When most of us think of wineries, we picture rural settings, expansive vineyards, and, in the United States, predominantly West Coast locales. But with Jenny Dawn Cellars, Jennifer McDonald is changing all of that. With a family-run winery based in the center of downtown Wichita, Kan., McDonald is making fine wine that’s accessible, fun, and unpretentious.
Jenny Dawn Cellars opened its doors to the public in 2019, after its founding in 2016. All 11 wines are made and served on premise at the winery and tasting room in Union Station, a former railway station that sits squarely in the center of Wichita’s four major business districts.
With fruit and juice sourced from both California and Kansas, Jenny Dawn Cellars offers a wide array of options across three collections: California, Union Station, and Black Sunflower. Styles range from old-school Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, to fruit wines made from blackberries and cherries — and even watermelon rosé. Many of the fruits are grown in McDonald’s home state of Kansas, including at an offsite urban orchard and winery that she owns and operates.
As Kansas’s first African American commercial winemaker, McDonald’s wines celebrate Jenny Dawn’s identity as a Black-owned business. Focusing on diversity in both her products and clientele, McDonald uses education to make wine a more approachable and inclusive space for Wichita residents.
VinePair spoke with McDonald about how Jenny Dawn Cellars has shifted its operations during the Covid-19 pandemic, her family’s role in the business, and what the future looks like for the Midwestern urban winery.
1. How did you get your start in winemaking?
I actually started as a connoisseur, and my goal was to bring the art of wine to the city of Wichita. My first step was just learning the basics of home winemaking. I purchased wine kits and made those kits literally in my basement. Then, I started procuring fruits and grapes from local growers and expanding my wine recipes. That’s when I started winning some amateur wine contests.
And then once I got a better, more technical foundation of winemaking, that’s when I decided to try and figure out how I could actually build a brand and take my wine to market. I went back to school and got a masters in agribusiness to really help me understand the business side of wine. And then what I found was even wine drinkers in Kansas have an appreciation for fine wines, but they also had a unique interest in some of the hybrid grapes that could be grown here in Kansas. So I thought if I could capture a broad group of wine drinkers wanting different types of wines, but an amazing experience, I could be successful.
I went out to California and partnered with The Wine Foundry, and they actually helped me with my first six wines. And those wines we sold online and through local liquor stores here in Kansas. I felt there was a strong demand for the type of wine that I really enjoyed making and then serving and selling, so that gave me the confidence to say, “OK, if I created this winery space in downtown Wichita” — which still wasn’t available until I started it — “people would come out and they would appreciate the wines that I was creating.” In 2019, I was able to open our urban winery.
2. What are some of the challenges that come with running a winery in an urban city?
I chose Union Station as the location because it’s in the heart of the city. It’s downtown. It’s easily accessible. One of our challenges initially was just getting by and [convincing others] that our concept was going to be successful. When I first started pitching my idea in October 2016, I initially got some huge pushback: “Are there enough wine consumers in Kansas to be your customers? How are you going to sell this wine?” I have successfully overcome all of those objections, and we have a strong community of wine drinkers that come out and support us.
But from a regulatory standpoint, Kansas is really challenging to do business in. We had to jump through some hoops with zoning. We had to jump through hoops with the compliance aspect of having a collection of wines coming from California. It just feels like some of our liquor laws aren’t as modern and up to date as they could be.
And then lastly, funding: It takes a lot of capital to run a full-production winery. We’re making all of our wines here on- site. We’re serving our guests at our tasting room at the same location. And then, we offer small bites because we’re in the downtown setting. We’re doing a lot of different things at a small square footage space, so we’re hoping to expand our footprint here in the next six months.
3. What’s the best part of your job?
Connecting with my customers. I love the customer interaction and teaching wine classes and having people’s palates open up, and the smiles on their faces when they are tasting a delicious wine paired with a great food item. That’s a life- changing experience. That, to me, is the best part of the job.
I do geek out when I am working with the wines and trying to craft the blends, and I really enjoy the winemaking part of it as well. And then last but not least, working with a phenomenal group of people. I have assembled a rock star team [to help run tasting room operations], and I’m excited to see my team members grow their wide knowledge to meet all of our company goals.
4. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your career? How did you overcome it?
I signed my lease for my building in 2017, and it took two years to renovate it. That was two years of a delay and what I thought we would have for revenue. And that was challenging. It can be challenging sometimes to get all of the fruits that you need to make wine. There’s been massive challenges. And supply chain, the cost of freight, is continuing to go up. But we’re very, very grateful that our wines are now able to be shipped nationwide. Right now, they can go to 39 states.
5. How do you work toward empowering minorities in the industry?
We are creating an environment where everyone feels welcome. I think that there’s this old guard of wine that could be very intimidating and very buttoned up. We try to make wine fun and approachable. We try to come at people from, “Here, let’s just try this and let’s talk about the flavors that you are getting from the wines and make it something that is simple and not so complex.”
We have opened up doors to all facets of the community, letting them know that when they come into Jenny Dawn Cellars, they’re welcomed and can try all different types of wines. There’s not just one type that we make — we make dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines — so there’s a little bit of something for everyone. And we’ll help them along that journey to understand how we made the wines, and how to get the optimal experience from wine pairings, storing and serving temperatures, and things like that.
6. What is it like working with family?
My husband has been very, very helpful. When I was looking at launching this Black Sunflower Collection, I had my kiddos up here cleaning and helping me filter. My husband was up here helping me bottle and set up all my bottling equipment. My family has been a strong asset to the business. It’s fun and bonding. It’s gratifying for me to be able to teach my kids something that they’re learning as life skills: hard work, being able to problem solve, being creative in a craft, and then having something to show for your work. As the cases that we bottle pile up, you can see the fruits of our labor. That, to me, was really gratifying.
7. How did Jenny Dawn’s business operations have to change as a result of the pandemic?
The pandemic was a huge challenge. We opened in November 2019 and then had to shut down the tasting room in March. From March 2020 to the beginning of June 2020, we had to completely change how we delivered our wines to our customers. They could no longer come into our winery to enjoy them, so we had to do curbside pickup. We got more heavily involved in the shipping line, but it was sad because we were promoting this experience — to be able to come into our winery and enjoy the winery experience — and that all went away.
And I know we were not alone in that. The whole world was affected by the pandemic. I’m grateful that we were creative and met the needs of our customers and we’re still here today. Not every business or winery can say that; I know a lot had to permanently close their doors.
8. What is Jenny Dawn’s mission?
Our mission is to craft the best wines that we can using local fruit and grapes, as well as sourcing grapes from growers in Paso Robles, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma. And our mission is to create a more inclusive and diverse wine industry that focuses on creating intimate relationships with our customers and creating an experience with food and wine.
9. How do you envision the future of Jenny Dawn?
Ultimately, our goal is to become the premier winery in our region. Right now, we have a three-year master plan and strategy that we’re working toward, and that’s really to grow our case volume. That’s the short term. But long term, we chose the Union Station location strategically because we feel that we could have other Jenny Dawn Cellars across the U.S. at other Union Stations [across the country].
For the next three years, we’re locked in with the three collections. But it’s going to be fun to do limited-release wines. We’re going to do some specialty holiday labels. There’s a lot that we think we can do to continue to create high-end wines that people enjoy.