In 2016, when Shayla Varnado launched Black Girls Wine, she wanted to create a community for education, great wine and connection, all while celebrating Black women. It’s since grown into the Black Girls Wine Society (BGWS), a digital community with close to 100 members and events across the country.
“When I first started, I knew I wanted to eventually have a club, but I spent the first year building the audience and solidifying the brand,” says Varnado. “Today, we are in 17-plus cities, and our society ambassadors are responsible for curating exclusive monthly experiences.”
Varnado is one of several Black women entrepreneurs building their own spaces in the wine world. From homegrown clubs to professional networking societies and educational forums, these groups address the needs of their participants and the wine industry.
Meet the Tastemakers
According to 2019 analysis by research firm Wine Intelligence, the number of wine drinkers in the U.S. and frequency of wine consumption is on the decline. People who identify as monthly wine drinkers dropped by four million from 2015–18.
Meanwhile, Black women entrepreneurs have demonstrated interest and commitment to wine. In 2017, sommelier Tahiirah Habibi founded Hue Society, a professional and social network that seeks to change the narrative about Black wine consumers. She saw the need for a space where members can grow, celebrate and learn from one another.
“Hue Society is that place,” she says. “It’s a community where you know you can positively see yourself and others enjoying wine, selling wine, importing, etc.”
That power of that sort of representation cannot be overstated. In the hit ABC drama Scandal, the character Olivia Pope, played by actress Kerry Washington, often relaxed in her plush Washington, D.C. apartment with a bowl of popcorn and a heavy pour of fictional 1994 Dubbonet in her signature large-bowled, long-stemmed red wine glass.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time Black women have created and sustained trends. From #OscarsSoWhite to Hot Girl Summer, the Black community, particularly Black women, has a long history of driving American culture forward.
“African-American women’s consumer preferences and brand affinities are resonating across the U.S. mainstream, driving total Black spending power toward a record $1.5 trillion by 2021,” reads a 2017 Nielsen report.
Historically, Black women have been powerful community organizers as well. They helmed clubs to fight racism during the Progressive Era, were grassroots organizers of the Civil Rights movement and contemporary activist organization Black Lives Matter was co-founded by Black women.
Educating All Sides
Bianca Anderson, Racquel Valbrun and Abria Green, three part-time wine professionals in Atlanta, founded the Urban Wine Collective to help educate Black millennials about wine.
“We’re an undereducated demographic when it comes to wine, and that’s purely a cultural deficit,” says Anderson. “With the Urban Wine Collective, we are creating an opportunity to get in front of people who look, think and move like us, so we can expose them to experiences that were also there, but not easily accessible.”
The Urban Wine Collective is working on a wine activation at the Essence Festival in New Orleans this summer. It’s an opportunity to not only connect with thousands of Black women, but debunk a persistent myth.
“There is a huge assumption in the wine industry that our community only consumes sweet wine, but it should be known that we do not all have the same palate,” says Valbrun. “I’ve taught Wine 101 classes to Black women who came in as sweet wine drinkers, but left enjoying and even purchasing drier styles. It’s truly about exploring and exposing your palate to new tastes.”
Varnado, founder of BGWS, agrees. “The industry should know that we have a diverse taste in wine,” she says. She sees opportunity for wine companies to include those varied voices in the industry.
“I know so many talented Black men and women who have their certifications and deserve to have a seat at the table,” she says.
Changing the Game
One such leader is sommelier Cha McCoy, a Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree in 2019. Her wine dinner series, The Communion, has been held in five countries so far, and she hosts wine tastings as part of Airbnb experiences in Lisbon, Portugal. She is curating a harvest trip to southern Portugal this fall.
“There’s the saying that being Black, you have to work twice as hard, and that rule is true for any industry,” says McCoy. “From nailing your blind tasting in order to gain respect of peers, to proving to some clients that you are, as a Black woman, qualified to deliver excellent service, the struggle continues to remain relevant.”
Despite these challenges, wine professionals like McCoy have found success by focusing on their individual brands and communities.
“The industry can do their part…by partnering with our curated events and wine clubs as a way to attract more loyal consumers who are showing an increased interest in wine,” says McCoy. “Black women-led wine clubs and events are creating new customers, which can lead to stronger bottom lines for brands.”
The opportunity to bring new people to wine is part of the inspiration for Benita Johnson to create The Vine Wine Club in Richmond, Virginia.
“Back when I started in 2005, I was the first Black woman in my city to be affiliated with wine,” she says. “I wanted wine to be the centerpiece of good conversation and activities to bring people together.”
She believes the members of the Vine Club are like a family who learn, study and experience wine together.
“Black women need a space to voice our concerns, decide how we want the industry to support us and make a plan to execute,” says Johnson. “Closed mouths don’t get fed, so we need to keep talking.”