Please note, the content of this webinar is suitable for those over the age of 21.
Check out The Urban Grape’s own TJ Douglas for this very special webinar in celebration of Black History Month, presented by First Republic Bank.
For years, TJ pursued his insatiable passion for hospitality and wine, only to find that the traditional paths to learning about and working in wine were all but shut to him and the BIPOC men and women who looked like him.
His story covers:
- his growth as an entrepreneur who developed his own groundbreaking system for thinking about and categorizing wine that has revolutionized wine retail,
- how he broke all the wine establishment rules, and showed others that a successful career in wine does not depend on attaining a sommelier pin,
- the ways in which he built a cutting-edge and thriving Black-owned business in an industry that historically only rewards traditional paths to success.
Throughout TJ’s story, you’ll learn about — and taste — wine from producers like Robin and Andrea McBride, Theodora Lee, Tinashe Nyamudoka and Donae Burston, who are leading innovative Black-owned wine brands across four continents.
Read below for a full transcript of the conversation.
Natalie Johnson - Good afternoon. Good evening. My name is Natalie Johnson and I am vice president of RM development and training at First Republic bank. I am also the current president of BEAAM, which stands for black employees and allies achieving magnitude. Our group is focused on the development of black colleagues and allies, personally and professionally through an inclusive environment at First Republic. Today, we are so excited to have you join us as we celebrate Black History month with Urban Grape's TJ Douglas. First Republic is delighted to honor Black History Month with all of you. And for our guests joining us today, black history month kicked off on February 1st to promote the achievements of African Americans. This annual celebration was created by historian Carter G Woodson in 1926, with a primary purpose to coordinate efforts, teaching black history in schools around the nation.
Later in 1970, black students and educators at Kent State University expanded upon Woodson's idea to include festivities and learning across a full month. And here we are in 2022, and I am pleased to introduce TJ Douglas, founder and CEO of the Urban Grape. His story will cover his growth as an entrepreneur who developed a groundbreaking system for thinking about and categorizing wine. He will also discuss how he broke all the wine establishment rules, and ways he was able to build a cutting edge and thriving black owned business in an industry that historically only rewards traditional paths to success. The Urban Grape was founded in 2010 by husband and wife team, TJ and Hadley Douglas. And it started off as a small store in Chestnut hill, Massachusetts. Now, before we get started and start sipping our wines, I want to give you a quick housekeeping note. At the end of the event, and also maybe throughout, we will answer the questions that you submit. But, to submit a question, I need you to use the Q&A icon at the bottom of the screen. Also, this event is being recorded and the replay will be posted on First Republic's website. Now let's take it away, TJ. I'm ready to drink up.
TJ Douglas - Natalie, thank you so much for that very warm welcome. I'm back again here with First Republic. Thank you so much for hosting me and thank you so much for creating a space, not only during black history month, but throughout the entire year, to really help promote people of color and the BIPOC community, and to really help create access for all. Tonight we are going to taste through some wines all from black owned and black made producers. And we're going to get a little education. I'm going to give you a little bit of history about myself and also why I'm sitting here presenting to you today. First we're going to start with this sparkling wine, McBride Sisters from New Zealand. So I'm going to circle back and talk about this in a few moments, but if you'd like to pour yourself a little glass and taste through this, I'll talk about the tasting notes on the McBride Sisters in a moment. The biggest question that I always get when I do these events, no matter what the theme is, is wait a second, I have three or four bottles of wine. What am I going to do with all of them? And how long do they last if I keep them in my fridge?
Here's the thing, pop them all, enjoy them tonight. Enjoy them over the next couple of days. For your whites and your reds, put the cork back in the bottle, screw it back on for the Kumusha and put it right in your fridge. And the reason we do that, it's colder, there's less oxygen in the fridge. And so the wines breathe slower or age slower. So they'll be nice and fresh for you for dinner tomorrow. Now, with that being said, please, as Natalie mentioned, use the Q&A for any questions about the wine or for anything that I'm going to be talking about this evening. So, as Natalie mentioned, I am the CEO and the co-founder, along with my wife, Hadley Douglas, of the Urban Grape. Now we started our first business, our first store, in 2010 in the suburb of Boston called Chestnut Hill, kind of like the Greenwich Connecticut of Boston, if you will. And we opened up our second store in the south end, right around the corner from the Hancock tower and Copley Square, if any of you who have been to Boston before. We opened that one up in 2012, and we actually just celebrated fourth quarter last year, our 10 year anniversary in that location. Now what brought me to being a retailer right now is really starting off when I was a kid, my mom and I were single kid, single mom, living in New Haven, Connecticut in an apartment complex. We were lucky enough to be awarded a welfare check every month in order to make ends meet while my mom was putting herself through school at a later age.
