San Francisco Chronicle

They grew up not knowing the other existed. Now these sisters are Napa’s newest vintners

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They grew up not knowing the other existed. Now these sisters are Napa’s newest vintners

Napa Valley’s newest vintners have one of the wine industry’s most striking backstories.

Sisters Robin and Andréa McBride grew up on two different continents, each believing she was an only child. It wasn’t until later in their lives that they learned about each other’s existence. Once they met, they became close — then went into business together, building what they believe is the largest Black-owned and the largest women-founded wine company in the U.S., the McBride Sisters Wine Co. Headquartered in Oakland, it produces fast-growing wine brands like Black Girl Magic.

Eighteen years after starting their business, the McBrides have bought their firstever vineyard, in Napa and Sonoma counties’ Carneros region. When they make wine from the property’s Chardonnay grapes this coming harvest season, it will also be their first Napa Valley wine.

The vineyard purchase, whose price was not disclosed, is the culmination of the McBrides’ long and improbable personal journey. What they build here also stands to become an important addition to Napa Valley, where Black-owned wineries are scarce.

“I never could have imagined the scope of this business” when they were first starting out, Robin McBride said.

Robin and Andréa McBride were each born in Los Angeles, nine years apart. They share a father but have different mothers. Robin’s parents broke up when she was 2, and she moved with her mother to Monterey. She had no contact with her father from that point on. Andréa, too, left Los Angeles with her mother — a native of New Zealand — when she was small, and they similarly cut off contact with her father.

A world apart, the two sisters were each exposed to wine in childhood. Surrounded by grape growers in Monterey, Robin dreamed of becoming a winemaker and tried fermenting jars of Welch’s grape juice under her bed. In Marlborough, a New Zealand region well known for winemaking, Andréa worked on her maternal uncle’s vineyard when school was out.

When their father later fell ill, he tried to track down his lost daughters. He’d seen a segment on “Oprah” about private detectives, Andréa said, and that inspired him to enlist professional help. He managed to find Andréa, then 11, and called her. “We still to this day have no idea how our dad got my number in New Zealand,” she said. That phone call was the first time she learned she had a sister.

Their father died a year later. Andréa flew to the U.S. for the funeral. He hadn’t been able to track down his older daughter before his death, but his siblings continued the search, writing letters to every “Robin McBride” they could find.

One day, Robin received a letter at her mother’s house in Monterey claiming to be from an aunt, informing her that her father had died and that she had a sister named Andréa. “The whole thing felt scammy to me,” Robin said. Nevertheless, she called back. Andréa happened to be visiting her new U.S. relatives for the holidays, and Robin decided to get on a plane to meet her in New York. She was 25 at the time, and Andréa 16.

“It wasn’t like normal life after that,” Robin said, knowing now that she had a sister.

This was the early 2000s, so the sisters had to write letters and send faxes to stay in touch. They grew close, and Andréa decided to come to California for college, earning a place on University of Southern California’s track and field team. When Robin picked her up from the airport, Andréa was carrying a javelin.

In 2005, Andréa’s junior year, the two began a business together, importing wines from New Zealand. Robin had worked in international trade, so she understood how to set up an importing apparatus. Through her uncle, Andréa had connections to boutique New Zealand wineries that wanted to enter the U.S. market. It was a modest operation at first, with the sisters driving up and down California, cold-calling at restaurants to try to sell their wares. The business grew, but over time they started to wonder whether their product was too precious. The New Zealand wines they were importing were expensive: One Sauvignon Blanc sold for $28 a glass at the San Francisco restaurant Aqua, Aqua, Robin said.

“We were so obsessed with wine, we just wanted more people to know about it,” Andréa said. “How do we make it more accessible?”

That’s when they started to get interested in making wine of their own, with the goal of keeping it affordable. In 2009, they made wine in New Zealand, and four years later made their first vintage in California.

Today, the McBride Sisters winemaking is overseen by winemaker Amy Butler in California, with Diana Hawkins as assistant winemaker in New Zealand. They buy fruit from about 25 vineyards in the Central Coast, including Paso Robles and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands, and from about 20 vineyards throughout New Zealand regions like Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Central Otago.

The sisters have a penchant for delicate wines. They love aromatic whites, whites, sparkling wines and lighter-bodied reds. Those sorts of wines — brut rosé, Rhonestyle white blends, Pinot Noir — form the core of the McBride Sisters Collection bottlings. In 2018, they started a new spinoff brand, Black Girl Magic, which Andréa describes as a “bigger, more opulent style,” with red wines like Merlot and Zinfandel.

“But the thread through all our wines is acid,” said Andréa. She prizes the bright, crisp structure that acidity can bring — a typical feature of grapes grown in breezy, coastal climates. Their search for land initially focused on the Central Coast, since their winemaking facility is there. Napa Valley didn’t seem “coastal” enough for their purposes, Robin said. But when they saw the Carneros property, and felt the breeze coming in from nearby San Pablo Bay, they were intrigued. What sealed the deal was the fact that the vineyard had previously been called M Ranch — a good omen, they figured.

The 12-acre expanse contains a 1920s-era farmhouse, guest houses, equestrian stables, tennis and basketball courts, and a pool. The buildings are surrounded by wild gardens filled with 100-year-old rose bushes, jasmine and honeysuckle. It will require major updates — they plan to begin renovations this summer — but the McBrides liked that it already felt like a family home.

Crucially, the property contains 4 acres of Chardonnay vines, with space to plant at least another 4 acres. They’re still debating what to plant; Pinot Noir and Gamay are top contenders.

The sisters have big plans for their ranch. They want to develop large edible gardens, hold special events and host students — like the recipients of scholarships through their She Can Fund, which promotes women’s advancement in maledominated industries. The property does not have a permit for a public tasting room,, so they’re still figuring out what the hospitality component could look like.

It’s an advantageous time for them to set down roots, because the McBrides’ profile is rising quickly. The sisters have repeatedly appeared on national television. television. They announced a partnership with Alaska Airlines, which now serves McBride Sisters wines in first class. Robin was the keynote speaker this year at California’s biggest wine-industry conference. The She Can Fund, which has invested more than $3 million in its career-advancement programs for women, has generated attention.

Their relative star power may be exactly what Napa Valley needs right now, as its wine industry strives to increase racial diversity among its professionals and its customers. Through their brands’ extensive reach, the McBrides may have the power to shift how Napa wine interacts with the Black community.

Then again, this Carneros vineyard may not be the McBride sisters’ first or only property. “Because we have this multinational dichotomy, we have the flexibility not to be tied to one place,” Andréa said. Do they plan to buy more land? She pauses, then says, “If I was a betting woman, based on our history, I’d say so.”