Latinx and Black entrepreneurs in wine spend three days in Virginia Wine Country and leave with a new sense of purpose.
By Sedale McCall
One of the best ways to ensure BIPOC wine entrepreneurs succeed in the wine industry is to show them what success looks like. And that’s just what happened at Oeno Camp. Oeno Camp is a three-day long immersive experience sponsored by The Veraison Project and Oenoverse. This year’s camp brought wine professionals to Virginia’s Monticello AVA for an experience we will never forget.
The Veraison Project is a Virginia-based nonprofit, led by Averiel McKenzie and founded by Carly Maher. Their mission is to make the industry more diverse, equitable and inclusive, which they do through immersion experiences like Oeno Camp. Likewise, Oenoverse is an organization run by Reggie Leonard in partnership with Blenheim Vineyards. They share The Veraison Project’s goal of creating a more equitable industry, but focus specifically on Virginia wine country.
Though Oeno Camp was meant to be fun, it started with some cold, hard truths.
Racial Challenges for BIPOC Wine Entrepreneurs
Being a person of color in wine is a challenge, to be sure. And it’s exacerbated by being a person of color in America. Our experience learning about Virginia’s wine industry actually began with learning about the state’s history with race, beginning at the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center. The school was one of the first schools for African-American students and is now a center that hopes to preserve the rich heritage of the community in the Charlottesville area.
We learned a lot about how the city often limited the community’s ability to live, work, and learn, even until the late 1900s. It exposed us to how much work there is to do in order for BIPOC wine entrepreneurs to see progress in the industry.
The conversation continued with a tasting that took us through Virginia wine history, led by Common House Beverage Director and freelance storyteller, Erin Scala. Scala first educated us on the history of winemaking in the U.S., and then shared with us how wine makes its way through Virginia. There, we learned about individuals like James Hemings, a slave-born chef trained in Paris who brought us foods we eat today like mac and cheese and french fries. We also learned about wine pioneers like John June Lewis who owned one of the first Black-owned wineries in the country, which even survived Prohibition.
These stories were an amazing introduction to the experience we were about to have.
The Oeno Camp Experience
On day 2, we went to Commonwealth Crush, a think tank and incubator, based in Waynesboro, Virginia. There, we met founder Ben Jordan, previously Early Mountain Vineyards’ head winemaker, and the legendary Lee Campbell, a pioneer in the natural wine movement in New York.
The two came together to promote Virginia Wine in innovative ways. One of them includes an incubation project for Black winemakers. The inaugural group includes Reggie Leonard and Lance Lemon from RichWine RVA.
Reggie Leonard- Winemaker
“I never saw myself as going down the track of being a winemaker,” says Leonard. “I mean, people would often say, when are you going to make your own wine? I’m like, ‘that’s not even what I’m in it for– I don’t know.’ And then I started working the production side of harvest here at Commonwealth Crush. To be able to collaborate on actually making a wine with someone who I came up with in the vineyard [Lemon] is just an amazing opportunity. It’s too amazing to pass up.”
Being one of Virginia’s Black wine entrepreneurs is something Leonard has grown into over the years. And it’s something he hopes he can help drive forward.
“You have so many Black wine entrepreneurs right now. You have folks that are doing wine tourism, wine writers, wine media, all based in Virginia. Some covering Virginia, others covering other areas. And so there’s so many opportunities in wine for people of color, for Black folks, for anyone who wants to be a part of this world, to really step in. And I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
Akeyla Porcher- Wine Educator
Another one of Virginia’s rising BIPOC wine entrepreneurs is Akeyla Porcher, a wine educator and business owner of Picky Wine Palate. Her journey started more than 50 years before she was even born.
“I was talking to them about maybe growing a vineyard,” says Porcher. “Maybe I should just plant something. And they said, ‘well, you sound like your great, great grandmother.’ I was like, ‘what do you mean?’ And they said, ‘well, she used to grow grapes and she made wine for the church. She made the communion wine.’ And of course, I had that AHA moment of ‘ what do you mean she made this wine? Why has no one told me?’ And so they went on to tell me that the vines were still there.”
Now, Porcher is hoping to carry on the legacy of her great, great grandmother and focus on her hometown of Spencer, Virginia.
“I hope to really bring not just jobs, but hopefully skills. You’re going to need someone that knows how to till the land. That’s simple. But then, you need people who are marketers. You need graphic designers, etc,” said Porcher.
She continued, “I really want to make sure that I’m opening up venues and avenues for people of Spencer, Virginia to come learn, enjoy wine and then also create their own businesses. Something that’s sustainable, something that can be inherited and passed down.”
The Future is Bright for BIPOC Wine Entrepreneurs
The Oeno Camp experience was an inspirational one. I hope it will also serve as a launching point for all of the wine professionals who attended the event. That’s something founder Carly Maher is hoping for as well.
“We founded the Veraison Project in Virginia, so it was really important that we begin to highlight my home state. There’s a lot of magic stuff happening here,” says. Maher. “I’m looking forward to building out Virginia wine with our community partners in Oenoverse. And doing Oeno Camp 2.0 next year. We’ve talked about maybe doing a wine label in partnership with Commonwealth Crush next year. Averiel has got just some unbelievable plans, including the Bridge Program. So much more to come.”
As for newly-appointed leader Averiel McKenzie, his dreams for the future are as exciting as they are ambitious.
“We have a lot going on. As we come out of Oeno Camp, all of the grantees will be paired with their mentors within the next week and a half. They get to interact on a monthly basis with the mentors and really talk about their goals, their aspirations and where they see themselves in the industry,” says McKenzie. “I’m excited for that part to kick off as well as continuing to bring attention to our Bridge program. It costs money to enter this industry. And if we want to continue to be as inclusive as possible, we need to eliminate those barriers as much as we can. We have big things coming up in 2024, so we’re super excited right now.”
If you want to support BIPOC wine entrepreneurs, consider supporting The Veraison Project via their donation link. Also, consider joining Oenoverse and their events at blenheimvineyards.com/oenoverse.