by Cesca Janece Waterfield
When Renee Rowe of Atlanta, Georgia first dreamed of owning her own wine shop, she knew wine tasting could seem intimidating to anyone. But she also knew plenty of African American wine drinkers, and her friends and family regularly met to sample and discuss new vintages. So when she began attending large-scale tastings, she was surprised to see greater diversity in the wine selection than among the crowd.
“I’d be at trade shows and I would be one of very few African Americans,” she remembers. “It was very uncomfortable asking questions,” she admits. “No one wants to feel like an idiot.”
Daunted but determined, Renee continued researching. She discovered that there were no other wine clubs organized by African Americans in her area. “As black as Atlanta is, that was surprising,” she says. “I said, you know what? I’m going to start an African American wine club.”
With the encouragement of her husband Wayne, she made flyers to promote the first gathering of the African American Wine Tasting Society (AAWTS). “I dropped them off at salons and at barber shops. At the first meeting, I had fifty people show up. I was just looking for a couple of people to meet at restaurants to do dinner. It really just turned into a phenomenal thing.”
That was more than six years ago. “We are a full-blown wine education club. The focus is on education,” Renee says. “We have fun too, but people are interested. They’re asking questions. They want to learn about wine instead of just drinking wine.”
The Society’s membership shows that plenty of regular folks are interested in fine wine. “I would say 65 percent are professional,” Renee says, “and another ten percent are entrepreneurs, and they entertain for networking. When people entertain, they need to know wine.”
AAWTS continues to grow. Today it has status as a non-profit organization, and has a second chapter in Indianapolis. Two years after launching the Society, Renee opened her shop, The Wine Cellars, in downtown Smyrna, Georgia. “I have a very mixed clientele, very diverse,” she says.
She’s found that being a small business owner has allowed her to keep near her two sons, who are 8 and 3. “I have a wonderful husband who’s very supportive in my business, and I have two little boys. They’re with me here at the store most of the time.”
Renee encourages people of any budget and background to get to know wine and to ask questions. “I have really got to know my wine. I’ve got to know where it comes from. I’ve got to know how it’s made. I was shocked at the reception I got from people when I asked questions, even about opening my own shop. When I started asking questions, I started getting answers,” she says. “And that makes you feel more comfortable.”
Renee Rowe’s 5 Steps to Enjoying Wine
Focus on your flavor palate: “Here in the south, we love sweet tea, we love coca cola. We love sweet things. The first step is determining what you like. Chances are, you’ve had some kind of wine before, and you either liked it or not. Was it sweet? Was it smooth? Was it red or white? If you did not like it, same questions. Was it bitter? Was it heavy? It’s a matter of paying attention. Finding out what you like is the first step.”
Find a wine merchant: “Stop buying wines from stores who have no one to help you, or who don’t want to help you. This has happened to me. People assume I don’t know anything about wine, and they can’t be bothered to help me. That’s not a place where you need to shop. The place that I like to shop was the place that didn’t decide whether I like wine or not. They were willing to answer my questions and spend time with me. Find someone you’re comfortable asking questions of.”
Choose your price: “The third thing you need to do is find a price point that you’re comfortable with. If you can afford to spend ten to fifteen dollars a week on wine, then when you go into your wine merchant, be prepared to tell them that you’re looking for something under fifteen dollars. The same thing to people who have a little more affordability. If you can afford to step up a little bit, tell them. There are so many different styles of wine, and within those styles, there are things at different price points, especially now.”
Be bold: “I don’t sell white zinfandel. I just leave that for the grocery stores. My store is for people who are going to be more adventurous. When people have a sweet palate, I start them out with riesling or moscato d’asti. Be adventurous, and step outside of the box.”
Have fun! “The fifth step is just enjoy the ride. Taste as many different things as you can. With the AAWTS, we meet once a month, and we taste at least six different wines. We can call the fifth step, building your palate.”