faced on the Napa Valley Wine Train, and when I heard that this tour was being organized as part of the response, I couldn’t resist.” He was joined by his husband, Michael Ritchie Rodriguez, and his sister, Nalya.
So, on this excursion into Wine Country, folks who boarded the colorful, chartered Mexican Bus were free to laugh “uncorked.” The ride was loud in a road-trippy kind of way, as wind rushed through the windows of the converted school bus, and the diverse crowd chatted joyfully over the din. On the way back, the mirth reached new heights as toasts were made with wine bought at wineries on the tour. (Designated driver Rubén was at the wheel.) When Biggie Smalls came on, many knew the lyrics and rapped together.
Apparently there was a need for this event: It sold out immediately when announced and may become an annual excursion.
Maldonado Family Vineyards
The group met at 9th Street and Washington in front of Real Miss Ollie’s Oakland. With everyone on board, the Mexican Bus took a scenic route to northern Napa Valley, stopping just outside Calistoga at a wine cave built into a hillside, where the Maldonado family makes and stores their wine. Other Maldonado Family Vineyards facilities include a vineyard in southern Napa County and a tasting room in downtown Calistoga. The Maldonados are known for their chardonnays, which have been served at the White House. Besides their eponymous label, they also produce under the Farm Worker moniker.
Today there are roughly 15 Latino-owned wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Many share a similar narrative. In Maldonado’s case, the patriarch, Lupe, came to California from the Mexican state of Michoacán in the ‘60s as a farm worker. Eventually he brought his family over, and through hard work and dedication, he rose to vineyard manager at Sterling Vineyards and Newton Vineyard. In 1999, Lupe handed the reins over to his son Hugo, who has a degree from the “Harvard” of viticulture and enology studies, UC Davis. Lupe then bought his own 10 acres and planted chardonnay grapes.
Today, Hugo is on the board of the recently established Mexican-American Vintners Association, and he runs Maldonado with his wife, Lidia, who graciously led us into the wine cave. A great escape on the hot late-summer day, the cave is consistently in the 60-degree range, which keeps the wine stable without refrigeration.
Back outside, the group tasted a range of Maldonado whites and reds, then re-boarded the “train” for the hour-long trip to Esterlina Vineyards and Winery outside of Healdsburg in Sonoma County.
Rubén carefully steered the full-size school bus around a hairpin turn on a narrow, windy road, pulling up at Esterlina’s Everett Ridge Winery. The group disembarked and filed onto the tasting deck, where sweeping views extend from the vineyard through Dry Creek Valley.
The French Laundry’s cookbook features a recipe that calls for Esterlina’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, so we appreciated the humor when, between tastes of dry and off-dry rieslings, a 2013 Anderson Valley pinot noir, a 2010 Cole Ranch pinot noir, a 2013 merlot, and a 2012 zinfandel called “Diablita Zin-a,” we were offered Cheetos as a palate cleanser. I’m wondering what was served with the Esterlina wines poured at the White House?!
It’s a family affair at Esterlina Vineyards. Esterlina—which means Sterling in Spanish—is owned and operated by Murio Sterling and his four sons. Steve Sterling has an MBA in marketing management and handles sales; attorney Craig Sterling manages the tasting room and offers legal counsel. Chris oversees the family’s vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and Eric Sterling is a practicing physician and also chief winemaker. Hailing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the family has deep roots in farming. After moving from Oakland, where they had home gardens at several family properties, they farmed row crops and raised cattle in the Central Valley. Murio and his father were also home winemakers.
Steve, who is a board member and professor at the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University, shared some relevant statistics: Of the approximately 8,000 wineries in the United States, 4,000 are in California, with 1,000 of these in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Of the 8,000, less than 100 are owned by Latino, Black, or Asian families. There are perhaps a dozen Black-owned wineries in California’s Wine Country. Women in the industry are even more invisible.
“We feel blessed to be among the modern-day pioneers in this industry. While entry into the wine industry in no way parallels what people like Jackie Robinson or Maury Wills went through in baseball, the collective involvement of people of color outside of farm labor in the wine industry is still less than 1%.”
He concluded, “What you’re doing right here, just having wine and being at a multicultural winery, is something very few people have done. So congratulations.” The group clinked glasses and cheered.
To be Young, Diverse, and Urbane in Oakland
Edris Rodriguez, a wine aficionado, has tasted wine in many parts of California and also in France. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, he observed, “Even within my own family, the consumption of wine, and particularly fine wine, has dramatically increased. As the Latino population’s disposable income has increased, the purchase and consumption of wine has gone from luxury to an everyday item.”
Outside the wine cave at Maldonado Winery, I met two young Black women engaged in a lively discussion about Ethiopian honey wine. Tamyra Walker has traveled to Italy’s Chianti region and to Greece’s Wine Country. She likes traveling to different regions and tasting the differences. “When you taste a wine you look for notes. I ask myself, what is it I’m tasting? When they tell you a wine has certain notes, you ask yourself, do I taste that note, or not?”
Walker’s gal pal Andria Reta, wearing big sunglasses and a big warm smile, said that for her, sharing a bottle can be a bonding experience. “People are able to connect through wine. It’s a celebratory drink.” She is in a wine club and gets special rates on the boxes that come from vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Indeed, said Steve Sterling, “Wine sales are growing in these groups in larger percentages than the general public. The fastest growing groups in income and education are Black and Latino, two key traits of ultra-premium wine consumers.”
The Personal is Political—And Convivial
But not all Oaklanders have access to the wine industry’s privileged spaces. Said James Johnson-Piett, a food activist visiting from Brooklyn, New York, “The tour is a wonderful thing because most folks here have never been to a wine tasting, have never experienced the opportunity to be convivial with others around wine, or see how the product gets produced.”
A wine-tasting tour can be a political act, he said. “About racial and social equity in the food system, part of it is understanding where your food and drink comes from, and part of it is knowing the avenues to ownership of all parts of the system. Having equity in that system is super important.”
Yet, the tour was also an act of resistance for urban sophisticates like Walker and Reta. “It’s important to make Black and Brown spaces a part of the narrative,” said Walker. “We can support the economic development of our own communities so we don’t have to be beholden to these marginalizing spaces like that [Napa Valley Wine] train. That’s why it was important for me to come, to support people of color who are offering an alternative space.”
And, said Reta, “Knowing that these spaces exist gives people of color the opportunity to explore. I want to get out of my comfort zone, and still be comfortable and still be safe, and be able to try something new without worrying that I’m going to be ostracized. As women of color, we’ve definitely been in spaces where people look at us as though we don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s nice to come here today, and see people who are on this bus that look like us and go to wineries where, again, the owners look like us. It’s empowering.”