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Did you know that one of the first persons to break the wine industry’s color barrier was a Southern man?
It’s a part of Black history that wasn’t known to me until I stumbled upon a documentary project called “Journey Between the Vines: The Black Winemakers’ Story.” The film honors John June Lewis Sr, who discovered his love for wine while serving in Europe during World War I. He planted that passion in Virginia, where he inherited his father’s land which he converted into a 10-acre vineyard called Woburn Winery in 1940. Woburn has become known as the first Black-owned winery in the country. Lewis sold wine until his death in 1974.
It’s 2021 and the wine biz is still lacking in melanin. Less that 1 percent of the country’s vineyards and wineries are Black owned. So I encourage you to forward this newsletter to the wine lovers in your life as we raise our glasses to Black Southerners who are proving that wine is for all of us.
The journey to Robyn’s Garden
Before Roland Carter opened his own winery in Huntsville, Ala., it was his daughter, Robyn, who kind of spoke the business into existence.
Robyn dreamt about her dad opening a business and her being there to witness it. Unfortunately, not all of her dream would be true. Robyn passed away from cancer on Jan. 1, 2013 – just months shy of her 14th birthday.
Despite having a tumor growing out of her spinal column, Robyn didn’t fear death and never allowed her illness to keep her cooped up in the house, Carter said. Parks and gardens were Robyn and Roland’s favorite getaways after school.
Although she is gone, a father’s passion for wine and a daughter’s legacy work together at Robyn’s Garden Winery, nestled in a strip mall near Carter’s alma mater, Alabama A&M University. Carter officially opened the lounge in December 2020 so people could enjoy his wines while listening to live music. But the ambiance of Robyn’s Garden is a memorial to his daughter’s spirit.
“It’s kind of like she kind of saw everything,” Carter said. “I wanted to create a healing environment where people can escape their everyday concerns and worries – a place to kind of relax and clear their head.”
Carter’s love of wine started in 2006, when a friend invited his to a tasting at the Huntsville Museum of Art. At the time, he wasn’t sure how it would go. Wine wasn’t a “manly” drink in his world, but a watered-down type of alcohol. Being 28 at the time, his palate only experienced the hard liquor of his college days – which he paid for through severe acid reflux.
But once he started sipping on a Leopard’s Leap Shiraz, a South African red wine, Carter found himself exploring the world of wine. First, he attended more tastings. That evolved into visiting small, backwoods wineries during road trips. But it was the weekend trips to California’s Napa Valley region that expanded his knowledge. He saw the passion behind the wine-making process and learned about the intricacies of the culture, from how to hold a wine glass to the difference between Old World and New World wines.
Carter didn’t consider making his own wine until about a year after his daughter’s death. As he perused wineries on the west coast, he noted the high quality of the wines – but they started to all run together. A pinot noir here tasted like a pinot noir there. Carter started asking himself, What if we gave this wine more of an oak flavor? What if we added green apple to a chardonnay?
“I felt like the wine was good, but I’m questioning why do they not add anything to it?” Carter said. “Like you know, a lot of us in the Black community love our seasonings. So, I thought about ‘seasoning’ the wine.”
Carter educated himself through YouTube videos and started buying equipment like brew buckets and hydrometers to measure the alcohol content. The recipe wasn’t too complicated: Welch’s grape juice with oak chips and yeast. His apartment smelled like a brewery as he waited for science to do its magic.
It took about nine months to make his first five gallons, but it was finished right in time for homecoming in October 2014. Carter thought it would be a perfect time to unveil his product – and those who tasted it raved about it and asked him to make more.
Over the years, that five-gallon bucket grew to 15 gallons. Then 40. Carter became an alchemist as he experimented with different juices and fruits like watermelon, pineapple and apple. Soon he had a storage room full of fermenting wine. His expertise grew as he joined different wine associations and met area wine makers. His wines snatched up awards from the Alabama Wine Makers and Grape Growers Association.
After six years of wine making, Carter was outgrowing his space. Of course, he dreamed big and thought about expanding to create his own vineyard in Tennessee or Birmingham, Ala. But any farmland he found turned out to be in a dry county-area where alcohol are forbidden and wine makers warned him about how draining it would be to juggle his day job and with operating a winery and a vineyard.
He decided to stay in his hometown. And the locals thank him for bringing something unique to the Huntsville – a place were good wine keeps flowing as well as the live music and laughter.
The journey to Robyn’s Garden isn’t free of Carter’s blood, sweat and tears. He had to overcome circus acts of drama to get this far, but he keeps reminding himself of the lesson his daughter taught him: Keep pushing through the pressure and smiling through pain.
“She just stayed positive no matter what,” he said. “So no matter what I’m going through – even if I’m going through the worst – I always think about her attitude and that kind of makes me snap out of it.”
Pour up the joy
Just about every year, Carter turns up for his birthday by hosting a wine festival. He had to put the breaks on the fun the last two years because he had to get the winery ready for opening. Then COVID-19 crashed the 2020 party. Now that the winery is open, he’s continuing the birthday tradition by hosting Robyn Garden’s inaugural wine festival.
Ticketholders will be able to sample more than 20 of Carter’s wines while relaxing to live music. Carter talked about the flavors in some of his favorite blends and the moments of joy that inspired them.
- Blueberry Blues: “The fresh summer rain steams up from the pavement as you take shelter within the farmers market. You browse through all the fresh fruits and vegetables as your mother grabs wooden baskets of strawberries, bananas, watermelons and blueberries. You’re intrigued, yet slightly bored until the vendor allows you to sample the freshest blueberries you’ve ever tasted. At that moment, the farmers market becomes a place of joy and excitement.”
- Joy Road: “It’s the last day of middle school. You are advancing to something higher while still enjoying your youth. It’s the perfectly balanced excitement of sweet flavors coupled with a palate that is maturing.”
- Spring Memories: “You see the trees bloom as you visit your grandparents’ home during spring break. The temperature is rising but not too hot. As you sit on the porch spring your grandmother brings you the freshest glass of lemonade. At that moment, you know that you are loved.”
Expand your wine knowledge with these Black voices
If you want to dive deeper into the wine life, let these Black Southerners be your guide.
- Black Girls Wine & Society: During her quest to find a Black “sipsterhood” within the wine community, Shayla Varnado created the first wine club for Black women. The Richmond, Va., based society functions like a sorority that has almost 40 chapters and 300 members nationwide. Once you submit an application and are accepted, you will be part of a community of Black women expanding their journey through both in person and virtual education workshops and other luxurious opportunities.
- Color of Wine podcast: Sukari and Shomari Bowman are siblings who teamed up to diversify the wine industry in multiple ways. Through their podcast “The Color of Wine,” they have spent the past eight seasons telling the story of Black and brown sommeliers, wine makers and other trailblazers of color. Sukari’s wine expertise combines Shomari’s chef abilities as they talk about wine, food and music on their blog Love and Vines.
Cheers to the way you spread the Black joy in your life. See you next time!