Born Creole, Solvang resident saw both sides of race on road to becoming insurance agent, winery owner

By Pamela Dozois

Solvang resident Iris Duplantier Rideau recently released her new book “From White to Black: One Life Between Two Worlds” a memoir of her life. 

It is an intimate look into the life of a Creole woman born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1936, when Jim Crow was the law of the land, through her journey to become the first black woman to own her own winery and vineyard in United States. It is a story of a determined, goal-oriented, multifaceted business woman who would not let anything stand in her way of reaching her dreams, and along the way work to cultivate civil rights, and affirmative action for the underprivileged in society.

“I was motivated to write this book because of the struggles I had to endure as a young person and I wanted to tell the story as to how I got here,” said Rideau. “I was born Creole, which is a mix of French, Spanish, African, and Native American. As Creole, some of us were whiter-skinned and others were darker-skinned. Some of us could easily pass for white. When I went out with my grandmother, we passed for white all the time. I experienced all the privilege and opportunities afforded to the White race. But when I went out with my darker-skinned cousins, I experienced all the oppressions and hardships of the Negro race.”

It was a trip to the West Coast and back that really brought home the differences to a young Rideau.

“In 1946 I traveled with my grandmother to California and took the White train and enjoyed its beauty and luxury,” she said. “But on my return with my mother’s girlfriend, I traveled on the Negro train back to New Orleans and the difference was so shocking that when I finally arrived in New Orleans, I could hardly speak. We didn’t have the Jim Crow laws in the West, only in the southern part of the United States, and they were so horrible and inhumane, degrading and demoralizing. I knew I needed to get back to California in a hurry. I didn’t want to live as an indentured person of color in New Orleans.”

Between 1916 and 1970 during “The Great Migration,” 6 million Negroes, Creoles, and all people of color migrated from the rural South to the North, Midwest, and West. She said it took her two years to finally convince her mother to move to California. They finally packed up their belongings and moved to Los Angeles where Rideau attended school.

In her book, Rideau says she was determined not to spend her life as a factory worker, doing menial work for pennies. Her goal was to work as a receptionist for a large company. As a black woman, that opportunity was not available to her at that time. But being light-skinned and a hard worker she was able to circumvent that bias. She procured a job as a receptionist at an insurance agency and learned the business from the inside out.

During that time, at the age of 20, she married a real estate developer who was also her first love in grade school. He wanted her to stay home and raise her daughter, whom she’d had at the age of 16. But eventually, Rideau had bigger ideas starting her own insurance agency in 1967.

After the Watts riots in 1965, people in that neighborhood found it almost impossible to secure insurance or loans for their homes and businesses due to “red-lining,” Rideau explained, saying that insurance companies didn’t want to take on the “high risk” of insuring properties within that area, which was a real hardship for both home and business owners.

“My agency was there to provide insurance to those thousands of people considered to be high risk,” said Rideau. “It launched my career overnight.”

Rideau remained in the insurance and securities business for 32 years, becoming involved in the political scene in California working to improve the rights of the underprivileged. By that time, she was totally burnt out from fighting politics, politicians, and the financial world, and was looking to find a nice quiet place to retire. But as it turned out, she was off to start a whole new life, as a winery and vineyard owner. 

“I was looking for a place of peace and tranquility and I found the Santa Ynez Valley,” said Rideau. “I bought a piece of property that was adjacent to the now winery. All I could think about was six acres at the time. I built a home for myself and one for my mother, which took another four years before I was finally able to say good-bye to Los Angeles and focus on my new life.”

During those four years of commuting back and forth from the Valley to Los Angeles, she and her niece/godchild, Caren Rideau, would go wine tasting on weekends in the Valley.

“I fell in love with the wine lifestyle,” said Rideau. “And that was it for me. I bought the property adjacent to my home with an historical Adobe landmark building on it, renovated it and established a winery with acres to grow my own grapes and make my own Rideau label of wines.”

After years of hard work, education and trial and error, Rideau established her own tasting room and winery, making her award-winning Rideau wines.

Rideau’s book “From White to Black” tells the story of a woman who knew what she wanted out of life and gave it her all to accomplish it, becoming a business entrepreneur, a political activist, and eventually a winery owner. It is a story of a life well-lived.

Rideau recently sold her enterprise to a French family from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and she lives but minutes away from her beloved vineyard. At 87, she is still going strong enjoying her retirement by traveling, doing Pilates three times a week, and enjoying life to the fullest.

Rideau will be holding a book-signing and a reading from her book “From White to Black” from 1 to 4 p.m., Friday, Nov. 3 at Rideau Winery at 1562 Alamo Pintado Road, Solvang. Her book may be purchased that day or anytime at Rideau Winery, accessed on Amazon, or at The Book Loft in Solvang.

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