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MAKING BLACK HISTORY

by Brian Clarey

Downtown Greensboro’s tony Southside neighborhood put a classy sheen on this end of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive — where once prostitutes, crack merchants and other street life flourished, now folks rush from parked cars to the shops and offices at street level or sit behind upstairs windows, glowing with comforting amber light. There’s still some action on the sidewalk — an occasional hustler or down-on-his-luck dude from down the road — and tonight three Greensboro police cars have wedged a white pickup truck to the shoulder in front of Vintage 301, the district’s only restaurant and bar which recently changed hands after life as the Press Wine Bar & Caf’. Inside the pickup, an African-American man and his passenger show their empty hands to the cops gathering outside the truck windows. In the relatively rarified air of the restaurant, another African American addresses the oenophiles, foodies and wine-dinner groupies assembled. “Now,” he says, clutching his straw hat to his black overalls, “we’re gonna talk about pH and acids and fermentation and stuff.” He pauses. “Naw,” he says. “I don’t get into that technical stuff. It don’t mean anything. You either like the crap or you don’t — it don’t matter what anybody say about it.” And then Mac McDonald, one of the very few African-American wine makers in the world, lapses the story of his induction into the wine business, an oft-told tale involving his father, a moonshiner named Sue in the south Texas farm country where he grew up, and one of his hunting

buddies who one day brought a bottle of burgundy to the backyard where ’shine was sold. “You ain’t gonna drink that communist wine, are ya?” the hunters cajoled, so 12year-old Mac found himself in possession of the bottle. He dug half the cork out with his penknife and pushed the rest into the bottle with a stick. “At twelve years old I drank about half that bottle,” he says, “and I liked it.” It became his goal to work in the wine business, and after high school he moved to California on the advice of a coach and eventually found work at Caymus Vineyards in the Napa Valley, where he moonlighted while working days for the power company. “If there’s something you wanna do bad enough,” he sayd, “you find a way to do it.” With some help from the Wagner family, which owns Caymus, McDonald was eventually able to launch his own boutique label in 1997, Vision Cellars, proud makers of a ros’, a riesling, a sauvignon-pinot gris blend and eight pinot noirs, that most elegant and sublime of grapes. He sells these wines in only six states — the ones he likes to visit personally — and North

Carolina makes the list, along with California, Texas, Alabama, New York and Ohio. His wines have won national and international awards; won accolades in publications like the Washington Post, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast; and been served in the White House under three administrations. Tonight’s menu, a four-course sampler showing off the talents of newly acquired Chef Ben Sullivan, leans heavily on these pinots. But the first course, smoky mussels with fennel, onion and garlic, pair with white blend, a wine that comes with a fable. Mac and his wife, Lil, both like white wine, but she likes sauvignon blanc and he likes pinot gris. He created the table white, he says, to represent their 43 years of marriage — and also so they could open just one bottle of wine at a time. “And look what happened,” he says. “[The wine] is 90 percent sauvignon blanc, what she likes, and just 10 percent pinot gris, what I like.” And the meal goes on: a phyllowrapped duck breast, a highlight of the menu, paired with the Sonoma County pinot, leathery, with balanced tannins; roasted leg of lamb with pomegranate berries with a soft pinot from Rosella’s Vineyard; peppercorn-rubbed pork belly atop celery kim chee that meshed well with the big fruit of Los Alturas. With the meal come lessons — lessons in yeast (“It’s not just taking this stuff and slappng it in a barrel.”), in barrels (“I want to know what part of the forest my barrels come from.”) and in production (squeezing the grapes cracks the seeds, which makes wine more bitter). “I never went to the university to learn how to make wine,” McDonald says, “but I lecture at them every year.” He says he’s not the only African- American winemaker in the world — at one time he thought he might be, but over the years he has met a few. Together, he and some others in this tiny demographic formed the African-American Vintners (www.aav.org) to increase awareness and appreciation for wine in the black community. “We’ve found that it’s not a financial thing,” he says, “but it was an educational thing.” In an appeal to the black community, McDonald says, the organization sponsors a greens cook-off every year, paired, of course, with wines from African-American vintners. “If you can get folks to think about a chardonnay, and then get them to compare it with another chardonnay,” McDonald says, “then they’re sitting there thinking about chardonnay.”

VINTAGE 301 301 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Greensboro, NC 336.333.3190 www.vintage301.com

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