When Robin McBride reflects on the growth of her company, McBride Sisters Wine, over the hectic, high-stress past two years, she lets out a deep sigh. “These have definitely been a very scary and challenging past couple of years. But we’ve grown so much during this time, in part because so much light has been shed on the importance of taking an interest in, and supporting, women-owned and Black-owned businesses.”
The largest Black-owned wine business in the country, Robin operates the company — which makes, among other vintages, the popular Black Girl Magic line of wine — with her sister Andréa. And in the face of these challenging times, the duo has created a model for how to use digital tools to build a more inclusive, welcoming wine world for drinkers across the globe, even during a global pandemic.
The open-arms attitude the sisters have toward community is rooted in their own story, which started when the siblings found one another as adults and began to see parallels between their continents-apart upbringing.
“When we met and learned that we both grew up in wine country — Andréa in New Zealand and me growing up in the Central Coast of California — that definitely put a little pin in ‘Hmm, what are the chances?’ That doesn’t feel like something that’s normal, particularly for little girls of color to have grown up in really agricultural areas that have a focus on wine.”
While getting to know each other, the pair spent weekends meeting up at wineries along the California coast, a choice that would lead to a business idea that would not only shape their lives but also redefine the boundaries of global wine stewardship.
“We encountered a lot of situations where it was assumed that we didn’t know much about wine, or that we couldn’t afford some of the wines. So, we started to say to ourselves, ‘Wow, it would be really great if we didn’t experience this.’ I started to think more seriously about what it could be like if we were able to teach people about wine and change how it’s delivered to consumers, and piece by piece, it suddenly seemed like, ‘We can actually do something here.’”
Robin and Andréa started McBride Sisters first as importers of New Zealand wines; then distributors; then producers of their own wines from New Zealand before opening up production in California. But by the early days of 2020, the McBrides had a new challenge, and used the global pause brought on by the pandemic to take a deep breath, assess the shifting sands of the wine landscape and tap into their creativity.
“We’ve been on the road for 15 years, basically, so sitting still for a little while really helped us to get those creative juices rolling and find out what people want, what’s valuable, and how people like to engage with wine,” says McBride. “Helping folks find the right wine — and food — for their every day, not just special occasions, has been really eye-opening.”
With so many people setting up Zoom cocktail hours or enjoying a glass of Rose while toasting a milestone virtually with family and friends, the power of online relationship-building came to the forefront for Robin and Andrea as they figured out how to provide new ways of creating meaningful connections that were wine-centric and digital. And that’s how the Black Girl Magic Wine and Book Club was born.
“Our Black Girl Magic line of wine has become very popular over the past couple of years, and we partnered with Simon and Schuster to do a book club where we match our wine with one of their new releases by black women authors,” McBride explains. “We have a club shipment for the wines that are paired with the story, and then we do virtual book club meetings where everybody gets to taste the wine and the author chit-chats with us. That has turned out to be something that I don’t think we would’ve done [if not for lockdowns], but it’s been a lot of fun.”
The first book-and-wine pairing included one bottle each of Black Girl Magic Riesling and Merlot, with an advanced-release copy of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton. The novel — which follows the winding career of afro-punk, avant-garde singer Opal and songwriter Nev — speaks to the sort of approach the McBrides have taken when building their business: forward-thinking, imaginative and unafraid to redefine a landscape desperately in need of expanded horizons. More recently, the book club celebrated the 20th anniversary of soul icon Patti LaBelle’s seminal cookbook, LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About, with a virtual sit-down chat at her home, plus pairings of Black Girl Magic Wines with the Grammy-winner’s most iconic dishes.
Finding novel ways to make wine more accessible has also resulted in quite a bit of restaurant industry collaboration. Because the McBrides are so keenly aware that wine should be enjoyed in a casual, everyday way — not gathering dust on a shelf in preparation for some once-a-lifetime event — it only makes sense that they’d play matchmaker between their wines and complementary recipes. In a free-to-download e-cookbook on their website, Robin and Andréa worked alongside celebrated Washington, D.C. recipe developer, Alex Hill, to create a wine-and-meal pairing guide called Rooted in Tradition, Remixed for Everyday Life. The handful of recipes — including a Thai coconut curry salmon paired with the McBride Sisters Collection Chardonnay — takes all the guess work out of your next dinner party or bubbly brunch.
