Ten years ago, I can’t say that I saw this coming. I’m not afraid to admit that in high school, I wasn’t the greatest student. I didn’t learn the best through traditional schooling, so my parents sent me to a tech center to study culinary arts for half a day. I thought it would be fun and I would just eat all the time, but I ended up falling in love with food and the culinary arts. This led me to going to the Culinary Institute of Michigan for my degree in Food and Beverage Management. While still in Culinary school, I developed and started the class “The History of food and Regional Culture”. The program promoted health and wellness, familiarizing the youth of Muskegon Heights, Michigan with an alternative outlook on other regional cultures through cooking various cuisine and nutritious meals each week. This program also focused on the use of our local resources such as Community Encompass, McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm, and the Muskegon Farmers Market. The program was designed to reach area youth throughout Muskegon County. “The History of Food and Regional Culture”, sought to expand the community’s perspective on healthy living, eating and different cultures throughout the world. It was shortly after I developed this class that I volunteered at a wine event. There, I encountered the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and I instantly fell in love with that wine. After hearing the story behind the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I fell in awe with the culture of wine. This idea of a place being so special and sacred that Pope John XXII would build a castle in and essentially bless this wine growing region was both beautiful and fascinating to me. After that, I couldn’t get enough. Despite not being of drinking age, I studied the regions, the grapes, the terroir, and the history. I learned about the art of tasting wine through smelling lavender, grapefruit, and cigars, among other common notes to look for on the nose. This led me to taking my level one sommelier exam at the age of 21, when I passed. Again, to be young, black, and a sommelier was to learn that those aspects of my identity didn’t often mix. The history that I carry with me, the rocky path that I have taken to get to where I am, the goals that I have for the future – I carry the contradictions and complexity that come with who I am, where I came from, and how I will get to where I’m going. With every opportunity, I am furthering my ancestor’s greatest dreams.
Not long after turning 21 and passing my first level sommelier exam, I accepted a sales representative position working for a small boutique wine distributor, i-Lixir Beverage. The portfolio included Jenny & Francoise, Jose Pastor, Brooks Winery and Field Recordings just to name a few. It was then, while working more directly with the industry that I saw the lack of diversity in the wine world, both professionally and recreationally. This led to the feeling of wanting to create a space and business that represented the people that look like me.
I see the importance of pushing forward propelling the idea of wine being for the people and by the people. The essence and mission of both Graped Out and Wade Cellars is to take the “boujee” out of wine. I want all people, regardless of their knowledge level or background, enjoy wine and feel like it is for them. This is important to me because I am someone who doesn’t often see myself reflected in the wine industry. At 26 years old, I am a young black man who has had to search for mentors and examples of success who look like me. Thankfully, the list of black wine professionals continues to grow and I feel privileged to be able to contribute, especially because seven years ago, I didn't know the difference between a cabernet sauvignon and a sauvignon blanc. It has been my vision to be able to create an environment wherein all people can explore learn in a space that embraces that exact feeling of curiosity.
I demonstrate this connection through Graped Out by offering non-traditional learning experiences that engages in an interactive and eccentric way. By providing pop-up five course wine dinners that intentionally bring diverse groups of people together around food, live music, and local art, it is my goal to intersect the three in order to deliver a transcendent experience that engages all feelings and senses. To see people of various backgrounds become transfixed by a musician and share the experience of falling in love with a new wine together all while building friendships across the table is beautiful to see.
I am honored to be the first official employee of Wade Cellars, Dwyane Wade’s wine label here in Napa, California. My role here is to be the right hand to our President, Matt Naumann. I work directly with him running all of the operations for the business. This includes brand development, national sales, our direct to consumer market, and even some wine making. Our goal is to create a well-respected label that is approachable for people of all walks of life.
Additionally, I recently had the opportunity to create a show for PBS and NPR that has been a dream of mine for as long as wine has been a passion. The premise of my show “Cultural Ingredients” is about understanding the stories and life experiences of people through food. It focuses on first, second and third generation immigrants who have started their own restaurant here in the U.S. We look at the culinary history, geopolitics and agricultural development that each dish has taken to land on our plates. To sit down and break bread with people and to learn about their life over a meal has been incredibly rewarding for me. I see sharing food and drink while learning about another person’s culture and traditions as a way to build empathy and understanding in our world today.