Since the early days of American history, African Americans have had a knack for creating wine and spirits. The recently publicized story of Jack Daniel’s teacher in whiskey distillation, the African American enslaved man, Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green, revealed a history that dates back to the 19th century.
Other family recipes passed down among many African American families include beverages such as dandelion, Muscatine and blackberry wine.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and African Americans are not only creating spirits, but are now profiting in a market dominated by brand names like Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire and Barefoot.
The fourth annual Black Owned Wine and Spirit Festival was held on a warm September weekend and was well-attended, both by vendors and patrons. The event which featured a full day of tastings, music, food and an opportunity to mix and mingle with the creators of a wide range of beverages, is the brainchild of Chanel Turner, whose Fou-Dre Vodka, an infused vodka using natural fruits, co-sponsored the all-day festival along with Rap Snacks.
Four years ago, as Turner was growing her brand, which was first marketed in Maryland and now enjoys broad distribution with its major market in Singapore, the Bowie State University graduate had an epiphany.
“I researched distilleries and found a distillery in South Carolina that had a little bit of a different process. Four years later, I had a finished product,” Turner said. “I took it to New York and started distribution. Our first market was Maryland and that was all she wrote after that!”
Turner, like so many other HBCU grads, came to the area for college and never left after graduation. She has been in the DMV for the last 18 years and considers the area her home away from her native Florida.
“We need more of ‘us.’ There are a lot of us in this business, but we get overshadowed by the mainstream brands” she said.
So, in the spirit of community, Turner created a vehicle to bring attention to the minority creators of wine and spirits that would be fun, informative, and give those lesser-known brands owned by Black people some visibility.
“Most patrons would walk into a liquor store, and while the brand might be in the store, they don’t know who creates them. We have got to get the consumers to know that while they are spending money on products, they could be putting the money into Black and Brown businesses.”
In fact, her motto is “put the dollar back Black,” encouraging African Americans to be cognizant of where they are putting their money. But, Turner points out, it is not easy.
“It was and still is a struggle,” she added. “This industry takes money, it takes a lot of money and it is hard to just walk into a bank and get a loan for this industry, or for anything for that matter. If you don’t have the resources, you can slowly fade out I have seen a lot of brands come before me and after me and they are not here today. When you walk into a conference or an expo on wine and spirits, you see very few of us there.”
One would never imagine that is the case as vendors with distinctive sounding names like Blackleaf Vodka, Hidden Spirits, Coco Sky, Wifey Rosé and Talero Tequila, poured libations for enthusiastic festival-goers, some who came from as far as California, Pennsylvania and New York and others who came from Baltimore, suburban Virginia and the District.
The sentiments were the same — supporting African American and other minority entrepreneurs and having a good time. One group was celebrating two birthdays and two higher education degrees, while others just were looking for a good way to spend a weekend.
Adraine Upshaw, a statistician in financial services, and her husband came down from Baltimore and relaxed in the VIP lounge, which had a “Harlem Nights” theme this year.
It is a nice, classy event,” she said as her husband passed her hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. “It is nice to have a daytime, date night event. Of course, if we don’t support each other, how can we move forward as a people?
“When something attracts a crowd, it attracts everyone,” Upshaw said. “We shouldn’t be limited to sports and entertainment. We excel at anything we do. We come to excel!”
Ben Carter left a career in radio and television to promote his 100% organic tequila, which is distilled in Mexico, on a full-time basis. Carter said he took on the task because “no one else was doing it.”
Talero Tequila is now in 20 states and five countries, with a goal to achieve 30 states and 10 countries in 2020. His tequila is distilled in the same facility as Randy Gerber and George Clooney’s Casamigos brand.
“I was working in Mexico City when I was asked if I was interested in owning an organic tequila in 2016. I tasted it, and it reminded me of when I was in grad school and we would take a tequila shot for every final exam. We are the only Black-owned tequila in the world,” he said with pride and he poured the spirit for people who waited in line for a taste.
The Black Owned Wine and Spirit Festival will return to Union Market in 2020 to celebrate five years of promoting Black- and minority-owned wines and spirits, and from the vibe of the hundreds who viewed classic cars from the Unity Thunder Car Club, puffed on shisha in the hookah lounge, and made new friends, most vowed to come back, with another friend or two next time.