Drew Sofflet

Drew Stofflet

The world of fine wine can be — or has been — at times polarizing in many ways in this country. Socioeconomics is at the top of the list. For most of the modern era of wine, the past six decades or so, wine collecting, tasting and touring has been an exclusive, exclusionary, almost country club-like sport. Fine wine could be viewed as a wealthy white person’s game.

African-Americans have a scant history in this industry, but over time, they have come to play a large role. The modern marketing machine has taken on various sectors of the population. As we saw the focus for growing the African-American market share with sundries like Moscato and overpriced, big-named pinot grigio; along with the glamour of tête de cuvée Champagne.

Outside those somewhat skewed lines lay some real stories about the current state of African-Americans and wine where a rich new history is being written with powerful and widespread influence.

Wanda Mann is one such influencer, writer and wine blogger with a strong social media presence. I have done some wine travel with her; she knows her stuff and has a personality as jubilant as a glass of Champagne. A Native New Yorker, Mann brings the “hustle and bustle” of a new Harlem renaissance to us through her travels and writings. She hosts a blog called “The Black Dress Traveler” and an Instagram page called “WineDineWanda” where she introduces wine brands or reports on the many grand tastings or winemaker dinner happenings, with a decided focus on Italian wine in her own neighborhood setting. Besides the interwebs, Mann often physically leads visitors on “insider” tours throughout this bustling, vibrant and modern borough, from museums to brownstones to shiny new wine bars. Find more out about her travels on Instagram at instagram.com/winedinewanda and her blog: blackdresstraveler.com/wanda-mann-founder-of-the-black-dress-traveler.html

Speaking of hustle, former NBA star Dwayne Wade was known for his own brand of putting in work. I remember watching Wade take Marquette University (my alma mater) to the NCAA Final Four as I raced around the floor of the Ajax Tavern back in 2003. Wade went on to earn three championship rings with the Miami Heat before he retired two seasons ago. With a bounty of affluence and more than a taste for haute couture, he parlayed that hustle to a life of fine wine. Wade realized his passionate new dream with the creation of his own brand, D Wade Cellars. With help from Napa winemaking icon Jayson Pahlmeyer, Wade is producing wines that include (his jersey number) Three By Wade California Rosé and Wade Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville.

Wade — with his own massive influence — showed up in style for the 2019 Food & Wine Aspen Classic to tout his emerging brand. The photo-genetic superstar even posed for the de-rigueur celebrity glam shots high up Smuggler Mountain Road. His winery Instagram shows him recently slurping oysters and sipping Champagne at the Versace Mansion in his adopted hometown of Miami during Super Bowl weekend. Check that Instagram action out at instagram.com/dwadecellars and peruse the winery page at dwadecellars.com.

Also out in California’s wine country, Theodora Lee owns and operates Theopolis Vineyards along Highway 128 in the Yorkville Highlands AVA of Mendocino County. The former trial lawyer and firm partner moved to San Francisco from Texas in 1987, forever getting the wine bug, as is known to happen. Her tastes and curiosity led her to enroll in viticulture classes at UC-Davis. In 2001 she purchased a former sheep ranch and began the tedious process of clearing the land. In 2003 she planted five acres of vines. Today, Lee is known as Theo-Patra, “Queen Of The Vines.”

I met her last year at a tasting featuring Santa Rosa’s Press-Gazette newspaper’s annual 90-plus point wine competition winners. She is wise, elegant, funny and full of life, and the wines are noteworthy. Her niche is the rare-ish petite Sirah, which does quite well in the warm climate of this high ground near the Mendocino/Sonoma County border. Named after her sorority DeltaSigmaTheta, the Theopolis Vineyard petite sirrahs (along with a few pinot noirs crafted from many different locales throughout California) have won gold, silver and bronze medals from wine competitions in San Francisco to New Orleans and beyond, and have earned “Editor’s Choice” recognition from The Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Learn more: theopolisvineyards.com/, and perhaps plan a visit during your wine country travels.

Finally, the Napa/Sonoma empire has been spreading its allures south to the urban center of Oakland, with several successful (and always hopping) wine bars and winery tasting salons opening during recent years, bringing “wine country” to the heart of the city. On Feb. 16, 2020, the “Soul Of The City” Wine Festival will convene there. This festival — now in its fifth year — is a traveling wine show featuring only African-American boutique vintners, with food/dessert/wine pairings and a vendor’s marketplace. More information: eventbrite.com/e/soul-of-the-city-wine-festival-tickets-86772287247.

Cheers to Black History Month! Remember, wine reveals truth.

Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at drew.stofflet@gmail.com