Once my mom ended up getting her degree in social work in the late eighties, we ended up moving out of New Haven, Connecticut and moving to Bethel, Vermont about 30 miles north of Killington, where I was the only person of color in my town, not only in my high school, but my town. And this was kind of a culture shock, moving from New Haven, Connecticut to Bethel, Vermont, but we made it work. I ended up getting a job at a restaurant as a dishwasher. I think I was probably about 14 years old at this time. And this is really important in kind of the longer scheme of things for my story and where I am now and where I plan on going. Because I ended up working in a restaurant, really for two reasons. One, which is not like a funny reason at all. But if anyone of you have ever worked in a restaurant, you get something before service called pre meal or family meal. And that's when you get to have dinner with your entire team before you started service. Now, why that was important was my mom and I grew up, you know, we always had food on the table, but we didn't grow up with a ton of means. And having this family meal was an opportunity for me to have a meal that my mom didn't have to worry about, right? And so that's one thing on there, but I was also a 14 year old boy and I needed to make money for baseball cards and, you know, taking girls out to mini golf. And that's another reason why I had this job. When I was a dishwasher, kind of just seeing the scraps coming in to the kitchen of the uneaten steaks and fish and the, you know, pieces of breadcrumbs and stuff like that, that wasn't hospitality for me. I didn't understand what I was doing. It was just a job. But when I went out to help fix the salad bar, super fancy restaurant in Vermont, help fix the salad bar, or maybe go help a busser, help clear plates.
I noticed something that I never really noticed before, and it was the people dining. It was people smiling, having intimate conversations. The music was right, the lights were dimmed, candles on the table. And I wanted that experience. I not only wanted to be that person sitting at the table, enjoying that meal. I also wanted to be able to be the person to actually bring that experience to them, to create that experience for them. And for any of you who are in sales, I'm in sales. I always like to have instant gratification, right? And a lot of times you have to work for it. And, you know, sometimes an overnight success is many years for that gratifying moment. But in that moment in the restaurant, if I could make someone smile and bring, make their night a little bit better, that was such a beautiful feeling. And that was my instant gratification. Fast forward to a couple years where I was, I ended up working a couple years after high school to save money for college. And I ended up going to a little state school in Vermont. And my plan was to play basketball. I was good enough to play D three, but not good enough for a scholarship, athletic scholarship. So ended up working and being in school at the same time. But I ended up playing rugby to get in shape. And the day before basketball season started, I ended up tearing my ACL, MCL, and meniscus. And unknowingly, I put all of my medical bills on those brand new credit cards that I got when I was in college. And it really, you know, really put a strain on me for the next couple of years.
But the biggest strain for me was when I hurt myself, I could no longer work in the restaurant that was allowing me to stay in school financially. So unfortunately I had to drop out just shy under my sophomore year. And I was really looking forward to college. I wanted to do law enforcement, but I was also doing elementary education and sociology. I love people. I love kids. But I also like bringing access to people, even back in the day there. I never ended up finishing up my degree, because I was now in the world of work. And that's what brought me to Boston about 22 years ago. And very important part of my story here, and I wish I could see all of you, because a lot of times when I tell this story, I see people nodding their heads or shaking their heads really in agreement, but also really understanding that this might not be their world, or your world. But when I came to Boston, I had my resume. And at this time I had about eight years of restaurant experience. I was a waiter and I was a bartender. And this is what I knew to do. But being a six foot three, 240 pound black man moving into Boston, my resume was never taken seriously until I got to one place where I actually got hired, actually it's directly across the street from the First Republic bank in Back Bay. And I ended up getting hired at a place called Vox Populi, but I didn't get hired for my experience or for what I was good at. I got hired as a bouncer and a doorman because of my size and my appearance.
And I never really understood that, really until a couple of years ago saying, huh, I didn't get hired for what I was good at. I got hired for what they thought I would be good at because of their own biases. And I really wanted to be a waiter, but there wasn't a position really available, even though I saw new servers coming in on a weekly basis, because it was a new restaurant. And one day, classic story, one of the servers didn't show up. And I was off that day and they called me and said, hey, do you want to do this? And I said, yes, I would love to do this. And I went in and I already knew all the table numbers and I ate there and had family meal, so I understood the food a little bit. And guess what? I absolutely crushed it. And within a couple of months I was actually the head server in the entire restaurant. And I worked there for a couple years, ended up getting a bar management position for Todd English in Faneuil Hall, as an opening position. And this is really the catalyst which got me into the wine industry, was this was the time of Sex and the City, and not the new Sex and the City, but the old Sex and the City where it was all about cosmos, and sour apple martinis, and espresso martinis. And at this time I was a bartender and I was a martini maker. And the day before we were supposed to open, we did not get our full liquor license that allowed us to have whiskeys and vodkas and gins. We were only allowed beer and wine. And that forced me, in order to make rent, I needed to learn about the wares that I had to sell. And so I ended up taking a couple classes at Boston University's Metropolitan College.
It was much more reasonably priced and less of a financial commitment than taking like a sommelier class, which was, you know, years long and thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. I couldn't afford it at that time. And so I took this class and it really taught me how to use wine and allowed me to think about wine in my own way, which I'll talk about later, which we've created Urban Grapes' proprietary scale, the progressive scale, where we think about wine by body, by viscosity as opposed to geographical region or by grape varietal. I ended up working at a wholesaler when my wife and I started having kids, because I was doing 90 hours a week and that's not good for a new dad or a new mom without a partner there. And I ended up working for a wholesaler selling to stores and restaurants. And when I was selling to stores, I realized that there was no hospitality in stores. All of you have had the experience of going into a store saying, hey, I need a cheap bottle of wine, or I need a really great bottle of wine tonight. And the person will grab a bottle that they want to sell you and say, here you go, this is perfect. And there's no conversation and there's no dialogue. They're selling you based on what they want to sell you as opposed to what you're actually looking for, and how you're going to use it, and how you're going to create your own experience. And I thought that that was a really unfair way to sell. So that's where the idea came for creating a space of community. And that's where the Urban Grapes started in 2010.