But the biggest digital-first wine accessibility effort so far by the McBride Sisters is their wine school, McBride Certified: Wine 101 with Robin and Andréa. This completely online course has helped flip the script on more traditional (and, let’s be honest, stuffy) wine education, appealing to both seasoned sippers searching for a social outlet and newcomers who might not know their tannins from their terpenes — yet.
“Wine education has always been something that my sister, Andréa, and I have really wanted to dig into because our demographic is not necessarily the traditional wine consumer, and they haven’t had a lot of confidence in the space of tasting wines, purchasing wines and furthering their own education. We’ve heard that a lot over the years,” explains Robin. “Plus, traditional wine education is expensive. If you’re going to go through a certification or take classes, it can be really, really pricey.”
The McBrides have created a welcoming, easy-to-follow, module-based course that not only helps participants learn more about the wines they’re sipping — and, in turn, more easily identify what they liked to drink and why — but creates a community of people upping their Chardonnay chops from all reaches of the globe.
“When we were all locked up in our homes [in April 2020] and decided that we were going to do a virtual wine school, we literally just started filming modules on different topics on our phones and created a Facebook [education] group online. The courses are taught by us, first person, as we walk through the main styles of wine, but then we also pair wine and their characteristics with celebrities and icons. So, we have wines that we’ve matched up with Prince and Beyonce and Grace Jones. It sounds silly to explain, but we hope that having a musical or cultural connection with celebrities and singers will help people better remember the wine information that they just learned.”
Turns out, Robin and Andrea were right: With a little bit of help from Prince and Beyonce, the wine school has been a smash hit. The sisters are approaching the final module of the program, which has seen over 15,000 people make their way through classes.
“It really took off on its own. We thought, ‘We’ll create these little videos and and talk people through the different kinds of wines…and we’ll choose wines and tell stories to make sure it’s not stuffy.’ I think we hoped maybe a few hundred people would think it was really cool, and in the future, we’d maybe do something a little bit more serious. But it’s really taken off organically.”
There’s also a playfully competitive, social element to the McBrides’ wine school that makes completing modules and moving swiftly through the coursework almost like a game. And at a time when people have needed alternative outlets for enrichment, creativity and connection, the wine school has proven to be just that.
“Each module has a quiz, so you go through the lesson, take the quiz and get a score. But we quickly saw that people were taking the quizzes and then posting it in the chat,” Robin laughs. “People have gotten really competitive, in a fun way, with their scores. It’s become a really communal place for people to learn about wine and talk about wine. It also turned out to be something that has helped us get through and stay connected.”
An ability to embrace change while pairing serious wine with a wink-and-a-nod to pop culture gives the McBride Sisters a distinct advantage in our modern drinking climate over many of the immovable, old school stalwarts of the wine world. Because as these companies stay stuck in outdated modes of thinking and drinking, the McBrides are creating an inclusive, diverse space where people feel comfortable being themselves in the world of winemaking and consumption.
“When we started in the wine business 17 years ago, a lot of times we didn’t feel welcome, quite honestly. We felt like outsiders, and uncomfortable in a lot of places because we didn’t look like anyone else around us. But it really gave us fuel to make sure that everybody feels welcome, regardless of their background and where they are in their wine journey. We want everybody to love wine like we do. It really is our mission.”
And as the wine industry continues to become a more wide-ranging, forward-thinking space for people at every stage of wine production — from vineyard owners to winemakers to distributors to wine critics — the legacy of the McBride Sisters as profoundly influential will only continue to grow.
“I think the last two years have really forced people to take a look at the future of wine and the future of the industry. And if you don’t create an industry that’s inclusive of the next generation of wine drinker, you’re not going to have an audience anymore. It’s a no-brainer from a business standpoint,” explains McBride. “I’m really happy with a lot of the effort and commitments that I’ve seen, particularly from the mature players. And I hope it continues. There are a lot of us holding each other and the industry accountable going forward.”