Rideau, Iris 1940(?)–
Iris Rideau 1940(?)–
Iris Rideau may be the only African-American female winery owner in the United States. Her success in the competitive world of vines and vineyards seems surprising, given that she knew nothing about wines before setting up Rideau Vineyard in the mid-1990s, and that opening a winery wasn’t even her first choice when she decided to start a new business. Yet to those who knew Iris Rideau well, it was no surprise that her wines began winning prizes and garnering write-ups in magazines like Wine Spectator. She had a long record of success in business behind her.
And furthermore, Rideau grew up surrounded by good food and an appreciation for the pleasures of the palate. Born Iris Duplantier around 1940 in New Orleans, she lived in the city’s Seventh Ward, a Creole neighborhood. Two of her uncles ran a restaurant called Little Ferd’s, and food was central to her domestic life. “I’m originally from New Orleans, and I have a Creole heritage,” she told Wines & Vines. “When you’re born and raised in New Orleans, you have to cook. I grew up with this culture of good food and good wine, so starting a winery was kind of a natural for me.”
Rideau and her mother moved to Los Angeles when she was 10, and as she grew up her love of food never left her. She would always, she told New Orleans Magazine, taste “everything I thought might be good.” But it was a long time before Rideau put her good taste to work in her career. She worked in a variety of positions in the Los Angeles area, even becoming a model for Victoria’s Secret catalog at one point. Though she stopped using her maiden name at some point in her adult life, little information is known about Rideau’s personal life.
In 1967, she opened Rideau & Associates Insurance Agency and later created another business, Rideau Retirement Planning Consultants. These enterprises were tremendously successful; by the 1990s Rideau was worth an estimated $12 million, and in 1998 she was listed in an Essence magazine feature profiling some of the nation’s wealthiest African-American female business owners. But by the late 1980s Rideau, who had grown up in neighborhood-oriented New Orleans, was tired of the stress of living in Los Angeles and its on-the-road life. Looking toward retirement, she purchased a six-acre plot of land northwest of Los Angeles near the town of Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley.
She had two houses built on the land, one for herself and the other for her mother Olivia. Then, in 1995, she bought another 24 acres of land adjoining the plot she already owned. The new land contained a crumbling mansion built in 1884 by two English immigrants, a local landmark called the Alamo Pintado Adobe that had served as an inn at the turn of the nineteenth century. Rideau was looking for a new outlet for her considerable energies. “The closer I got to retiring, the more I realized that I wasn’t ready to quit working,” she told Wines & Vines. So she laid plans to restore the mansion as a bed-and-breakfast inn. She worked closely with an architect on the restoration.
At a Glance…
Born Iris Duplantier in 1940(?) in New Orleans, LA.
Career: Rideau & Associates Insurance Agency, owner, 1967-89; Rideau Retirement Planning Consultants, owner, c.1960s-c. 1990s; Rideau Vineyard, owner, 1997-.
Awards; Best of Show, New Orleans Wine Competition, 1998; more than three dozen awards for individual wines since 1997.
Addresses: Office — Rideau Vineyard, 1562 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang, CA 93463, Web —www.rideauvineyard.com.
The bed-and-breakfast plan couldn’t be reconciled with local zoning regulations, but Rideau did determine that a wine tasting room would be permitted. So, with an abundance of prime Central Coast grape-growing land at her disposal, Rideau decided on a winery even though she knew little about the business. At the beginning it might have seemed like a second choice, but Rideau, with her love of good food, quickly warmed to the idea. “Once you learn how to run one business successfully, you can pretty much run any business,” Rideau pointed out to Essence. “You just have to learn about the industry and surround yourself with experienced and talented people.”
Those talented people in Rideau’s case included veteran winemakers Rick Longoria, Ariel LaVie, and James Rutherford, who supervised Rideau’s Rhone-style wines and who, unbeknownst to Rideau at first, had some black ancestry. Rideau Vineyard opened for business in 1997, at first buying grapes from neighboring wineries. Rideau had lots of competition in her part of California, but her wines began winning prizes almost from the start. One vintage took the Best of Show prize in the 1998 New Orleans Wine Competition, and Wine Spectator magazine took note of several of her wines.
Rideau’s 15-acre vineyard cost about $375,000 to develop, an expense partly financed by the sale of Rideau’s other businesses in 1999. By 2002 she was making wines from grapes grown on site. By that time, Rideau had learned more about her new business. She moved away from selling wine through wholesalers in favor of a direct, hands-on approach that involved making fine restaurants and high-end retailers aware of her product. Rideau also focused on her tasting room housed in the Alamo Pintado Adobe mansion. The tasting room became a popular Southern California stop for food lovers, and it helped introduce consumers to Rideau’s wines.
That was important for a business like Rideau’s, because as an African-American winemaker she couldn’t necessarily count on the African-American customer base that other black business owners enjoyed. Consumption of fine wines was historically low among African Americans, but winemakers were beginning to market their wares to a group many saw as an under-served potential market. Rideau herself didn’t expect a large black customer base, but she was pleasantly surprised. “I have gotten so much support from the black community,” she told Wines & Vines. “The people just started coming—now they come in buses! We have a bus come out from Los Angeles just about every month, either with a sorority or a club or just a group of friends. People come out with different things to present to me; they’ve given me awards, plaques, and books. They tell me they’re so honored that I’ve done this.”
By the first quarter of 2003, Rideau Vineyards was turning a profit; 2002 revenues of $1 million rose to $1.5 million in 2003, with annual production of 6,500 cases. And Rideau added another award to her mantelpiece with a 2004 Black Enterprise Business Innovator of the Year nomination. As the top-flight wine-makers with whom Rideau had surrounded herself began to refine her newly planted grape stocks, connoisseurs of fine wine looked forward to new top-quality vintages from the vineyard. Rideau herself, working 10 to 12 hours a day and cooking gumbo at Alamo Pintado Adobe before every tasting, seemed further from retirement than ever. “I love what I do,” she told Black Enterprise in 2003. “I work hard and, at the end of the day, I just burn out and crash.”
Black Enterprise, August 2003, p. 37; May 2004, p. 48.
Essence, February 2000, p. 50.
Jacksonville Free Press, September 23, 1998, p. 3.
Louisiana Weekly, September 10, 2001.
New Orleans Magazine, September 2000, p. 50.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 2, 2003.
Wines & Vines, January 2002.
“An Interview With…Rideau Vineyards, Solvang, CA,” El Rancho Marketplace, www.elranchomarket.com/arch_rideau.html (June 10, 2004).
“Iris Rideau,” Rideau Vineyard, www.rideauvineyard.com (June 10, 2004).
“Passport to Wine Finds Two Distinct Destinations: New Orleans and Australia,” Taste California Travel, F www.tastecaliforniatravel.com/passport-wine.htm (June 10, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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