So that's my backstory. That's why I'm sitting here right now. And now let's get into this McBride sparkling wine. This cannot be called champagne, even though it's made like champagne, where their secondary fermentation, where sugar and yeast get together and all the CO2, the bubbles, get trapped in the bottle. And that's why the bottles of champagne, the bubbles, they're called the mousse, are very creamy as opposed to something like Perseco, which they might be very sharp. Okay. Making a methode champagnoise, or the champagne method, that process that I just mentioned is more expensive because it's more labor intensive, but these women are making a champagne style, but they're making it from an area called Hawks Bay, which is just west of Marlborough in New Zealand, where all of you have had amazing sauvignon blanc from. This is in the Northeastern corner of the south island of New Zealand. The reason that this says sparkling brute rosé instead of champagne, it's because champagne can only be called champagne if it comes from the region of champagne, about an hour east on the train from Paris. So you can have your kind of point of view here. The McBride sisters, Andrea McBride, born and raised in New Zealand, and her sister, Robin McBride, born and raised in Southern California. Same dad, two different mothers, dad wasn't the nicest guy in terms of having two families that actually didn't know about one another. In 1999, the father passed away. And I believe it was his sister, their aunt, who knew them both, who kept the family secret said, you know what, it's time for the two of you to meet each other.
So Andrea and Robin both left their corners of the world and met at LaGuardia airport and their aunt introduced them. Shockingly, they were both in the wine industry. Andrea was a wine farmer in New Zealand, and her sister, Robin was in wine marketing, and a little bit of wine making, and in wine sales in California. Fast forward five, six years in 2005, they said, hey, we need to do something, right? It's not luck, it's fate that we have been brought together and we're both in this amazing industry. Nobody looks like us and we're going to have to shake things up. So they ended up starting an import company, predominantly importing New Zealand wines with Andrea's connections into the United States. About five years later, they realized that, you know what, we should really make our own wine. But they had a really hard time finding financing to start a wine brand. It's really expensive to buy fruit, to maybe buy a little bit of land, to use a winery's facilities, to make the wine, to market the wine, to have the connections. All of that stuff is really expensive to be able to do. And so they really had to bootstrap it, they, kind of like what Hadley and I did. We took a second mortgage out on our home. We cleared out our 401ks. We maxed out our credit cards and we started my dream. Hadley, came in to help me with my dream. And she's tried to quit so many times over the years, but she keeps on coming back to us and Urban Grape wouldn't be the same without her. And with Robin and Andrea, they're a great partnership. And I ended up doing this really wonderful, like 300 person Zoom. So just imagine how many screens that was of seeing people back in, I think probably second quarter of last year.
There's been a real spotlight on black owned businesses, and particularly in the wine industry, because wine kind of touches all people, all people drink some kind of alcoholic beverage, unless you don't drink. But it's really around everywhere that we go. Restaurants, stores, dinner tables. And so we were able to use our industry really as the common thread and the common conversation between people. So anyways, we were having this event and Robin was showing this wine, the McBride Sisters brute rosé, which is predominantly Pinot noir. And she was talking about the flavors and what you're getting out of this glass, and I'm not drinking it right now, but I've had this wine a hundred times. And so when you stick your nose in the glass, you get like really warm strawberry notes. And on the palate you get like this really fresh kind of like chalky yeastiness. And it really brings like lip smacking acidity. Think about lemonade on your palate. And it's really bright and fresh, and really yummy wine. It smells sweet, but it's actually a very bone dry wine. So we're talking about that and her other wines, like Black Girl Magic. And then she got a little bit deep, which I wanted her to. Most of my clients are not just there for the tasting notes. They want to hear the story, right? because if there's no story and there's not an intentionality behind the product, then it's just another product. And what we've seen in the last couple years at least is that all of us are really trying to be more intentional with our spend. And not just our spend in terms of our wallet, but our spend with our time and our energy.
And so Robin started talking about this and this was a dialogue, the conversation that she and I were having amongst the 300 people on our Zoom. And after the great Zoom and people loved the wines, and people loved her, the comments were blowing up, she called Hadley and me and said, you know what? I am so sorry that I got too deep. I just felt that I really had to, because today was a really rough day. And I said, Robin, no, like that was exactly perfect about what you were talking about. You know, she mentioned, she said she started tearing up when she mentioned to all of our customers that were on the Zoom, that she and her sister own the number one black owned alcohol brand in the world. And number one in terms of distribution, number one in terms of volume, and number one in terms of gross sales. And I said, well, why were you tearing up? That's amazing. I mean, the fact that you're number one in anything, like great for you. And you know, this is not an overnight success. You worked very hard to get to this moment. And she goes, well TJ, just today, before I hopped on a call, this was not First Republic, this was another financial institution, turned me and my company down for a line of credit to expand our business because we were too much of a risk. And I said, too much of a risk? She says yes. Even though we're the number one black owned wine brand in the world, we are too much of a risk to borrow money, to grow our brand. And I said, that's so unfortunate. She said, the other unfortunate thing is that it wasn't the banker that told me that.
