From Moonshine to Top-Fight Wine

mac mcdonald of vision cellars
Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald on the edge of the acreage in Windsor, CA, that he and his son Jeff are preparing for its first grapes. Photo: Bart Nagel

The Pinot Noir made by Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars has its roots in East Texas but matured at the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

It was a rainy day in January, and Edward Lee McDonald had just returned from a trip through his old Texas stomping grounds. Although McDonald grew up in the Lone Star State, he wasn’t there to visit family, but to attend a series of restaurant dinners showcasing his limited-production Vision Cellars wines. And if East Texas seems like an unlikely place for an African-American kid’s lifelong love affair with Pinot Noir to begin, well, that’s just a part of McDonald’s story.

“My daddy made bootleg corn whisky,” McDonald, who goes by “Mac,” explains. “He used high-quality grains, so his was considered the best around. Doctors and lawyers would visit, buy some whisky, and go hunting with my father and grandfather. You know, back then, if you drove a foreign car or drank French wine, you were considered a Communist. Well, one of these doctors liked red burgundy, and he gave us a bottle. It was a ’52, but I don’t recall the producer. We had no corkscrew, so I considered breaking off the neck and pouring the wine through a strainer.”

Anticipating my pained reaction with a toothy grin, Mac continues. “Instead, I got a pocket knife and dug out the cork. But there was a bit I couldn’t get at. So I shoved a stick in there and got juice all over me! I was 12 years old. That wine changed my life.”

McDonald never forgot that bottle, and he became determined to make a wine like it one day. His high-school athletics coach urged him move to California, and at 19 Mac got his opportunity when a friend moving to Oakland enlisted him as a second driver. McDonald found work at the Sherman-Williams paint store in Emeryville, before landing what turned into a 32-year stint with the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. While working at PG&E as an executive, McDonald volunteered for odd jobs at Caymus Vineyards, in order to absorb as much as possible about the winemaking process.

McDonald’s dream of making his own Pinot Noir was finally realized in 1996, when he purchased grapes from Marin’s Chileno Valley Vineyard. “I could kick myself now,” McDonald recalls, “because at first I didn’t think that wine was any good. It proved to be good after all. But ’97 was our first official vintage.”

Chasing a dream

Asked how Vision Cellars got its name, Mac’s wife, Lil, picks up the story. About six months into the project, they decided it needed a name. “Mac was still working days at PG&E,” she says. “One afternoon while I was waiting for him to come home, I thought, this has always been Mac’s vision, so why not Vision Cellars?”

Today, along with a rosé and two white wines, McDonald bottles a half-dozen different Pinot Noirs from vineyards ranging from Monterey to Mendocino counties. “I’m lucky to be working with some great growers,” he says, “and I want each wine to express the place it’s from. At the same time, the winemaker has a hand, too, because we can either bring out the best in a grape, or the worst.” McDonald never uses more than 20 percent new oak barrels, and exposes his wine to the new wood for just six months before bottling.

Less than 1 percent

That the 65-year-old McDonald is African-American makes him a rarity in the winemaking community. Figures indicate that out of the 6,000 wineries now operating in the U.S., a mere 25 or fewer are owned by African-Americans.

“Fine wine is not generally a part of our culture,” McDonald observes. In order to help educate the African-American community about fine wines, McDonald helped found the Association of African American Vintners. Other members include Black Coyote Chateau, Esterlina, Running Tigers, Sharp Cellars, Stover Oaks, and A Color of Grape Wine Tours. The group will be holding its fifth annual African American Wine Tasting Festival on Saturday, June 14, at Copia in Napa.

Mac and Lil bought seven acres in Windsor, just north of Santa Rosa, a few years ago. The property has a large barn, an old milking shed that will become a tasting room, and a house that his son Jeff and his wife Dawnn live in with their two daughters. They’ve just planted about five acres’ worth with Pi-not Noir that Jeff, who is being groomed to take over the wine business, will tend. There’s enough land left over for a sizable kitchen garden and for Mac and Lil to build a small house.

As we sit around talking and tasting Vision Cellars’ wines in a small office within the barn, Lil, Dawnn, and granddaughter Tatum join us to sample and commiserate over an unidentifiable cheese dip given to them by a customer. Food comes up often during our interview—the family was still talking about the four turkeys Mac had raised for Thanksgiving dinner—and when it comes to pairing food with wine, McDonald veers from the usual orthodoxy. “If I feel like fish but want a Cab, then that fish will have to swim in Cabernet. Likewise, I have a friend who will drink a sweet Riesling with steak. My point is: how do you know it won’t match until you try it?”

