Wine festival Black Vines just celebrated its 12th year in February, with a sold-out event at West Oakland’s The Bridgeyard. But according to its founder, Oakland resident Fern Stroud, the annual fest is more than just a place for Black wine and winemakers: it’s a way to build empowerment, joy and partnerships for a community that has long been ignored by the industry.
Over 700 wine lovers were in attendance at Black Vines’ last event, which featured over 20 Black-made or owned wines. But Stroud urges us not to focus on the statistics. “I’m not huge on the numbers piece because personally, if it was up to me, I would keep it as intimate as we can,” she said. “We don’t want to lose that real touchy feely kind of vibe that we believe we’ve been able to curate.”
That said, Stroud is ready to let Black Vines grow, as long as it continues to nurture its appeal and joy. She’s built a foundation that could allow both goals to be achieved, as its growth to this point has been made through trial and error — learning what works and listening to the partners as well as the attendees at the events.
“We had no idea what it would be and how large it would become,” Stroud said of Black Vines’ beginnings. In 2011, after a trip to an Association of African American Vintners symposium, Stroud was inspired to find new ways to support the Black winemakers. Her first Black Vines event was created as a one-off to coincide with Oakland’s Black History month celebrations. “Looking at year twelve and how we’re just in this groove of ‘this is what we do,’” she said, “it’s amazing just to see the faces of joy throughout the space.”
Because of their size, Black winemakers and wineries don’t always have the resources to invest in marketing or creating events to connect with their target audience. Stroud said that the attention and partnerships Black Vines provides have helped fill that gap, especially for family-owned businesses and small operations.
Another Black Vines event, “Black Wine Wednesday,” has become a game changer for winemakers. A Black owned restaurant, serving space or wine shop will serve as host to feature a Black winemaker, drawing attention to both the winemaker and to increase awareness of the Black owned hosting space. “It’s something that you can depend on. It’s a great date night,” said Stroud of the three-year-old event. It also serves as a smaller touchpoint for wine lovers, a smaller-scale and less intensive experience than the yearly fest.
Stroud said that the core question she asks herself and Black Vines’ eight-person team is “How do we do our part in creating engaging Black business development, maintenance and sustainability of a Black economic ecosystem?” The answer often lies in strong partnerships and organic business connections with big companies and small.
For example, there’s the partnership Black Vines helped arrange for The McBride Sisters wine and Alaska Airlines as the company adds the vintners to their selection. This comes in time as Alaska Airlines ushers in its “Wines Fly Free” campaign, in which passengers over 21 with an Alaska mileage plan number are allowed to check a case of wine for free when flying from one of the 32 airports in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.
The Black Vines and Alaska partnership extends the reach of Black winemakers and wineries, bringing awareness to areas that may be starving for Black wine and winemakers.
“It is a wonderful opportunity to continue to provide our community with opportunities to travel to, meet new winemakers, patronize our wine partners, and take that experience back home with them,” Stroud said during an announcement event in February ahead of the fest.
Black Vines’ partnerships are not limited to wine. Oakland based tea company Teas With Meaning created a special blend of tea called Sparkling Black Magic, which has been offered at Black Vines events. Black Vines festival also coordinated efforts with Oakland’s annual Black Joy Parade, hosting a wine booth for parade attendees. “We’re looking at how we take this model,” Stroud said, “and continue to create spaces where … Black folks feel celebrated.”
A portion of the proceeds from the 2023 wine festival also went to fund The Black Female Project, an organization run by Fern’s sister, Precious Stroud. “Black Female Project has been really honored to be a non-profit partner with Black Vines for several years,” Precious Stroud said of her group, which is intended to affirm the voices and experiences of Black women in the workplace and beyond.
Moving forward, Stroud said that she’s looking for ways to expand Black Vines’ options for attendees even more. Wineries that wish to participate are encouraged to reach out through its website; once the winemaker or winery becomes a partner, they’ll also get a discount code to share with Black Vines members. “As long as we can get the name out there, the wine should be able to speak for themselves. However, we can help, we definitely do that,” said Stroud.
“We’re just bridging institutions or spaces that serve wine with our partners.” Stroud said. “There’s so many wine options out there if we can give someone the opportunity to taste the wine, they can decide for themselves if they want to bring it onto their menu.”