They put me in the room with another black woman who is actually just a DEI coordinator, not even a banker. And she says, and this is what the issue is. And this is an obstacle that I've had. And how can I create generational wealth if my hands are tied because I can't gain access to the capital that I need to grow my business. And so we got in a deep conversation, and that's something big, being able to have the network and being able to have an amazing relationship with a bank. We've been with First Republic for a few years now in business and in personal. And I'm very proud to say, like, you know, First Republic worked really hard to get us our PPP funding, you know, during an amazing time of need. And we were one of the small businesses in Boston that actually got it. Why? Because that paperwork was miserable, right? It was so confusing. The changes were happening every day. And we had a partner, we had a business partner, we had a friend, we had someone that could help guide us through. And that was Tamara and her team here in Boston. I always give Tamara a shout out. But because of that, it allowed us to close our store for a year, keep our staff safe. It allowed us to subsidize their parking so that they didn't have to take public transportation. And it gave them all raises and bonuses so that they can help make ends meet a little bit easier. And that's what we use our PPP funding for. You know, that PPP funding allowed Urban Grape to not only stay open and flourish, it allowed us to be 65% up in sales in a time that we were closed. So having that relationship is really, really, really important. I'm going to move to the second wine now. This is called La Fête blanc, and sorry, I'm really in my home office, I'm not sitting in my store. but La Fête Blanc rosé. This is a blend of a grape called semillon and another grape, where in France, they call it rolle, R O L L E.
But everywhere else in the world, they call it Vermentino. You might have had Vermentino from Western Tuscany or Sardinia. That grape, Vermentino, grows really great next to the ocean. And it brings up a lot of salinity in the finished product. And then semillon, typically blended with sauvignon Blanc for white Bordeaux, has this really cool, like honey, bees waxy characteristics. And you're not going to be able to see it really well with my screen, but as my son is working virtually this week behind me, my office has PlayStation controllers all over it. So this is a much better scene. But as you see my glass, just a little quick wine 101, and then we'll talk about my friend, Donae Burston, who's brand this is. I'm swirling the wine because the ethanol alcohol that is the liquid in here is slowly evaporating. And when I swirl the wine, I'm speeding up the alcohol evaporation process. And what's happening is that the alcohol vapors are pulling all the phenols out of the liquid. We call that the bouquet. And so when we smell it, the vapors go up through our nose, back through our olfactory, to the back of our tongue. And when you smell it, you can actually start tasting the wine. And it's very Pavlovian in that sense that it's getting your mouth and your brain ready for something delicious. And then when I swirl the wine, I'm also increasing surface area. So I get to smell more and I'm going to do something that your partners, when you go out to eat and they look at you, because you make this really annoying sound when you do a wine tasting, is that you do it almost sounds like mouthwash. So don't do this out in public, but do this all the time at home. That really loud noise?
What I'm doing is that I'm bringing air into my mouth. I'm basically doing this. I'm creating more surface area so my mouth feels more wine, more acid. You can feel that the wine, because of the acid, actually dries your mouth out. What that is is that the acid in the wine, think lemonade, actually attacks the proteins in your saliva. And then the saliva goes away and your salivatory glands underneath the pores in your mouth are exposed. And then they replenish that saliva, which then makes your mouth water, which is happening right now if you just took a sip. And it's a really cool process, and having wine with really wonderful acidity, as I mentioned, it opens up the pores in your mouth, which exposes your taste buds more. So that old saying of wine enhances the flavor of the food. The flavor of the food is already there, but without acid, you get the same exact thing if you drink lemonade. But without acid, your pores in your mouth are closed and your taste buds aren't fully exposed. So take another sip, and I'm going to introduce you to my friend, Donae Burston. Donae Burston is my age, low forties, black man, born and raised in, I believe Detroit, but has really lived most of his life down in Miami. And Donae worked for Moët Hennessy for about 15 years. And here's this young black guy, you know, mid to late twenties at the time, selling one of the most luxurious brands in the world, Dom Perignon. And he was traveling all over the world and no one ever looked like him in the rooms that he was giving wine tastings to, or in any of the hotels or fine restaurants that he was selling to, for the sommeliers or the GMs or anyone.
The only people that looked like him were famous musicians or athletes that I could afford to give themself access, to be in the places where he was a worker bee selling the product. He was celebrating, on a work trip but celebrating, two birds one stone, his 30th birthday in San Tropez, so in Provence. And in San Tropez, they drink rosé all year long. And he fell in love with rosé. And he was introduced to someone in the wine industry that had, I don't know, maybe it's like a 15 generation family that is just a big producer of wine there. All organic, all pesticide free since day one from the 1300s. And he met them and he said, look, I have an idea to create a brand. I would love it to be rosé, and I want it to be a brand for all. I want someone to see a black man drinking rosé and not just the demographic which wine is typically catered to, which is the 24 to 45 year old white female. That's what the wine world is, the demographic is, because women are the number one purchaser of wine. Okay. And so that's where the marketing dollars go to. And he says, that's all fine. But I want to see me represented. I want to see people like me represented. So he created, in 2019, La Fête rosé. And La Fête is a, you know, in French it could be like the party or the feast, but it's actually a Caribbean term, meaning like community. Meaning like party, meaning being a part of something. And so he created that. And his second line is what you're sipping on today. The La Fête Blanc Rosé.