Certain pairings will still cause him to raise an eyebrow. McDonald recounts a recent wine event at an Alabama golf resort: “These boys were drinking my Pinot with oysters! Apparently it’s a tradition down there—oysters and red wine. I initially thought that corn whisky must have gone to their heads, but you know what, it works!” eSF

Tasting Notes

2006 White Wine California, Napa  & Santa Lucia Highlands ($18) “I call  this my marriage wine,” McDonald  says, “because every marriage should  balance 50-50.” In this case the division  is less exact, though the match of varietals is unques-tionably harmonious. Here, Mac blends 79% Sauvignon Blanc with 21% Pinot Gris for a wine offering peach blossom and citrus aromas, with fleeting grassiness, hints of tropical fruits, and a crisp, minerally finish. “In Texas we drank this with spicy crab enchiladas, and it was great match.” (540 cases produced)

2006 Riesling, Santa Lucia Highlands ($18)

“My mom used to come visit and she’d put sugar and ice in my Pinot, so I made a sweet Riesling for her,” Mac says. “But she’s stopped drinking sweet wines so now I make a dry Riesling.” This Chronicle Silver Medal winner shows classic varietal characteristics of honeysuckle, crisp apple, and a floral bouquet, with a blush of sweetness on the palate that fades into a bone-dry finish. (419 cases produced).

2006 Rosé (Syrah & Grenache blend), Mendocino & Santa Lucia Highlands ($15)

“I was inspired to make this after my first trip to France,” explains Mac. “I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on wine, and everywhere I dined I’d look around and see folks drinking rosé. I tried it and fell in love.” Vision Cellars’ version is super-fresh, juicy, and palate cleansing, with aromas suggesting mixed berries and a touch of muskiness. (199 cases produced)

2006 Pinot Noir, Chileno Valley, Marin County ($36)

An early advocate of Marin County Pinot Noir, Mac started making wine from this vineyard, planted nine miles from downtown Petaluma, in 1997. The ’06 has a bright, dark cherry color, pleasing fresh aromas of plum, cherry, and berries, with earthy, mushroomy undertones. Though it’s 14.6% alcohol, the fine balance and structure create a wine that doesn’t seem either overly big or “hot.” (220 cases produced)

2006 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($36)

Earthier, more robust, more mas-culine than the wine noted above, Mac’s Sonoma County Pinot delivers darker, earthier plum and mixed-berry aromas. At this point its fruit is less developed, but even still it’s quite flavorful, suggest-ing stone fruits and spices. (395 cases produced)

2006 Pinot Noir, Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands ($48)

From a highly regarded Monterey County vine-yard, this Pinot expresses a somewhat fruitier, more feminine style. Complex aromas conjure cherry, black olive, dark earth, and rosemary, while flavors are juicy yet elegant, with a rounded body and a beautiful, lingering finish. (388 cases produced).

2006 Pinot Noir, Las Alturas Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County ($48)

Owned by the Wagner family of Caymus Vineyards, this vineyard lies 7 miles from Garys’, and Vision Cellars is the only winery with ac-cess to the fruit. The ’06 is an intensely perfumed wine, with hints of lavender, black cherry, blackberry, and vanilla bean. Flavors are rich, quite juicy, and slightly heavier than Mac’s other Pinots. “This was the Texans’ favorite wine,” reports Mac. “The first mouthful doesn’t excite me but the finish does, and that’s your last memory of it.” (192 cases produced)

2006 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County ($36)

From vine-yards planted near Philo, this is Mac’s first Anderson Valley Pinot, and it’s a beauty. It opens with a deep, lovely bouquet of rose petal, blackberry, vanilla, and cassis, while displaying vegetal and mint touches. The mouthfeel is velvety and warm, with solid structure and a concentrated finish. (145 cases produced)

How to try Vision Cellars’ limited production bottlings are largely sold through its wine club: A partial list of where else you can find them: Blackwell’s and Duvin wine shops in Alameda; the San Francisco restaurants Rubicon and Ana Mandara; Per Se and Jean-Georges in New York, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and Pesce in Houston.