We used to think of wine as rooted in tradition, with France at the center of the world. A classic restaurant wine list or retail store would start with Bordeaux and Burgundy, then work its way through Champagne, Alsace and the Rhône. Spain, Germany and Italy would follow, leading to a New World section.
Today’s wine world is too vast and varied for such a geographical approach. And we have other motivations to choose one wine over another — we may want to help fight poverty in underdeveloped countries or support underrepresented winemakers, for example.
“As a woman-owned business, we wanted to support other women in business,” said Danya Degen, the restaurant’s beverage director. She explained the spelling of “womxn” as an effort to “expand the world beyond cisgender females, supporting anyone who identifies as a woman,” even if they were not assigned female at birth.
And although wine, like restaurants, remains a male-dominated sector, there are plenty of female winemakers to feature. Degen recently hosted a wine dinner with Leah Jorgensen, an Oregon winemaker who bucks local trends by specializing in cabernet franc rather than pinot noir. Her list also features Kate Norris of Division Winemaking in Oregon and Laura Brennan Bissell of Inconnu Wine, based in Berkeley, Calif.
“I like to lean in on East Coast producers because people can go visit them,” Degen said. Her favorites include Nancy Irelan of Red Tail Ridge in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York, Maya Hood White of Early Mountain Vineyards in Virginia (Degen calls her “a rock star”) and Lisa Hinton of Maryland’s Old Westminster Winery.
The list isn’t all New American. Since founder Hollis Wells Silverman used to work at José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, “we have some Iberian wines on the list,” Degen said.
At Fermented Grapes, a wine store in the Prospect Heights neighborhood in New York, owner Kilolo Strobert is building a similar list of wines featuring winemakers who are Black, Indigenous or people of color.
“Do you know what I look like?” Strobert asked me during a phone interview when I inquired about the BIPOC focus. (I had seen a photo of her.) “I fall into that category. I’m well aware of the lack of diversity in wine and in so many industries. So when I bought the store, I decided that representation exists in my place. Representation matters. It’s important for growth, and it’s important for people to see themselves and their views represented. That’s my stance.”
Strobert started her career in wine as the store’s first full-time employee when it opened in 2004. Since then, she worked in some of New York City’s toniest wine outlets, including high-end retailers Le Dû’s Wines and Morrell & Co. She bought Fermented Grapes from the original owners late last year. After remodeling, she reopened in March with Max Katzenberg, a hospitality consultant, as business partner.
Finding BIPOC winemakers to feature has not been easy. “I have about 10 in the store now and another 60 I want to try,” Strobert said. “I asked a friend in Oakland who organizes events around POC wines, and she says she knows of about a hundred. A hundred is nothing.”
Current finds include André Mack’s Maison Noir wines from Oregon, former NBA star Dwyane Wade’s Wade Cellars and the McBride Sisters from California. She recently added an amber wine called Where’s Linus?, made by Chris Christensen of California’s Bodkin Wines.
While searching out BIPOC winemakers, Strobert isn’t losing her focus on quality. “I don’t want anything that doesn’t make sense,” she said. “If you’re bringing me a super-trendy, super-natty manure-driven wine, there better be some acid there to balance the earth.”
Speaking of acid: The name Rocks + Acid on a storefront might suggest a sommelier’s playhouse, referring to terroir and acidity, two main attributes of fine wines. Store owner Paula de Pano was sommelier for several years at Fearrington House, a luxury restaurant in Pittsboro, N.C. She left that position late last year to work on Rocks + Acid, which she plans to open in mid-October in the Southern Village neighborhood of Chapel Hill, near the University of North Carolina campus. She calls it the Research Triangle’s first “mission-based” wine store.
That mission is to feature wines from family-owned, especially female-led, wineries that practice environmentally friendly farming and present them to a younger clientele who challenge their parents’ perception of wine. De Pano is also planning wine classes aimed especially for women following her path into the hospitality field, as well as events to support women’s mental health charities.
De Pano, 37, who describes herself as “among the older millennials,” sees a generational shift in wine preferences. “My entire wine education was in the classics, at Relais & Châteaux properties with extensive wine lists,” she explained. “My generation isn’t earning as much as our parents. We want wines that are accessible and affordable. And we want to know who makes the wines and why they are special.” Hint: It’s not some dusty old classification drawn up in Paris nearly two centuries ago.
“We used to buy lifestyle,” de Pano said. “Now people want to know more about what they’re buying. Am I adding to carbon emissions, being sustainable, helping underrepresented people?”
De Pano grew up in the Philippines, where “whenever I would speak my mind, older people would find it disrespectful.” She encountered a similar attitude in the wine industry as a young Asian woman in a field dominated by White men. But she sees that changing.
“My generation will speak up and hammer the point home,” she said. “We believe what we say matters, and if retailers don’t pay attention, they will pay a price.”
Along the way, we may be reinventing wine, or at least redefining the classics.