How the first Black woman winery owner in U.S. had to learn to pass for white

Mildred Europa Taylor June 10, 2022
Winemaker Iris Rideau. Photo credit: Iris Rideau

The wine industry in the U.S. has traditionally been white, but thanks to Iris Rideau, more women and people of color are now in the industry. Decades after becoming the first Black woman in the United States to establish a winery, Rideau (née Duplantier) has announced the release of her memoir “From WHITE to BLACK: One Life Between Two Worlds” on June 19th in celebration of Juneteenth.

The memoir tells the 85-year-old businesswoman’s inspiring story of how she made it being a Black woman from a Creole family in New Orleans during the Jim Crow era.

“Iris Duplantier Rideau is not only a modern-day pioneer, groundbreaking businesswoman, and award-winning winery owner, she’s also a brilliant writer to boot,” Scott Williams, executive producer of NCIS, said of Rideau. “From WHITE to BLACK is a beautifully told true story of extraordinary perseverance, limitless vision, and the power of faith in oneself. Ms. Rideau’s illuminating ride through a long-ignored aspect of American history is endlessly fascinating and will leave you deeply inspired.” 

Truly, Rideau is an inspiration. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1936, she grew up in the 7th Ward of the city, a Creole section of town, where she suffered under Jim Crow, facing racism and segregation. “At the time, I hated the South. We couldn’t try on clothes. We couldn’t look at white people … we had to put our head down, step off the sidewalk,” she told the Los Angeles Times recently.

Rideau learned how to “pass for white” from her light-skinned grandmother but she knew that she had to leave the South to seek a better life somewhere else. So she moved west to California while in her teens but had to drop out of school when she became pregnant at 15. By age 16, she was a single mother working in a sewing factory.

That was the turning point in my life, that sewing factory. It was like, I am never going to stay here. I went back to night school and I worked at the factory during the day. And I took business courses, which I loved.”

After completing junior college, she got a front-office job at an insurance agency. By 1967, Rideau had founded her own insurance business, becoming the first minority/woman-owned firm to specialize in federally funded programs. She set up the Rideau Insurance Agency to provide “insurance to thousands of ineligible homeowners, Black-owned businesses, and non-profit agencies such as the Urban Leagues that ‘white’ insurance companies wouldn’t touch,” she said.

Rideau subsequently opened a financial securities company, specializing in pension planning for public employees in the late 1970s. “I landed the contract with the city of L.A. for their pension plan. That’s how I made my money,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

Rideau also worked with LA’s Mayor at the time Tom Bradley in developing the city’s first Affirmative Action Program to help women and people of color in securing contracts with the city.

In 1989, she decided to leave politics and the financial world for Los Angeles to build her dream home in the Santa Ynez Valley. She sold the two companies she had set up and managed for 30 years and founded Rideau Winery in 1997, which became known for its award-winning Rhone varietal wines. 

Her website says that when she first moved to the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara’s Wine Country, she discovered an abandoned Santa Barbara Historic Monument adobe house built in 1884 sitting on 22 acres of property.

“Combining her love of entertaining with her business savvy—(though nothing in the winery world!)—Rideau boldly purchased the property and restored the old house. She planted the vineyards to imported Rhone vines from the south of France, built the winery, and created the award-winning Rideau Winery, one of California’s top wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley,” her website says.

Rideau sold her wines directly from her iconic Adobe tasting room — which was known for its blues and jazz — and at many Creole-inspired winery events, she said.

“When I started, I couldn’t find one winemaker of color, and I couldn’t find a woman,” said Rideau, who now has an award named after her for paving the way for other women. “I finally hired a woman winemaker in 2014.” Even before then, she had done the unusual in the 1990s by hiring female winemakers, assistant winemakers, and tasting room staff for her winery.

In 2016, Rideau sold her vineyard, retired from winemaking, and started writing her memoir while traveling.

“Iris Rideau is a true inspiration for all women. She had a vision, followed her dreams and, created a plan and for her life that broke barriers for Black people to follow,” Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., CEO of the Bakewell Company, said of the trailblazing career of Rideau.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 10, 2022


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