Clifford Richmond’s drinking career, like that of most oenophiles, extends as far back as his memory. “My father used to make wine at home,” he recalls. “We had grape wine. We had peach wine, dandelion wine. This was in Ohio.”
By the time he moved to D.C., decades later, Richmond was making frequent appearances at local wine tastings; he became a regular of the wine and spirits shop Schneider’s of Capitol Hill. When he moved to the Bay area, the budding aesthete enrolled in a “Wines of the World” course at the University of California, Berkeley, and, after that, a class on Bordeaux. The scenes at the classes were so strikingly similar to others he’d encountered since he’d become an enthusiast that Richmond finally decided to raise his hand:
“The instructor’s been around wine all his life, right?” Richmond recounts. “So I asked him if he knew of any African-Americans in the wine industry. He looked at me kind of, like, strange. He said, ‘You know, nobody’s ever asked me that.’” A smile broadens the acreage of Richmond’s goatee. “The interesting part of it was, I really took the class thinking I’d meet African-Americans who were interested in wine.”
The wine lover’s quest didn’t end at Berkeley. Some networking and Internet sleuthing turned up a few black wine professionals—a sales rep in California, an importer in Dallas—but no more than he could count on one hand. “Generally speaking,” he says, “there just wasn’t anybody. It kind of spurred me on to start Le Gourmet Noir.”
The group, according to Richmond’s business card, offers “unique experiences for the African American food and wine enthusiast.” The mission statement is deliberately vague. In the five years since he started Le Gourmet Noir, Richmond has mostly been conducting wine classes geared toward an African-American audience, but he has ambitions beyond lecturing about tannins and finish.
“Wine is a part of African-American culture,” he tells a group that’s gathered at Trade Secrets, an Afrocentric boutique on U Street NW, “but we just don’t see it that way.” As far as wine tastings go, the setting is nontraditional. Bob Marley remixes play from the sound system. The food buffet includes, in addition to a cheese platter, couscous and hummus. Of the 22 class participants, only two are white. Richmond informs them that the late Patrick Clark, an African-American chef who cooked for a spell in D.C., was one of the progenitors of “nouvelle cuisine.” In the future, Richmond says, “I could see having an African-American symposium on food and wine.”
First things first. Richmond currently lives in San Francisco, but he routinely takes Le Gourmet Noir on the road. His former home is one of his most frequent stops, and there was enough advance interest in his basic wine workshop at Trade Secrets that he had to add a session. At the class I attend, Richmond asks participants to introduce themselves. He admits that his classes aren’t meant for established aficionados; only a few in attendance proclaim to have educated palates. One woman says she “wants to be better in social situations.” Another explains that she wants her daughter, whom she has brought, “to be exposed to this kind of thing.” Charlene Wilkes tells me that she’s sick of knowing less about wine than her son. “I think he picks things up from a Biggie Smalls record,” she whispers.
Richmond wears a tie, but he’s no fancy-pants. A French chardonnay is the only wine he pours that costs more than $10, and his lecture is manifestly unpretentious, from his you-make-the-rules approach to drinking (“Basically, whatever you like works”) to his explanation of sediment (“Unless you’re drinking really old wines, you’re not going to see much of that”).
“Like, Cristal and Dom Perignon, those are wines, right?” asks the young woman who has come with her mom. “Not exactly,” Richmond responds cordially, and then he commences a short dissertation on champagne.
For his beginners’ course, Richmond chooses varietals he sees most often on restaurant wine lists—sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, Riesling, merlot, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon—and dissects each in something close to plain English. Each wine becomes a vehicle for introducing new words and suggesting food pairings. Richmond is particularly fond of Rieslings and other Alsatians because, he says, they drink well with the spicy foods that African-Americans tend to favor; he calls them “off-dry” and pours a lot in the sessions he teaches on pairing wine with Creole and Caribbean cuisine.
Swirling wine in his glass, he contrasts the chardonnay with the sauvignon blanc, offering his definition of “legs” in the process. “It’s the glycerin in the wine that gives it that viscosity,” he explains, before taking another sip. “It’s also what makes it taste bigger in the mouth.”
Apart from his opening remarks about Le Gourmet Noir, Richmond rarely mentions race—and neither do his students. As the class progresses, the questions become more informed. By the time Richmond pours the last wine, a New Zealand cabernet, Philip Wilkes is asking about aging effects and the different structural nuances that characterize pinot noirs and cabernets. When Richmond responds with a short speech about “smoothed-out tannins” and “backbone,” everyone knows what he’s talking about.
For more information about Le Gourmet Noir, go to www.blackgourmet.com.
Lunch at Tahoga is a “can’t-live-without springtime indulgence” for one reader, thanks in large part to its back patio. “The food’s not bad, either,” she adds, and I agree: The strips of cornmeal-crusted catfish come playfully curled up next to black-bean hush puppies that are good enough to sell by the bag, and a squiggle of smoked-tomato aioli keeps each bite moist and tangy. True to form, my guest, Richmond, washes his back with a glass of Riesling—which, I might add, costs half as much during lunch as it does at dinner.
Tahoga, 2815 M St. NW, (202) 338-5380. —Brett Anderson
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