On a Black Girls Wine Society outing, founder Shayla Varnado (from left) and members Angela Crawford, Kathy Rogers and Kassie Hall do a tasting at Garden Grove Brewing and Urban Winery in Carytown.
The bottle of wine, a Côtes du Rhône 2016 white blend, was a bit of a departure from the norm. An old-world French wine from the robust region of France known for its sophisticated reds, this one had notes of pomegranate and honeysuckle; it was fruity and complex, but not overly citrusy and definitely “not sweet at all,” Shayla Varnado said to a virtual audience as she swilled the wine in her glass and then sipped.
Varnado declared with certainty that this wine was not a “transition wine,” meaning it would likely appeal to mature palates and those who already love very dry whites, not novice drinkers.
It was not the wine to bring to laid-back family dinners, she quipped.
The one-sided but interactive conversation — her weekly wine-themed Facebook podcast, called “Black Girls Wine: Wine Down LIVE,” which the 33-year-old produces from her Hopewell home — moved along quickly, fed by comments from viewers from all over the country. As she’s done every Wednesday about 8:30 p.m. for the past two years, she sets up in a small room in the lower level of her split-level home: lighting, a backdrop, background music and two cellphones on stands, one for her to go live to talk to her viewers, the other to show the comments appearing in real time, thus allowing the back-and-forth.
As she does each week, Varnado gave her weekly wine rating. The Côtes du Rhône received an 8 out of 10 despite being too acidic for her, she said, then she moved on to pairings. Where her viewers suggested delicate seafood dishes, Varnado kept it real.
“French fries — I would pair it with French fries,” she said, laughing as her viewers chimed in on either side of that idea.
Even before Varnado uncorked the bottle on this Wednesday night, she was “on.” With a personality as bubbly as the sparkling wines she adores, Varnado is working to change a centuries-old wine industry that, even now, she said, is largely devoid of African Americans and, in particular, African American women.
Varnado is the founder of Black Girls Wine, a brand she created three years ago as a means of sharing experiences and educational opportunities with other black women who have a passion for drinking and learning about wine. This past August, she launched the Black Girls Wine Society, a membership-based organization that has 60 members in 20 chapters nationwide and plans for more on the way.
Each chapter, by design, is capped at 15 members. Varnado said she wants women to be able to connect with one another while they’re participating, rather than get lost in large crowds.
Varnado and her Richmond “society sisters,” as she calls them, gather each month to drink wine and simply be themselves — not moms, or wives or busy working professionals. They meet at local restaurants to sample and talk about wines and sometimes hear from sommeliers, and they travel to vineyards and wineries to see the winemaking process, from grapes to tasting rooms. They plan trips, including one coming up next spring to California’s Napa Valley, which Varnado brought up during that night’s podcast.
She reminded her viewers that there were only eight spots open for that experience, in which the group would be touring several wineries. As she chatted easily, a calendar on her wall read: “Where There’s Wine, There’s Life.”
Varnado jokes that she grew up “in the driest house” in Henrico County.
After graduating with a fashion marketing degree from Old Dominion University, Varnado started her own consulting business, helping entrepreneurs strategize and shape their business plans. She came to know wine as a young adult working within those strategizing meetings, and in those glasses of her favorite reds, she found a calling and a deeper desire to know more about the complexities and origins of what she was drinking.
But she was often keenly aware that she was the lone black woman among those groups. As she developed her palate and explored wines both locally and elsewhere, she saw very little semblance of herself in retail stores or when she visited wineries.
“I started looking around the wine industry — there’s no diversity in wine advertisements when you go into a wine store; there’s no marketing,” she said recently as she sat on a plush couch inside Bateau, a wine and coffee shop in Richmond’s Turning Basin and one of the many venues for Black Girl Wine events. African Americans are usually pushed toward vodka, she said dryly, or when wine is involved, it’s usually moscato, a light, sweet wine with a lower alcohol content than other white wines.
“We drink way more than just sweet wine, but the industry consistently points moscato in our direction, and that’s it,” she said.
Her observations are spot-on, said Adam Teeter, co-founder and CEO of VinePair, one of the largest worldwide publications on beer, wine and spirits.
He said the wine industry and today’s craft beer industry are similar; the people behind the wine have always been white.
“The wine community has ignored black Americans for decades,” Teeter said. It’s “ignored [their] buying power — as an industry, we have to do better.”
