After Meeting 17 Years Ago, Sisters Now Helm The Country’s Largest Black-Owned Wine Brand

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Andréa McBride was a 16 year old living in foster care in New Zealand when she got a phone call from her biological dad in Alabama. He told her he was dying of cancer and wanted to do one last thing before passing: connect her to another daughter he had — her sister, Robin.

In the 17 years since that fateful call, Andréa and Robin have not only met, but in 2005, they founded what is now the largest Black-owned wine company in the United States — and they did it without any seed money from investors.

They told TODAY Food in an interview how they connected in a fairytale-like story to form The McBride Sisters Wine Company and discuss how they're making the wine industry more accessible to marginalized communities.

'Sister, Sister'

Andréa said the aforementioned phone call was the first time she'd spoken to her dad in six years.

"The phone rang, and I picked it up, and the person on the other end of the phone, said, 'Hey, Andréa, it's your dad.' And I definitely lost my breath," Andréa recalled.

Her estranged dad shared his terminal diagnosis of stomach cancer and how he wanted to use his remaining energy to help her find Robin. He died seven months later, before he was able to find Robin (he'd loss touch with her after divorcing her mother).

But he did connect Andréa to his family beforehand and she traveled to his home state of Alabama to attend his funeral, during which family members vowed to fulfill his dying wish.

"It was crazy and awful and amazing sort of all at the same time. It was all the feels," she said. "Losing our father, he was one of 12, meeting family and a lot of people that I'd never seen before but looked a lot like me. It was amazing. They were all just really focused on helping to try and find Robin."

Andréa never doubted their intentions or efforts, but she did think their goal was unrealistic.

"I left there and had grown up in pretty tough circumstances, so didn't really hope too much about it," Andréa said. "It was just kind of like one thing in my mind was like, OK, yeah, yeah. But like, what are the chances we're going to find this person out in the world?"

Andréa didn't visit her family in Alabama again until two years later. By then, the family had been looking for Robin for five years and doubled down on their efforts after finding Andréa. The family had been sending letters to every Robin McBride in the phone book until finally one made it to their intended recipient in Monterey, California. Robin called the enclosed number, coincidentally, during Andréa's time in Alabama. Their aunt answered and, after praising God, immediately handed the phone to Andréa so the sisters could talk for the first time.

"Andréa gets on the phone and we're both pretty stunned and shocked because nobody thought that this was going to be happening at this moment because, according to the letter, she is in New Zealand, she's not in Alabama," said Robin. "So I didn't know I was going to be talking to my sister as soon as I make the initial phone call."

Robin remembers feeling more surprised than Andréa. "We laugh to this day because Andréa was very excited because, of course, she's known about me for a long time. I literally just found out about her a few minutes before I called … And she had a lot to share with me."

One of their icebreaker questions was: What was it like where you grew up? And it turned out they both grew up in small agriculture towns known for winemaking — and they were both passionate about wine. So, in an effort to bond, they went to wine tastings and vineyard tours. And eventually, they decided to start their own wine company together.

"A lot of our experiences of us being curious about wine and how we were treated when we were in those tasting rooms and stuff is really a lot of the foundation of what our company is built on today, which is making wine accessible for everybody and helping people on their journey and making it fun," said Andréa.

'It’s definitely an old boys’ club'

With the idea for the McBride Sisters Collection officially planted, Robin and Andréa scraped together initial seed money of $1,800 just to cover licensing paperwork. Now, the company offers products across the United States and New Zealand and raked in over $5.5 million in sales for fiscal year 2020, according to Nielsen data cited by Wine Spectator.

The process was a grind. Robin said the industry is "very complicated" due to heavy reliance on gatekeepers — wholesalers, distributors, retailers and more — before it's greenlit into production. Meaning, all those people have to buy the idea, granting access to the next in line, until the product finally makes it to shelves, where the profit can be made. That chain of command was the main challenge, according to Robin.

"We had to like figure out how do we introduce new people to wine and then pull through this chain in business versus the more traditional way, which is kind of buying your way up to get access to the consumer. We just went around all of it and created demand," explained Robin.

Another challenge was not having any investors or advisors at the onset and how the wine industry is "notorious for its gatekeeping," said Robin. "I think we actually underestimated that." The sisters felt discriminated against as young Black women attempting to join an industry in which they'd be a small minority.

SevenFifty Daily, an online magazine covering the business and culture of alcohol, surveyed 3,100 industry professionals in 2019 and found that of the respondents, 60% were men and 84% were white. According to Bloomberg, there are more than 8,000 wineries in the country as of 2020 and 0.1% of them are Black-owned.

"It's definitely an old boys' club," Robin said. "A large part of the industry is run by a very small group of older white wealthy men. There's a lot of dynasties in wine. There's a lot of family lineages that still run things. And a large part of opportunities and success has come from being associated with those people and those families. And so obviously for us coming in as opposite — really of everything that, to that point had been successful in the wine world, which was an older white man — we definitely were looked at as not just not belonging, but really incapable of being successful."

The sisters say they made it against extraordinary odds, but it shouldn't be that hard for Black women or minorities to join the wine industry.

Opening doors for other women of color

The sisters said their current career goal is to help usher in a more diverse generation of winemakers.

They launched the She Can Fund in 2019 and have invested more than $3 million to date in women — particularly Black women and other women of color — in the food and wine industry. In March, they launched a new initiative that funds scholarships for women in agricultural programs at Southern University, a historically Black college in Louisiana. Corporate sponsors of the fund include Morgan Stanley, the Wine Institute and Silicon Valley Bank. The fund also doubles as a mentorship program.

"We've been in the business so many years. We still don't see a lot of women, a lot of people of color," Andréa said. " … There was a lot of basic access to information that we didn't have that we felt like shouldn't have been one of the things that could have made or broken our company," so they're teaching it.

The sisters said with the doors they've opened, they're committed to doing their part in leaving them open and helping others through.

"When we first started, (the wine world) was definitely a place where we felt like we didn't belong," said Robin. "And now we do."

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