Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a call to support BIPOC-owned businesses has been front and center as a source of allyship. Napa Valley has upheld a specific image for so long—one of wealth, privilege, and power and of the dearth of melanated people. But thankfully, that is changing. BIPOC businesses are thriving. Here are a few places—and the people behind them—that you can support now and forever. They are literally changing the face and landscape of the Valley. And that’s a great thing.
The connector: Maryam Ahmed
Maryam Ahmed, founder of Maryam + Company, established her consultancy business in the wake of the racial reckoning and subsequent atrocities of 2020. Forging connections and offering support within communities of color was the catalyst behind her company, and she works with purpose-driven solopreneurs and wineries to increase their impact on such communities.
“Our highest purpose is to amplify vibrant communities and build impactful connections through the celebration of food and wine,” says Ahmed. “We create brand extension programs and educational experiences for our clients, with food and wine at the center of our work. My Napa Valley clients are committed to creating more inclusive experiences for food and wine lovers while nurturing the environment around them.”
Her clients in the Napa Valley region include Clif Family Winery, where Ahmed says visitors can have a “choose-your-own-adventure” experience, enjoying lunch from the family’s food truck, Bruschetteria, or a wine pairing experience in the new Enoteca space. She also works with the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, which “offers hands-on cooking experiences, a restaurant, and a foodie lover’s retail shop.”
Why food and wine? Because they’e for for sharing—sharing experiences, memories, and connections. Ahmed believes that food and wine are ways in which people of marginalized communities can have a literal seat at the table. To some, they might seem frivolous, but they offer an insight into culture—a cultural lens, if you will. In one bite or one sip, thousands of years of history can be told and absorbed and all without leaving home. Ahmed understands this.
One of the initiatives that Ahmed created in 2022 is Field Blends, an immersive, multiday wine trip highlighting lesser-known yet high-quality wine regions. Her first one was to Walla Walla’s Columbia Valley in Washington and her next is to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Her visits support wineries and restaurants owned by people of color and others who have historically been un- or under-represented in the culinary space. It has been an excellent way to bring such places to the fore for the participants and the greater public.
The heritage seeker: Mailynh Phan
Mailynh Phan, CEO of RD Winery, the only Vietnamese-owned winery in Napa Valley, has similar sentiments. She feels that touting RD’s Vietnamese heritage is a point of pride. “As we all know, being the first or the only comes with a set of pressures, but it also comes with a lot of rewards,” says Phan. “I am approached pretty often by folks who are so happy to see us in the Valley. Whether or not they are Vietnamese in particular, they identify with us, they’re rooting for us, and they often feel welcome in a world they may have felt unwelcome in before.”
Though the owners and Phan were rightly excited about the opening of the winery, they were initially unsure of how to promote it. “It took me a bit of time to fully embrace our identity,” says Phan. “In the beginning, I was concerned about the lack of a historical or cultural link between wine and Vietnam. I was concerned that we would be immediately written off. . . . I eventually realized that ‘burying the lede’ on our Vietnamese identity would be a huge mistake and a wasted opportunity to shift the perceptions around wine: who’s it for, who makes it, who is welcome in this world.”
RD fully and confidently embraces its place and space in the world now. The winery chose wine names that allude to its Vietnamese heritage, like Fifth Moon or Hundred Knot, which is named after a Vietnamese fable, and Vietnamese artists’ works line the tasting room walls. RD’s tasting room is the only one in the Valley whose wine is paired with pan-Asian food to showcase just how food friendly the wines can be. Shrimp cocktail and veggie spring rolls are paired with malvasia bianca and chenin blanc, respectively.
The winery is in south Napa Valley, at the intersection where Highway 29 meets Highway 12, a fitting locale for a winery emphasizing a marriage of cultures. Though the winery was initially founded eight years ago specifically to export to the Vietnamese market, RD decided to think bigger and more globally, sharing a little of its culture with the world at large.
The palate pleaser: Charles “Buster” Davis
One of the food staples in the Valley is Buster’s Southern BBQ in Calistoga. Whether you’re approaching from the north or south, the white plume of smoke can be seen for miles around while that unmistakable scent of char and hickory-sweet barbecue sauce fills the air. And it’s been that way for nearly 24 years. That Charles “Buster” Davis has one of the most popular eateries in the Valley, and has been in business in the same place for over two decades, is a testament to his craft, handed down to him by his mother, and his delectable food like his tri-tip sandwich.
Although it may seem like opening a Black-owned barbecue joint in sleepy Calistoga in the late ’90s was an odd choice, it was pure serendipity for Davis. “I did not choose Calistoga,” he says. “I used to have a place down in Southern California, but it was taken away in an eminent domain action and I got a pocketful of money.”
Davis recounts his start in Calistoga the way a grandpa tells a story of the good ol’ days to one of his grandchildren. “One of my customers used to come in [to the restaurant] every Sunday to buy a Los Angeles Times, sit and read it, and then go,” Davis says. “He moved up here, up north. After about a year or so, I noticed he hadn’t been around.” One day, Davis got a phone call and recognized the voice as Peter Lang, the customer who would read and buy the L.A. Times. Lang had opened a wildlife park called Safari West and needed help with the kitchen.
So Davis brought his barbecue pit up and stayed at the ranch for a year. That was 1999. In 2000, Lang’s business partner separately wanted to open a coffee shop in a little building he found in downtown Calistoga. “He didn’t get it off [the ground] so he sold me the place. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I put my barbecue pit here and started selling barbecue and the rest is history.”
Davis attributes Buster’s success and longevity to the “rawness” of both the town of Calistoga and his own restaurant. It’s just good, down-home food without pretense. He understands that there’s a changing landscape of consumers, and that many of them have opted to go vegetarian or vegan, but he also knows that there’s a large swath of people who still have carnivorous tendencies and relish seeing meat prepared in a primal way, “out in the elements” right before their eyes. Part of his popularity also hinges on the weekly jazz and blues performances that he hosts, which bring in internationally renowned artists like Alvon Johnson and Carlos Reyes. And what could be a better pairing than barbecue and jazz?