As the founder of the Vine Club LLC, a subscription wine company supporting black winemakers and a former owner of two wine and beer shops, Benita Johnson isn’t afraid to say that her wine drinking experience started in college with Raspberry and Peach Riunite. But fast forward, after a career in accounting, this mother of three and trailblazing sommelier has turned her life over to a business in the wine industry—a sector that generated $219.9 billion in 2017.
“I would love to see more diversity, people of color and women involved in this growing industry, says Johnson. I’m trying to make this change happen through The Exclusive Blacklist Weekend, our signature event. It’s a tasting of wines made by African Americans. We introduce these wines to consumers and empower them to look for these wines in their local communities. I tell them if I can get these wines, so can the wine shops and restaurants that they frequent. I want to eliminate the excuses that some of the distributors use for not carrying our wines. If we demand the wines, certainly they will supply them.
In an interview, Johnson shares her plans to make the wine industry more diverse.
What inspired you to start the Vine Wine Club?
After buying a glass of Johannesburg Riesling at a restaurant, I went to the store to buy a bottle of Riesling two days later to find that it tasted vastly different. I didn’t understand how the same grape could be worlds apart on my palate. So I started to go to wine tastings to ask all of my “dumb” questions, or at least that’s how wine shop owners would look at me. After becoming frustrated with balancing parenting with corporate life, I quit my job as an accountant and opened two wine and beer shops in areas where people thought I was taking a huge risk. Having no real knowledge of wine at the time, I relied on my distributors and savvy customers to teach me. I read a lot of books and took my Introductory Sommelier courses with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I would require my distributors to teach classes in my shops for me and my customers. Needless to say, I drank lots of wine and did some wine travel to places such as Napa and Tuscany. I still take classes when I can at Capital Wine School and at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
After having two wine and beer stores, I built a good reputation of having a “friendly” approach to helping my customers feel comfortable asking questions about wine. I wanted to take away the pretentious attitudes that were common in so many wine shops. As subscribers to The Vine Wine Club, my customers complete a survey and they trust me to send them two bottles a month as a part of their subscription. In turn, I invite them to send me emails, social media messages, or calls with feedback. I work very hard to never repeat wine selections, which allows them to taste wines from all over the world. I also use the platform to educate people in a fun and comfortable environment about varietals, terroir, and why wines taste like they do.
What do you hope to accomplish with events like the Blacks in Wine Symposium?
The purpose of the Blacks in Wine Symposium is to have a dialogue about some of the challenges that African Americans face in the industry. I would like for us to walk away thinking about sustainability models for our businesses whether it’s a vineyard, winery, retail shop, restaurant, or whatever we are doing that fits the industry. We need a collective model to keep one another afloat during those tough times.