Teeter said the stereotypical assumptions Varnado cites, which play out every day across the country — that African Americans drink only sweet wine, for example — aren’t supported by industry research. He explained that Nielsen data shows moscato, in particular, is a mass-consumption product, but that it’s widely consumed not just by African Americans, but also Latinos and middle-class white women. It also shows that the typical moscato drinker has a higher income than the national average.
With those observations as her driving forces, Varnado planned her first wine event for New Year’s Eve in 2016. She planned two more in 2017, and sold out for all three events, with about 150 attendees total for all three. The events were held in Richmond, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., respectively.
“The wine world is extensive,” she said, and “I wanted to create this experience” where social gatherings involve meaningful connections all centered on the African American experience with wine.
Varnado started the podcast two years ago, and continued planning events all over the country on her own. But she quickly realized she needed help, as interest grew.
Because Varnado can’t be in 20 places at once, her society chapters are run by ambassadors — local women chosen by Varnado to organize the events in their respective cities.
General society memberships are $50 per month, VIP memberships are $100 and Insider memberships are $200 monthly. The perks, such as quarterly wine boxes, free access to events and trips, and other special discounts, increase with each level of membership. While the society is open to anyone of drinking age, her members tend to be women ages 35 to 50, and from all walks of life and professions.
Kassie Hall is the Richmond chapter ambassador and plans monthly events for the group. As a woman with a growing appreciation for wine, Hall found Black Girls Wine — as many people do — through Varnado’s podcast.
“This is definitely bridging a gap for me,” she said, when it comes to wine education. Varnado’s “personality is awesome — it’s kind of like you’re following her journey.” After going to a Black Girls Wine event in February, Hall was hooked.
Despite not knowing any of the other women there, “I just had a genuinely good time,” Hall said. “The relationships we’ve built with these women, it’s all about self-care.”
Maxine Lee is a certified wine specialist in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area and a former retail wine buyer. She has a wine YouTube channel, which is how she met Varnado. The two became fast friends, she said by phone recently from North Carolina, and acknowledged that the wine industry can benefit from people like Varnado who are working to shred stereotypes
As a lover of sauvignon blanc, Lee, who is African American, shared Varnado’s disdain for the constant push she feels toward sweet wines like moscato. She acknowledged some of that comes from the influence of African American cultural icons — musicians and celebrities — who promote products like sweet wines. Although those wines can be very good — and lots of people enjoy them — the industry as a whole shouldn’t make narrow assumptions about an entire race.
“We know more than sweet wine,” Lee said. “That’s where the conversation needs to change — we have so many black individuals who are interested [in wine], but they don’t see themselves represented.”
Varnado has an opportunity to make real change, Lee said.
“I love her vision,” she said. African-American wine lovers “need to learn how to navigate the waters to make it easier on ourselves,” and when it comes to working in the industry, that starts with a deep understanding of the product, from grape to bottle. “At the end of the day, this is a knowledge game — you really need to know your stuff.”
But “once you’re really in the thick of the industry,” she said, “that will open up more conversations.”
Varnado said Black Girls Wine will be a platform to attract industry professionals who otherwise wouldn’t know how to tap into the African American community.
“How do you know how to attract a 44-year-old professional black woman with discretionary income if nobody on your board looks like her,” she said. “Historically the wine industry is white — the pioneers were white, [so] when you think about who’s sitting at the table, if there’s none of us, they don’t know how to reach us.”
“Now,” she added, “winemakers and industry professionals have the opportunity to reach out to me and connect with the African American community as a whole.”
Not that she hasn’t experienced pushback for creating a organization solely for black women. She said there are people who see Black Girls Wine through the prism of racism, and she turns those encounters into “a great conversation about privilege.”
“For years, there were so many spaces [where African Americans] were not welcome,” she said. “It’s not racist to celebrate people.”
Black Girls Wine “is about celebrating black girl magic,” she continued, “and celebrating all of who we are and creating a space to do so [where] we don’t have to be moms, we don’t have to be bosses, we don’t have to be wives; we can literally just show up — there are no expectations.”
Her vision for Black Girls Wine — like her palate — continues to evolve. Varnado has plans to pursue a certification from the Wine & Spirits Educational Trust, a London-based international organization that qualifies experts in the fields of wine, spirits and sake.
“I’ve created a home for black wine lovers where they can feel comfortable and safe and welcome, and be able to learn more about the industry,” she said. “I feel like I’ve found my purpose.”