Mac McDonald didn’t know anything about wine, but moonshine was a different story since his dad made it in the tiny town of Butler, in east Texas, where he grew up. But one day when he was about 12, one of his dad’s friends had a bottle of wine and offered young Mac a taste.
It was love at first sip.
“It was a red Burgundy,” he recalls. “And I’ve spent my life trying to re-create that experience.”
Following a 30 year career with Pacific Gas and Electric, Mac and his wife Lil moved out to Napa, where he turned his attentions to trying to replicate that taste of Burgundy. He started Vision Cellars in 1995 with his first bottle of Pinot Noir, and he’s been perfecting his craft ever since. Using fruit from all over Napa Valley and Marin County, McDonald’s Pinots are becoming more and more known for their elegance and the handcrafted care he uses to make each one.
He’s one of only a handful of African-American winemakers in the United States, but he’s never let his race or heritage limit his love for wine. He offers a cheeky nod to his hardscrabble roots, showing up at wine tastings in overalls and a battered straw hat. For him, the delight is in creating a wine that helps people share good times, and it doesn’t bother him that he might be one of only a few black faces in a room.
“I consider myself a winemaker,” he says. “I know I’m black because I look at myself in the mirror, and I’ve been places where people are blown away when they learn I’m a winemaker – they think I work for someone’s winery, maybe. But you can’t take that personally or as an insult.”
McDonald says that in his experience many African-Americans simply don’t have a cultural background with wine, which he wants to change. Through his work with the Association of African-American Vintners, he hosts education sessions and networks with other black winemakers to increase the profile of their wines.
The McDonalds own not only Vision Cellars, but also a vineyard in Sonoma County. They source grapes from there and from all around California’s wine country, turning them into the seven different wines he creates. In addition to Pinot Noir, he makes two roses of Pinot Noir and the occasional Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
“I want each of my wines to be a real representation of the grape it’s made from,” he says. “And that’s not just about taste. It’s about the soil it grows in, and the climate. Combining those things together makes a great wine.”
He makes nearly 2200 cases of wine each year, selling them on the Vision Cellars website, as well as in retailers in Texas, California, Alabama, and Chicago. McDonald’s on the road 20 weeks a year, talking with people about what he does, sharing his wines and letting people see that wine doesn’t have to be a Whites only item.
“This didn’t come easy for me, being a person of color,” he says, pointing out that he’s largely self-taught in terms of both his own wine knowledge and how he makes it. The bumps that came along the way weren’t because no one wanted to give him how-to tips, but more because no one in his circle of friends and colleagues had a wine background. Through determination and asking questions and drinking wine over the years, he’s come to a place where he’s comfortable with his work and his role as an African-American in a business dominated by whites.
“In the wine business, if you’re making good wines, people don’t care what color you are. Winemakers want to talk about wines and they want to drink them and share them.”
For his part, he feels that Pinot Noir is the perfect partner for what he does. Not only does it allow him to recapture that taste of his childhood that held him so spellbound, it lets him make a food-friendly wine.
“I think about what I ate growing up,” he says. “And it was Texas barbecue, soul food. People don’t think about pairing those things with wine. But I can get out to people in Texas and in the South and show them how easily Pinot Noir goes with those things.”
McDonald wants to take the mystery out of wine. So much of what keeps people from getting into it, he says, is this idea that you have to have the “right” wine to pair with a certain dish, or that only some sorts of wine are somehow okay to consume.
“That’s not it at all,” he says. “Wine is about trying different things, tasting what you like, and seeing how it makes you feel. I don’t care what color you are, wine can really bring people together.”