Now I mentioned Urban Grapes' proprietary, progressive scale. What that is, it's a scale that I created when I was in the restaurant industry, where I created something called a progressive wine list, where food menus are pretty much always done progressively. You start with a salad, which is light bodied, typically with high acid on it, whether it's tomato or oil or vinegarette, or ceviche with lime, something really light. And then you get into your grains and your proteins. And so we eat from light body, to medium body, to full body. So I had a very seasonal staff and they needed to know the wine list, but they didn't have enough time in the summertime to learn all of the wines. So I created a system for them to learn. And then the wines fell within that system. When I ended up opening up the Urban Grape, I took that vertical, light bodied, medium, full bodied wine list, and I turned it horizontally. And that's the progressive shelving that you see behind me known as Urban Grapes' progressive scale. Pre-COVID, I taste about 6,000 wines a year. And that's why I love tequila. I always make the joke, but because after I taste all these wines, I just go home and I drink tequila because I'm done with wine. I get a lot of palate fatigue. But when I taste these wines, and I'll do it with you real quick, cool thing about us humans is that all of our palates, we all feel the same. So if I feel something on the front of my palate, or the middle of my palate, or the back of my palette, so do you. The hardest part of wine tasting is really the terminology, the descriptors. If you smell this and you're like, oh, I don't know what the smell is. And someone says apple.
You're like, oh yeah, that is apple in there. And you say apple, everyone in the room will smell apple. Here's a little party trick right here. And here's the back end of it. Most white wines smell like some type of apple. The same thing, that's called an ester. It's a gene, the same gene that makes white grape varietals smell like apple is also in the apple. That makes an apple smell like an apple. But apple gets weird, right? You have green apple, red delicious apple, yellow apple, yellow apple that fell from the tree and it's bruised and the sugar is more concentrated, so that part of the apple's sweeter. Right, so if something smells like apple, another cool thing about us is that it's your palette. And you're always correct. If something smells like apple to you, and that's what you think apple smells like or tastes like, you are always correct. And so what you notice on my store shelves, or don't notice, are shelf talkers. Nothing, I've never put on my shelf, "this wine goes great with Turkey." Because everything goes great with Turkey. I will never put a descriptor of, you know, essence of smoked Caribbean cocoa powder, because what does that actually mean? Am I going to like the wine? Is it going to go great with my meal tonight? Is it going to, you know, fulfill the experience that I'm looking to have? So what I'm going to do, I'm going to show you how we taste through these wines and put them on Urban Grapes' progressive scale. So first I smell it, just make sure that the wine's not corked where there's a bacteria on the cork, which can take away your perception of smelling fruit. Now all wine is fruity, okay? Fruit has nothing to do with sweet. It should be fruity because it's made from fruit. If it's not fruity, it's probably corked.
So when I stick my nose in, all I'm doing initially is just to make sure that the wine is sound. And then I take a sip and I move it around my palate. And before I think about, do I taste acid? Do I taste salt? Do I taste Kiwi? Whatever I taste. Before I go into any of the taste, I focus on the tactile sensations, okay. What am I feeling on my palate? And on the very front of my palate is where we feel all of the yummy fruit, okay? And so the front of my palate, and the front of my team's palate, is where we come up with our one through 10 scale. If the wine feels like skim milk on our palates, very light and watery, that's going to be a one. If wine feels like whole milk, a little bit creamier on the front of my palate, that's going to be a five. And if wine feels like heavy cream, where it just totally coats my mouth, and it's kind of like a meal within itself, that's a full bodied wine, or a 10. So light, medium, full, skim, whole milk, heavy cream. I've just simplified wine for you. Because we don't drink by grape varietal or geographic growing region, how most stores are set up, we drink by what feels good on our palate. And shopping progressively and educating yourself progressively, my wife and I wrote a book called Drink Progressively in 2017, you can find it on our website. It's a great book because it tells you why something is a two W, this is a two white on our scale, because on the front of your palate, this kind feels like 1% milk. This is in the same world as Pinot Grigio, Sancerre, Muscadet. But in typical stores, those three wines that I mentioned are all going to be in different parts of the store, which the store's selling it as different consumers or different categories of customers.
Where I look at it, it's like, no, this is the same person. Because the wines manipulate your palette in a similar way. So this is a great wine. Donae is a really, really, really kind man. He had the opposite experience the McBride sisters did. there was a great article, I think in maybe Wine Spectator this past quarter, where it became public. And I don't know, I think he has a majority ownership in it, but Constellation, one of the, you know, the almost trillion dollar beverage companies in the world, they ended up putting some private equity, not private equity, but actually Constellation money into it. Which then allowed him to expand and grow his brand. And that's something that the McBride sisters didn't have. I don't know if he, if Donae could get bank funding, but he got the attention of a large company that has helped, is bringing him financial access and more capital to allow to grow his brand. So you'll be seeing a lot more of his wines on here. When I ended up finding this wine, I've spent years trying to be bringing in wines that are very intentional, right? Every wine on that wall has a story. Whether it's $12 or $1,200 a bottle, every wine has a story. We taste every single wine. We don't taste the $1,200 wines, because a lot of times wineries won't give samples of those. So that's where we actually read reviews and we get the few bottles that were allocated. But most of the wines, the 760 wines that we have on our shelves, they have stories.
