In a third-floor loft a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, the wine merchants at Banville & Jones are deciding which wines New Yorkers will drink. Andre Mack has been selling his Mouton Noir wine through these distributors for 10 years, but today they make him wait.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, Banville & Jones’ staffers swirl, sip and spit around a conference table as global winemakers pitch new vintages and hope that these experts will push their wares just a little harder.
First this morning is an Italian maker, with a new portfolio of Barolo and Chianti. Then a French maker, who runs way overtime. Next up is Mack.
He sets out his bottles and begins to spin the tales of his own collection of “garage wines.” The “Bottoms Up” white blend (75 percent riesling, 8 percent viognier and the rest pinot blanc) has opening notes of diesel and kerosene with floral tones. “It’s light, easy, not too angular,” Mack says.
Then comes the Oregogne pinot noir (“My workhorse”). Mack details the source of the barrels and the location of the vineyard used for his 2013, and how he has the grapes picked early to yield less sugar.
Mack ends with “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades,” a syrah/cab/merlot blend that “Shows my creativity as a winemaker,” he says.
Mack’s stories compose his narrative. He gets lots of press for being one of the few blacks in the industry. But that’s not just marketing. He is a craftsman.
How important are Mack’s stories to selling his wine?
“Hugely important,” says Vincenzo Guglietta, Banville & Jones’ sales manager. “Andre tells a compelling story. Let’s face it, there are a whole lot of wines out there. Without a story, it’s just juice.”
For the rest of the day, and the next several weeks, Mack tells his story again and again — at a food-industry incubator that afternoon, at that evening’s launch of eBay Wine — a new website that Mack is curating — a TV show taping at his house that weekend, then tastings in Boston, dinners in Milwaukee, more distributors in Kentucky, and then a few days in Texas.
It’s a grueling schedule, but as Mack sees it, more fuel for the wine’s story. “At some point, Robert Mondavi was walking from store to store carrying bottles in a bag, too.”
Mack has no paid assistants, no sales staff. The wines are about a singular taste, a singular vision. So much so that Mack also designs the stark, black-and-white labels that vie for attention in a market where many drinkers judge wines by their covers. “I wasn’t able to convey what I wanted to other designers,” Mack says, “so I taught myself.”
“For now, it’s just me,” Mack says. “I’m the best person to tell my story and the story of the wine. So far, it’s working.”
And it’s a good story. Wine steward at The Palm in San Antonio. Winner of the Best Young Sommelier competition and the first African-American to do so. Recruited by chef Thomas Keller to head the wine program at Manhattan’s four-star Per Se, where wines can climb to $24,000 a bottle. Then a calling to strike out on his own, a risky move from a safe gig, self-training, self-doubt, mistakes.
In just under 12 years, Mouton Noir (French for “Black Sheep”) has grown from 36 cases shipped in its first year to more than 33,000 cases in 2016. That puts Mouton Noir at the very high end of the small-winery business, a category in which most wineries sell fewer than 2,000 cases per year.
Mack also sells a lifestyle, a concept of fun and approachability backed by disarming quality. “I’m trying to create something that is not just a wine company, but an experience. Something you can remember after the wine is finished.”
A husband and father of three boys, Mack says what he’s really doing — the hard work, the tough schedule, the constant hustle — is building a family business. “My children taste my wine. I want them to know what I do and where it comes from. They travel with me to the vineyards, touch the grapes, walk the farms. That’s what it’s all about.
“This is what I want to be remembered for. This is my legacy.”