Vine Wine Club Founder Benita Johnson on Retail Reality

Benita Johnson, founder of Vine Wine Club
Benita Johnson, founder of Vine Wine Club

The career of The Vine Wine Club founder Benita Johnson is difficult to sum up. She didn’t start out in the industry, and didn’t drink wine until attending the University of Virginia where Riunite and Boone’s Farm were the students’ favored beverage.

“We didn’t have much money,” Johnson says.

The Vine Wine Club, founded in 2014, is a subscription-based group that offers wine, education and social events to members.

Her “eureka moment” came after graduation when, while working as an accountant at a large firm, the owner of a restaurant she frequented turned her on to Johannisberg Riesling. “It was amazing. I had never had anything like it,” she recalls.

Johnson then remembers buying a Bonny Doon Riesling at her local grocery store. “It was vastly different than the one I tasted at the restaurant,”

That’s when her exploration of varieties, terroir and passion for wine grew.

Since then, Johnson has been a brick-and-mortar retailer, an online seller and wine educator.

She also created one of the most well-attended annual events in Richmond, Virginia, The Exclusive Blacklist, a weekend of wine-and-food events that celebrate African-American winemakers and chefs, which takes place every February.

Along the way, Johnson earned an MBA, a certificate from the Master Court of Sommeliers and picked up a few tricks on how to thrive in the wine business.

Benita Johnson, the Vine Wine Club founder
Benita Johnson

When Johnson was working seven days a week at her stores in the East End of Richmond, she also had a radio program, Off the Vine with Benita and Terricinia, about wine. One of her guests was musician and philanthropist Marcus Johnson, who talked about his label, FLO Wines. It was during that discussion that she became aware that there was a wealth of other African-American winemakers, and Johnson was interested in the possibility of working together.

“I had to track [the winemakers] down, and they’d tell me that they did have distribution in Virginia. Well, those distributors coming to my shop every week did not think to tell me about any of them,” says Johnson.“It is a distributor’s job to educate the shop owner. And they didn’t do that. I had to tell them about their wines.”

She eventually came to carry many African-American-owned brands, including esteemed Napa Valley producer Brown Estate Winery, on her shelves.

Don’t forget the “Anchor Clause”

When Johnson opened two of her stores in shopping malls, she made sure to ask for an “anchor clause” in the commercial leases. This clause allows a small-business owner to break their lease if the anchor tenant—in Johnson’s case a privately held grocery store—closes or changes hands.

“Now that family owned grocery didn’t sell wine even though they could, so I had a great space and a steady flow of customers,” Johnson recalls. “But when that family decided to sell to a national chain, I saw the writing on the wall. So that clause allowed me to close those stores, which were costing me $3,000 a month, and take my profits.”

These days, the entrepreneur has space at The Shoppes at The Renaissance, which is next to a wedding venue with other wedding-related tenants. “It’s a group of little shops that make a big community. We all work together,” she said. The space is where she holds wine classes, runs her online Vine Wine Club and prepares for what will be her fifth-annual Exclusive Blacklist weekend.

It’s a way for club members and others to meet and taste wines from African-American-owned wineries and brands. It is also a way for Johnson to use seasonal slowdowns to help jumpstart sales and stay in touch with customers.

“I’m promoting black businesses, small businesses, and what I’m doing is no different from doing a German wine festival or an Italian wine festival,”

“Everyone tells you that millennials want experiences and that’s what The Exclusive Blacklist wine event is—an experience,” she says. “And the wine club provides experiences, too, because I individually select the wines for each customer.”

Each day finds Johnson writing notes to customers, tasting wines, talking with winemakers and planning events and classes where wine is the focus.

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Published on July 9, 2018
Topics: A Day In The Life