( ENSPIRE She Did That ) Varnado Aims To Create A Safe Space For Black Women To Engage And Learn About Wine Through BGW Society
ENSPIRE Contributor: Re’Dreyona Walker
Black women entrepreneurs have been making their mark in the wine industry by building their own spaces where women of color can grow, learn and celebrate one another while actively seeking to change the narrative about Black wine consumers. Honestly, when you think about the representation of Black women in the wine industry, you’ll soon realize that it’s basically a reflection of the lack of diversity within the industry.
According to The Zoe Report, the Association of African American Vintners reported that only 50 out of 10,000 U.S.-based wineries are Black-owned, although Black consumers account for at least 11 percent of wine drinkers across the country. But to push the industry to develop, Shayla Varnado founded Black Girls Wine in 2016 to celebrate diversity and to create a unique wine experience for African American women between the ages of 35-50 years old.
Varnado says she discovered her love for wine when she was freshly out of college and had the opportunity to connect with some amazing Black women wine lovers who introduced her to some of her first great-tasting wines. Soon, when she began to break into the wine industry as a seller, she began to notice how there was not only a lack of Black representation in the industry—but a lack of action to change it.
“When I entered the wine industry in 2016, it didn’t take long after being presented with an opportunity to sell wine that there was a severe lack of representation,” said Varnado. “There was also a lack of action being taken in the industry by the majority to change it. There were so many Black wine professionals doing great work that wasn’t getting the recognition they deserve either, so I wanted to help change that.”
When creating Black Girls Wine in 2016, Varnado says one of the key steps she took to grow Black Girls Wine into what it is today was focusing on building a community first. She knew that going into an industry or starting any new business venture requires an audience or community, so she sought to focus on building that connection for the next three years. Eventually, Black Girls Wine expanded into a membership society, and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the society increased from 15 chapters and over 100 members to over 50 chapters across the nation and over 400 members.
“My transition to launching a membership Society happened gradually with careful planning, intentional event planning, and engaging the community of women I had built on Facebook over the first three years,” said Varnado. “Those women became my online wine crew and I knew they’d be there to help steer the [Black Girls Wine Society] vision in the right direction.”
With Black Girls Wine Society, it brings wine professionals, winemakers, and wine distributors together to educate members all about wine. The platform is described by Varnado as, “A movement curated to combine two worlds that have been apart far too long,” and is aimed for “winefriends” who are deeply curious about expanding their wine skills and evolving their palate.
Varnado makes Black Girls Wine relatable but yet glamorous, and has created the perfect platform for Black women who desire a chic wine lifestyle and a sisterhood where both the woman and her passions are celebrated—whether it be the opportunity to give valued advice about her own experience in the wine industry or just simply enjoying the experience of expanding her own knowledge on her wine journey.
Varnado has also reached success through the platform with her podcast and Instagram LIVE series called Wine Down LIVE—which is a curated yet carefree weekly online experience where the audience can enjoy the ‘fun of wine’. The show first launched in 2018 and since has gained over 500+ live views weekly and has become a huge part of Varnado’s weekly Wednesday night lineup. She says that Wine Down LIVE grew with consistency and that’s what made it a success.
“Showing up for my community of wine lovers is what makes the wine friends keep showing up for me!” she says.
Varnado has successfully built an audience of Black girl wine lovers, and has created a safe space for Black women to connect and celebrate diverse palates and experiences. Black Girls Wine Society also has given women of color the chance to explore what all that this industry has to offer.
ENSPIRE had the opportunity to interview Varnado about how to break into this industry as a Black woman, how the industry can work to diversify and market to Black and brown audiences, what Black Girls Wine Society has planned for the future and much more.
What are some wines you would recommend to a new BGWS member who is considered to be a “beginner level” wine lover?
Shayla: “Here at BGW, we use the term “transition wine” a lot. It’s basically a wine that helps new wine lovers open up slowly to trying other things—and blends are always a great way to start expanding your palate as a beginner!”
How can Black women who want to study wine and possibly become sommeliers break into this industry?
Shayla: “Do your research and then do the work. There are many ways to break into the wine industry, and the two most well-known routes are taking the WSET (Wine Spirits Education Trust) or CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine). You have to do what’s right for you, but connecting to some of the existing wine communities is a great place to start!”
How can the wine industry work to diversify its audience? How can they market to Black and brown audiences?
Shayla: “There are a lot of ways to market to Black and Brown audiences, but I think the best way to consistently diversify marketing efforts is to hire more Black and Brown people and hire wine professionals who can help diversify and expand the program. There are so many Black wine professionals and consultants who can offer more insight into diversifying their audiences and they deserve to be hired and paid well.”
What does BGWS have planned for 2021?
Shayla: “We’re expanding big time in 2021! I’m looking forward to seeing our virtual national events get bigger as we wait to transition back to in person events. I’m also looking forward to bringing on more chapter presidents and more leaders to create room for more members!”
Where do you see BGSW in the next few years?
Shayla: “I see us having a headquarters somewhere in the world and being one of the largest organizations for Black women wine lovers in the world. We will have hundreds of chapters and thousands of members around the world. But bigger than just us, the connections and relationships our members will be able to make with one another will lead to furthering growth, expansion and opportunities for the Black community at large.”
Any more advice for Black women who are looking to expand their knowledge on wine? Especially in an industry that makes it seem impossible? And are there any resources you recommend they should look to?
Shayla: “Of course start with research but I would also say get connected to the Black wine lovers of the industry. There’s a community on Facebook filled with Black wine professionals who are a great resource!”