We don't ask about the flavor of wine. We ask about how it's grown. Who owns it? Is it a woman winemaker? Is it a black winemaker? Is it a winemaker that identifies as queer, right? We want to know all of those stories because we want to promote that part of the story, so that when you, the customer, the most important person in the industry, wants to buy a wine and wants to be maybe a little bit more intentional with your spend. You can promote, and spend, and help provide financial access by the cost of a bottle of wine. because when you buy a bottle of wine and you you're supporting me by buying it from me, I'm supporting them by buying it from them. So your dollar counts with that. And so we want to be intentional with the story. And frankly, I also want to sell really cool wine. I just don't want to sell something that everyone else has. And with Donae doing this, I heard about him because out of, you know, it was basically June 1st, 2020, all of us that identify as BIPOC in the industry that have never been seen before. Even though at that time I've been in the industry for 20 years, on June 1st, it kind of came out. It's like, oh, you're black, you're in the industry. Hey, what is it like being black in the industry? I'm like, well, I've always been black and I've been in the industry for more than half my life.
And I started talking about that, and then I kind of got fed up with it. I'm like, can we just talk about wine, like enough about being this, but what I realized with our platform and opportunities like being, you know, a partner with First Republic, you know, I am a black man in this industry. And I am one of few, unfortunately. Though this is a French company that Donae has, and the McBride sisters have a California and New Zealand company, 0.01% of all alcohol brands in the United States have a majority ownership of someone of color, not just black. 0.01%. Right? Think about the next time that you go to Napa Valley, or you go to the Finger Lakes or Santa Barbara or whatever wine region you go to in the United States, chances are you're not going to see a black wine maker. Chances are, you're not going to see a female owner, unless it's a smaller wine. Because 15, 20 years ago, this conversation was not just about BIPOC. This was about women in wine, or women in industry. You, we, have to work much harder to get to the same place, right? And so typically, if this was not webinar style, everyone would be going like this right now. So we can all agree on that. Donae, I was able to find him, and I never heard of him before. And I worked really hard to get his wine into the state. Most states are on something called the three tier system, where the restaurant or the retailer can't buy directly through the winery.
They have to use a middle person, the wholesalers, in order to do this. And the wholesaler thing kind of started with prohibition, they made the three tier system to protect the bootleggers' families, which is fascinating. That's a whole nother webinar right there. But we all learned about each other. And so it took about six months for me to really convince a wholesaler to bring this wine in specifically for Urban Grape. So for the first year we were exclusive with it. We sold hundreds of cases of it. Not because he's black, but because the wine is really, really good. And it took me about a year to get McBride Sisters in. And the fear behind these companies wanting to get into a new market, which was Massachusetts, was not only that their story might not be told if it just sat on the shelf, but also that they might not have enough wine to actually, you know, make a splash in that market due to financial restrictions. So we use someone like Urban Grapes' platform to bring them up, and some people have mentioned, oh, like, it's so great, you're paying it forward. It's not paying it forward. Paying it forward, I don't really know what that means. What I'm doing is, as I'm coming up, I'm bringing other people up with me, right? It's my obligation. It's my moral obligation to do this. And it's all of yours, too. As you all come up, bring the people up with you. Always invite someone out for a cup of coffee if they're coming up in any industry. Always welcome them to a table, always open the door for them.
Our world will be a better place. I'm starting with wine. With this, and I mentioned our platform, you know, and this is where, it's not really bragging. It's bragging a little bit, but but what it is is that for so many years, because I am not the normal wine shop owner, is that when someone would walk into the store and ask for the owner or ask for the buyer, they would walk right past me. They would literally walk to the oldest white person that is employed by me and ask a question about a specific vintage of Grand Cru Burgundy. And they had no idea, right? Because they haven't been to Burgundy and they were 24 years old. But the way that our industry and many industries are set up, it's that you go to the person that looks like you. Something that you're familiar with. And so I feel that even sometimes when I'm selling a $20 bottle of wine, in the past, I've had to go through my entire resume, just so that I could show them that I was trustworthy and that I was able to sell them a bottle of wine. That I was capable, that I had the expertise to do that. A couple things that we've won. We've been named a couple years in a row a Wine Star runner up, unfortunately, for Wine Enthusiast. I just had a great article in Wine Spectator. We have won Beverage Dynamics' top 100 retailers the last three years. Which is awesome, because last year we were number 25 and that's behind things like Zachys, who's been around for 80 years, Sherry Lehman in New York, amazing store that's been around for 60, 70 years, the state of Pennsylvania, which is a controlled state. So all 200 stores we competed with and we came up with number 25. Not just because of our selection and our intentionality, but also because of our sales, and our costs, and our expenses, and our company culture. We run a really tight ship. And our two biggest things that we've done.
Last year, we won Ernst and Young's, EY's, entrepreneur of the year award for New England. And then the biggest award we've ever won, it was like, we were shocked on this. We won the 2021 United States Chamber of Commerce, small business of the year award. And that had nothing to do with being a black owned business, that had nothing to do with being a woman owned business. And that had nothing to do with wine. That was being a great business owner. And a great business owner needs partners, needs great financial institutions to be their partner. They need great accountants. They need great customers. They need all these things, and they need a great community to be able to be successful in that sense. With that, I'd like to get into the third wine.
Natalie - Oh, you know what, TJ, before you go to the third wine, can you talk a little bit about, are there any other obstacles that people of color or BIPOC individuals have faced when they started a winery? And, how do you see the wine industry changing its opportunities for these people?
TJ - Yeah, that's a great question, Natalie. Thank you so much. A few obstacles, and also how the wine industry is changing. Well, you know, the easiest way, and this always makes people think about it, and it might be personal. This might have happened to you, or this might be your plan. The easiest way to create wealth is to inherit it. And due to systemic reasons, a lot of us that have grown up in a BIPOC community and identify as black or brown, we generally might not have generational wealth coming our way. So our opportunity is to create that. You look at Napa valley and some of these, actually, a lot of these people are my friends, that are my age that are taking over wineries. They didn't start wineries. Their grandfather started wineries. And now they're next in line. In Burgundy, in order to own a domain, you know, Chateau, but they're called domains in Burgundy. You know, it was always left to the oldest son. When the father was moving on, the property, the brand, the domain, the network, the education of how to make and sell wine, the bank account was left to the oldest son, whether he wanted it or not. We don't have those opportunities traditionally. So a big obstacle is that we really have to start from scratch. And you don't see a lot of brown and black people in this wine industry, because a lot of times black and brown people are growing up in underserved and, you know, kind of developing neighborhoods. And I always say like, how can you have a fine wine shop and know what fine wine is if you don't have a grocery store with organic produce. Because no matter if it's $5 a bottle or $500 a bottle, it is a luxury.
You don't have to drink wine, right? It's a luxury. And in those communities, luxury is not an option. It's not visible. So a lot of times these brown and black people, they don't know that this $50 billion a year industry even exists. And if they don't know that it exists, how do they know that it's for them? And I'm glad that you asked this question because this is a great segue into the next wine, but also, you know, out of all the awards that we've won, what Urban Grapes' legacy is for Hadley and my two sons, Noah, and Jason, what our legacy is as a family and as a family business, and for my team at the store, it's not the awards, it's not the money that's in the bank account. It's the fact that we were able to create real change, now. By creating the Urban Grape wine studies award for students of color. We created this in 2020 to bring access to the wine world. Now, what the access means is that, moving forward, and this is going to take some time. This is take years to actually change, because right now, just because of how the wine world is, most of my team are still white. We are very, a female forward company. We've always been a female forward company, but too many times I'll get a black man or a Latino man that would apply. And they would only apply for a labor position, whether that position was stock or delivery driver. And they might be 30 years old and have a family. And that's what they're applying for, because that's where they feel that their worth is capped at. Where I'll get a 21 year old white employee, straight out of college, or a 45 year old white mom whose husband is in finance and just wants to work a couple hours a week.
They'll apply as a sales position or a manager position, even if they don't have any experience, because that's where they feel that their worth is. And both of those is by no fault of their own. That that's the perception of the bias. So creating this program is the fastest endowment that Boston University has ever created in Boston University's history. In eight months, we raised almost a quarter of a million dollars, and it puts two students through a one year education program. And at the same time, because what's education without practical work experience. So at the same time, they'll do one year, broken up into four paid internships, retail, wholesale, restaurants. For those of you in Boston, it's Row 34. And then working at a Custom Crush winery in Sonoma, in Sevastopol for three months, and learning how to pick grapes, make wine, brand wine, label wine, cork wine, sell wine. And when they come out of this program after about 14 months or so, you'll have free education, practical work experience, C level mentorship, and a network. And we now have applications open for cohort three. Cohort two are in the middle of their internships in education right now. And I'm so proud to say that just last month, cohort one, both students, both 30 to 45 year old queer black women, both got six figure jobs. And one was relocated to Napa from Boston. Like that is going to change the wine industry. That having the access. And once we kind of, you know, get through this year, we're working with the Boston foundation to understand how to create a 501-C3, to do a true foundation and do same exact thing with a higher education gastronomy program, local businesses around the country, and hopefully start the same thing at HBCUs.
So that's how we're going to create change. And so we need to do this and others need to do that. So thank you for asking that question. And I want to be sensitive of time here. So I'm kind of going to go through these a little bit faster. We're now getting into Theopolis. And this comes from an area called Yorkville. This is up near Anderson Valley, the Redwood forest above Sonoma. And this is a great wine. This is Pinot noir, only 150 cases of this remain. Why? Lack of funding. She actually can't grow because she needs more money. It takes about a million dollars to start a one acre winery, with branding, and bottling line, and all that stuff. It costs about a million dollars, and that's not an acre of planted grapes. That's a lawn. That's an acre of lawn. And then it takes your fourth year of your brand new vine, has to be four years old before you can make a wine out of it based on the phenolics of the actual grape. So you won't even turn a profit of that million for probably at least six or seven years. So that's another obstacle right there. Miss Theodore Lee is a partner in a big law firm out in the bay area. And she started making wine because she was at all of these dinners, and a lot of the partners had wineries and had great cellars. And she wanted access to that. So she couldn't buy in Napa. So she bought off the beaten tracks.
It was an old sheep farm. And she took night classes at UC Davis and funded everything herself, and she is a winemaker. And she is one of the only black owned women land owners in the wine industry in North America, not just the United States. And her Pinot noir has the same body as Donae's wine. It's a two, but it's a red wine. So super light body, and then on our progressive scale, this really sits with other Pinot noirs, a lot of burgundies, this is cooler climate Pinot, but it also sits with like Beaujolais and Dulcetto from France and from Piedmont, Italy. Mm. This wine right here is very fruit forward, but it's not a heavy wine. It has like this kind of like dark smoked chocolate characteristic to it, very earth driven. It's not a juicy, jammy wine. It's not what this wine's supposed to be about. Like if you've had wine from like Russian river, that tends to be a little bit more voluptuous. A lot of those are like threes and fours on our shelf, but this is a light body, great for like a burgundy drinker, which is a cool climate area. This wine will age for a few years. It's 2019. And Theopolis is, her name is miss Theodore Lee. And she's known as Theopatra, Queen of the Vine. That's what people call her. And she is unbelievable, because her background before she was in law, she was a farm girl. She's three generations of farmers, I think from Texas. And so she has the love of the land and she makes some pretty good wines. So I apologize for speeding for through this, but I just want to be sensitive to everyone's time.
I'm going to take one more sip with this, cause this is beautiful. Mm. Really long lasting. If you were going to do some food with this, this pairs well with other light-bodied wines, but one of the great pairings for Pinot noir, and really no matter where it's from, is salmon. Because salmon is lighter bodied, but it has a lot of protein in it and a lot of oil. And the acid of the Pinot noir cuts right through it. But there's not a lot of Tannin. Tannin is a dry acid that you feel almost like over your molars, that same thing as in coffee and tea and in walnuts, where you need kind of like meat protein to soften that up a little bit. So Pinot noir and salmon, that's what you should be doing. And then lastly, we're going to get into Kumusha. So Kumusha, this is a guy named Tinashe Nyamudoka. And if anyone has ever heard of the caste system, developed in India, but used widely in South Africa, where the caste is, it's the society is set out by the color of your skin. So if anyone's ever been to South Africa, you have the whites, the coloreds, people with my beautiful hue, and then you have the blacks. And that's the system. And in a winery, the whites are the ones that own the winery. The coloreds are the ones that work in the winery that have customer facing. And guess where the blacks work? They work in the fields. And they're kind of the lowest in terms of hierarchy. And people are really trying to change that. You know, it really started over apartheid. And since apartheid ended 25 plus years ago, they're really trying to move away, but it's a generational change that they're trying to make. And, you know, that is truly in every sense a developing country. It's a beautiful country. A lot of the people are so lovely and so proud of their country. And, you know, when you think about it, what is lower in terms of hierarchy than the lowest person in your country? An immigrant, right? And so Tinashe is actually a black immigrant from Zimbabwe.
He started, he came to South Africa when he was 15 and worked in a restaurant polishing silverware. And then over the course of 10 years he learned food. And super fast forward, became the number one sommelier in South Africa and a very widely, well known sommelier across the globe. In 10 years. Kumusha, the name is Zimbabwean for root or origin. He wanted to create a really wonderful wine that represented his home flavors, that he remembered from his table growing up as a child, because wine was not on his table as a child. And with this wine right here, he loves to tell the story of land. He apprenticed in a winery, and he started this brand in, I believe 2017, and then in 2019, he left the, what was it called? The Test Kitchen in Cape Town. And he left Test Kitchen and focused on this brand. And what's crazy is that he donates a lot of time and energy and money into the education of his workers and other people in the wine industry. Because for too long, wine farmers in South Africa use the dop system, D O P, which is where they paid their farmers in alcohol, as opposed to cash. Now, I don't know about the First Republic branches in your neighborhoods and your towns, but they don't take alcohol as a deposit. They take cash. And there's no way to build any kind of wealth if you're paid in the distilled grapes that you picked. And so people like Tinashe and Bream and other amazing black winemakers in South Africa are trying to fight against this dop system to get fair, almost like a fair trade. Make sure that people are getting the correct dollar amount for their worth. This is big. This is bold. This is an eight on our progressive scale. Has a little bit of like this iron quality to it, which is the south African soil. And I really hope you enjoy it with some barbecue or taking it outta your fridge and drinking it tomorrow. Thank you so much for your time. Please check us out at Urban Grape on all social media platforms, and love to see you in person someday. I'm going to sign off and hand it back, pass the mic back to Natalie to close out. And stay happy and healthy, and drink well. Thank you for your time.
Natalie - Thank you so much, TJ. The chat was blowing up. People want to taste the wines. The stories were amazing. And we really appreciate you for making today's event so memorable and sharing your story with us. Additionally, you taught us a lot, not just about your experience in the wine industry, but ways that we can support other BIPOC individuals in this industry. So thank you. As a reminder to our guests, a replay of this session will be available on the First Republic website. And happy Black History Month. Thank you all, be well, and have a good afternoon and good evening. Take care.