A Centuries-Old Law Preventing BIPOC Vineyard Ownership Still Resonates Today | Wine Enthusiast
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A Centuries-Old Law Preventing BIPOC Vineyard Ownership Still Resonates Today

Black winemakers are often asked, “Where’s your vineyard?”

When many people envision a winemaker, they picture someone strolling through their own vineyards—and this person is almost always white. According to the Agricultural Human Values journal, currently only 2% of agricultural land is owned by Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).

“There is an internal divide within the wine industry regarding what constitutes an authentic winemaker and a [consumer] perception that wine is only authentically made at [estate] vineyard[s],” says Dr. Monique Bell, author of Terroir Noir“There is [also] definite bias related to race, age, gender, and other characteristics when it comes to who looks like a wine producer.”

There are several reasons for this inequity, but some can be traced directly to Manifest Destiny and the Homestead Act of 1862.

Manifest Destiny was a 19th-century belief that the United States was destined to expand westward. It was used to defend the genocide of Native Americans and acquisition of western territories like modern-day Oregon and California. After annexing those lands, the federal government passed the Homestead Act of 1862.

“There is an internal divide within the wine industry regarding what constitutes an authentic winemaker.”— Dr. Monique Bell

The Act gave 160 acres of land in the western territories to U.S. citizens for the equivalent of $500 today. To put that in perspective, undeveloped vineyard land in Sonoma and Napa Valley, areas included in the Act, currently goes for over $100,000/acre, a marked escalation.

By the time it was repealed in 1976, 270 million acres had been transferred to 1.6 million people.

“To many, the Homestead Act sounds like frontier-individualism, with little recognition that it was both a federal hand-out and racially exclusive,” says Paul Frymer, author of Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion.

However, almost all recipients were white.

“Black settlers were discriminated against and often harassed off land that they acquired,” says Frymer. Less than 10,000 ultimately obtained deeds. Native Americans, Asian immigrants, and other groups were barred because they weren’t citizens.

Jason Mikami of Mikami Vineyards / Photo courtesy Mikami Vineyards

“Asians [were also] restricted by various laws, in particular, the Alien Land Law of 1913,” says Jason Mikami of Mikami Vineyards. “My grandfather was not able to own land even years after his arrival in 1896. After Internment, my grandfather purchased a vineyard in 1949.”

In 2000, it was estimated that 46 million white Americans were descendants of land recipients.

“If you are given land, you have a head start in building wealth, and that puts Black farmers and vintners at a major disadvantage,” says Theodora Lee, owner of Theopolis Vineyards in Yorkville, California.

Real estate is an expensive, evolving market, especially in desirable wine regions.

“Some [vineyard] prices have doubled in the last 25 years, let alone the last 50 years,” says Eric Flowers, owner of Flowers Family Vineyard.

Despite these challenges, vineyard ownership is imperative for some BIPOC producers.

“My grandfather was a sharecropper, so my dad taught me to buy land, not lease,” says Lee. “With land ownership, you can build generational wealth.”

As BIPOC vineyard owners, Mikami, Lee, and Flowers are rarities in the industry, but that needn’t be the case. Members of the U.S. wine industry, including those whose ancestors benefited from the Homestead Act, can help cultivate more BIPOC vineyard owners.

“It’s their [Homestead Act beneficiaries’] time to give back,” says Ikimi Dubose, executive director of The Roots Fund. “They can teach communities of color about the land—not with fear, but with the understanding that getting more people involved in this industry makes it more prosperous.”

Mac McDonald in his vineyard / Photo courtesy Vision Cellars and Mac McDonald

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars says that mentorship and education are important.

“I get calls all the time from people wanting to get into this business, but they don’t know where to begin,” says McDonald. “That’s why I started the Association of African American Vintners(AAAV): to do the education piece.”

Lee agrees. She partnered with University of California, Davis, to create the Theopolis Vineyards Diversity Fund.

“The more we empower our vineyard stewards through education, the better grapes we’ll grow, the better wines we’ll have, [and ultimately] we’ll strengthen our wine community,” says Sofia Torres-McKay, owner of Cramoisi Vineyard and cofounder AHIVOY. “The more diverse the community we have, the richer we will be.”

Education and mentorship are key, but just the beginning.

“Even if [BIPOC winemakers] received Homestead land, someone still has to purchase your product,” says McDonald. “If people want to see more Black-owned wineries and vineyards, they need to buy from them.”

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