Meet Chuck “Vino Papi” Jackson Jr., also known as “The Wine Guy.” He’s spent 20 years in the wine industry, primarily as a wine educator. He’s a cofounder of The Mahogany Tasters, a tasting group that grew from former members of the African American Wine Tasting Society’s Detroit Chapter. His winery tour company, Domaine Detroit Wine Festival, has toured Michigan and Ohio wineries. Most recently, he was named chair of the Michigan Wine Collaborative’s newly established Inclusion and Expansion Committee. Here, he talks about a subject close to his heart — wine — and the potential for more diversity in his home state’s wine industry.
Work: Civil/landlord tenant division manager at 36th District Court in Detroit (29 years); founder/CEO at Domaine Detroit Brands, LLC (11 years); co-founder of The Mahogany Tasters; Wine and Excursions Ambassador at the House of Pure Vin (two years); industry member at the Association of African American Vintners (six months).
Professional background: I have a Juris Doctorate from Mitchell Hamline School of Law (formerly William Mitchell College of Law) in St. Paul, Minnesota; 20 years in the wine industry, primarily as a wine educator. Currently seeking Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) certifications.
Q: What led you to get involved in Michigan’s wine industry?
I started as a wine lover. Tasting all over the Midwest: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri. I also have tasted at several Long Island, New York, wineries, before I visited Napa and Sonoma in 2001. It was at V. Sattui in Napa Valley where I knew my passion was in the wine industry. When I returned to Michigan, I started a winery tour business called Domaine Detroit Wine Festival. Instead of a stationary festival where the wineries came to Detroit, I took metro Detroiters to the wineries. The Pioneer Wine Trail was just getting started, so I started there.
Q: Tell us about the Mahogany Tasters and Domaine Detroit Wine Festival.
Currently, what I used to do with The Mahogany Tasters and Domaine Detroit Wine Festival is being reformulated into what I envision will be trips, nationally and internationally, via the House of Pure Vin’s Excursion Program. Prior to COVID, we were planning trips to Spain, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Italy.
Q: What is one of the most memorable wine events you have held?
It was called “Linen On The Lawn” and it was a Mahogany Tasters’ event on Belle Isle, on the lawn of the Conservatory. Our featured winery was Bel Lago from the Leelanau Peninsula, but we also had South African wine provided by KWV. Rhonda Walker was our mistress of ceremonies and singer Penny Wells was our featured entertainment. Charlie Edson from Bel Lago and I have been friends since that event.
Q: What intrigues you about wine?
Wine can taste similar, but it is not exactly the same. The subtle nuances show the effects of terroir and the skill of the winemaker.
Q: What are your personal favorite Michigan wines?
Of course, Bel Lago, but I also love what they are doing at Lone Oak Vineyard Estate, Mawby/bigLITTLE, Bonobo, Rove, Chateau Grand Traverse, Black Fire, Chateau Chantal, Ciccone, Bowers Harbor and Mari.
I have a special place in my heart for my “brother from another mother” John Burtka at Grand River Brewery. When I first met him and his wife, Denise, they had just started Cherry Creek Cellars near Albion. His initial winemaking covered dry to sweet and Vitis Vinifera to French-American hybrids. Detroit City Cellars was our dream that finally materialized as Detroit Vineyards.
Q: What have been barriers to entry to Michigan’s wine industry?
I believe the main barrier in the entire wine industry is perception. For the Black community, it’s the perception that we only drink sweet wine. I feel that certain winemakers ignore the Black community as consumers because they only hear about us being sweet wine lovers and they ignore the larger group of dry wine lovers in our midst. Wine is a journey that generally starts sweet and evolves to dry. That was my experience.
Q: What do you think it will take to rectify that and are you seeing any changes already?
In Michigan, Mike Wells at Black Fire is helping to change the perception. He has a stellar sweet red that has been reformulated with Merlot, instead of the original Chambourcin. It’s not as sweet as the original, yet sweet enough to keep sweet wine lovers happy. Perception is changing because of GRNoir in Grand Rapids and (Black-owned startup) Drew Ryan Wines developing in Detroit. The perception is changing because House of Pure Vin is championing winemakers, especially Black winemakers, all over the world, who focus on excellent semi-dry and dry offerings.
Q: Why is it important to bring everyone into Michigan’s wine industry?
Diverse viewpoints allow inclusion, which leads to broader markets and that creates more opportunities to increase revenue and participation. The bottom line is that, if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. A rising tide truly lifts all boats.