Cheers! UVA Director Talks Wine at Black Alumni Weekend Event

A man in a vest and a floppy hat stands in field of grapevines, next to yellow crates filled with grapes

Reggie Leonard, who leads career development in UVA’s School of Data Science, has become quite the oenophile, boosted by a wine education scholarship that took him to Midland Vineyard. (Contributed photo)

“In a swirl, a sniff and a sip, you’re transported into someone else’s reality.” That’s one of the things Reggie Leonard loves about wine.

By day, Leonard works as associate director for career connections and community engagement at the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science. After hours, he cultivates his love of all things wine.

He aimed to get others interested Friday afternoon as a panelist at “Black Terroir: African Americans in Virginia Wine Country and Beyond.” The term “terroir” is a holistic reference to the natural environment for producing wine grapes, encompassing such factors as the soil, the climate and the rise and fall of the topography. 

The event, held at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, was one among dozens of gatherings at this weekend’s UVA’s Black Alumni reunion. Joining him were 2011 alumnus Lance Lemon, co-founder and co-owner of a boutique distribution company, RichWine RVA; and Nick Jordan, a 2008 alumnus who co-owns Delaplane Cellars, located on Lost Mountain in Fauquier County.

Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies and director of the UVA Democracy Initiative Memory Project, talked with Leonard about holding a wine-tasting session after she attended a similar virtual event featuring Leonard and others, organized by the UVA Club of Washington, D.C., in fall 2020.

“This event will showcase the history and growing presence of African Americans, and UVA alums and affiliates specifically, in Virginia’s wine industry, which is such an important element of Charlottesville’s local economy and calendar of events,” Schmidt said earlier this week.

It didn’t take much to convince Leonard to participate. “In fact,” he said, “I’m happy to share a glass of Virginia wine with anyone reading this.”

Ahead of the weekend’s festivities, UVA Today checked in with him about how he came to be such an oenophile – a connoisseur of wines, for the uninitiated – and other aspects of the growing culture.

Q. How did you get interested in wine?

A. I got interested in wine through free wine tastings at the Market Street Wine shop and through a YouTube series by chef-turned-rapper Action Bronson. I’d never heard wine talked about so vividly until going to that wine shop.

Even then, I didn’t think I’d really be able to pick up on the nuances they were describing. And when I began to pick up on those nuances, I didn’t think I’d be able to describe them. Then, once I was able to describe the nuances, I knew it was something I was seriously interested in.

Along the way, what I appreciated most about Action Bronson’s series was how knowledgeable he was about food and wine, while being so informal and unpretentious. It felt so much more inviting than the traditional contexts I had seen wine portrayed in.

Fast-forwarding a bit, I remember seeing a post in a Facebook group for wine lovers by Julia Coney (founder of Black Wine Professionals), encouraging people to apply for a wine education scholarship through Wine Unify. I applied, was accepted and began my journey in earnest at the end of 2020.

Q. What is your involvement now?

A. Currently, I’m all over the place in terms of my connection to the industry. Since 2020, I’ve hosted a three-part virtual community conversation series with Market Street Wine, spent the 2021 growing season in a vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley, curated a holiday four-pack for Blenheim Vineyards and hosted a companion event. And I’ve been helping with Blenheim’s new Oenoverse Wine Club, where I’ll be the emcee for all of the associated events.

I also serve on the steering committee for Black Cville, bringing some of my regional wine connections to bear.

Q. What do you plan to talk about at this event, “Black Terroir: African Americans in Virginia Wine Country and Beyond”?

A.  I plan to share a bit about how I got into wine, why more people should drink more wine, and both the prior and current connections to wine within the Black community. For so many, wine has been an incredibly monolithic space, full of gatekeeping certifications, and products intensely marketed as “luxury.”

At the end of the day, vineyard owners describe themselves as “farmers” and talk about grapes as “fruit.” While there are many different philosophies of winemaking, wine is at its core an agricultural product. In many of its best cases, that agricultural product represents an intersection of place and personality (from the vineyard site and from the winemaker).

Q. Why do you think it’s important to encourage African American interest in wine?

A. There’s so much room in wine for Black wine lovers, Black wine professionals and everything in between. One of my core messages will also be about challenging our relationship to farming and to wine in general.

For example, I’ve recently purchased two bottles of 2006 Chateau Guiraud Sauternes to share with my nephew when he turns 21, in six years. I only paid $45 per bottle, and I’ll get to show him that wine can be a beautiful experience, and that some of the best things in life just take time. He’s really into basketball, so I picked up a bottle of [professional basketball player] CJ McCollum’s Pinot Noir to share with him then as well. So I’m kick-starting a mini cellar for my nephew, to give him a bit of a head start with wine appreciation, and I’ll be encouraging those in attendance to do the same for their younger family members.

Virginia has a long history of farming and of winemaking. So do Black folks. One of the appeals of the Charlottesville-Albemarle region and Virginia more broadly is the food and wine scene. However, those spaces don’t always hold the array of diversity that exists in their nearby communities. It’s easy to be intimidated by wine. So when you add the layer of not seeing people who look like you in spaces where wine is a prominent feature, it’s not the most inviting experience. However, we’re out here. That’s my main message, and why I think that this event is incredibly important.

In fact, I’m happy to share a glass of Virginia wine with anyone reading this.

Q. How does your experience with wine fit into your life?

A. I’d like to get a bit more esoteric about my thoughts on wine:

The world as we know it has been architected and crafted by people from a relatively small subset of backgrounds. Simply put, I believe there is more to see. However, it is easy for us as humans to be content in our discontent with where we are, until something comes along to shake up our sense of normalcy. I’ve oriented my life in a manner that allows me to actively walk in the way of wonder, and in a manner that allows me to invite others to do the same. I’ve found that people see things like food and drink to be a more “palatable” way to exercise their muscle of trying something new. Wine is a concentrated form of doing so.

In a swirl, a sniff and a sip, you’re transported into someone else’s reality. The geography, the climate, the culture, the interpretation of the land’s anthropology through the lens of the winemaker – are all things that we can decant and let breathe through our lives. These aspects have encouraged me to continuously explore more ways to interact with my world.

Wine is the lens – and the kaleidoscope.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications