Cha McCoy - Runs Cha Squared Hospitality, hosting her own events, tastings & tours in NY & Portugal.
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
My first official wine job was in 2012 at a wine shop in Harlem. I had just returned to the US from living in Italy and did not desire to assimilate to American culture. I eventually would regain the corporate world again, but that gave me access to fund my trips to visit vineyards in Argentina, Chile, South Africa, California and return to Italy as often as possible. I started my wine tasting event The Communion in 2017 and adapted it into a dinner series later that year. Now, under Cha Squared Hospitality, I plan to continue to host my own events, tastings and tours, as well work with brands in development and event management. I recognize that building my own table allowed me to hear directly what people in my community want and how I can help brands bridge the gap. In between events, I work as Sommelier in Lisbon, Portugal and I’m building a wine network here while uncovering new wine.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
Yes, I was ready to leave my corporate job. And realized that doing the same work for a competitor may give me a promotion but not the true lifestyle that I craved. I did an internal assessment and asked myself, what would I do for “free”? And I realized then that I spent all my paid time off traveling in various wine countries. I decided to start making the slow transition to a life that allowed me more time to travel and make wine more of a focus, eventually leading to building my own brand around wine.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love connecting people to wine. There is a sense of wander when teaching people about terroir and connecting it to the experience they are having on their palate. Being a Sommelier allows me to also be their tour guide in a way.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Well, being woman and black, I will always stand out until there are more of us given the opportunity to work in such spaces. Unlike my previous work as engineer, where I worked for over a decade, the industry accepts people when they have such tenure. However, being new means people are often ready to challenge you to earn your stripes — and being a black woman, I experience this even more. The guest and colleagues that I serve at a fine dining event or restaurant are usually waiting for me to fail. Passing awkward stares while pouring their wine only increases the pressure when handling a vintage port, for example. And then there is the repeated judgement of your team; finding people to support you on your journey and trust in your abilities, whether its FOH or BOH, is just as difficult.
Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and often are harder/more judgmental of other women as a result. How can we as women become more aware of our own prejudice towards each and change that behavior?
This is tough. I wish I knew the answer. Most people in this industry are simply for the cause or not, for community or their own ego. There are various extremes of this, from my experience, but I realize more everyday that influence trumps everything. If someone with a larger influence says something is wrong, then maybe we will have a higher chance of people checking themselves and pointing out injustices in their local ecosystem.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
Many woman-owned wine bars and woman-led wine lists are developing. Female-led communities and businesses can put an end to the patriarchal gaze on the industry. Hire more women, buy more woman-made wines and other beverages. Like any capitalist nation, it starts from the top down. In media, highlight and celebrate these women just as often you see men. If we don’t demand it, it won’t happen.
What changes do you hope to see in regard to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope that a black woman becomes a Master Sommelier. Representation matters so, once one passes the exam, I am sure more will follow. Second, I know it’s a hashtag but #equalpay FOR REAL. Here in Portugal, there are female winemakers, but unless their name’s on the bottle, you would not know. I hope the industry gets to a place where being female and a winemaker is part of the norm, and not just a selling point. I would like to see more spaces that focus on connecting women for support, safe spaces to grow and learn how to deal with this industry. And not for Instagram, but IR. If this a profession you are seeking or a business you want to invest your time and money into, having people who can guide you are key.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Read and reach out. I get tons of DMs on Instagram from women searching for where to start. I try to answer as many as possible since I transitioned into this world and I am still fresh. But many people won’t like my answer. I did and I am still doing a lot of hard work and research. While keeping my full-time job, I worked at a wine shop part-time and studied for my certified exams. There was no easy route. If you are young, try all the various wine jobs: visit wineries looking for work, work for a distributor, or at a restaurant or take your local college or culinary school hospitality courses. If you are like me, try what’s in your reach.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
For every wine on the list there is a winemaker or winery owner that is female, a beverage director or head sommelier that is female and a person of color holding the position or currently working their way up the ranks. What we lack in this industry is simply a voice. I witnessed a man of power take advantage of this with a female colleague who seemed willing to give anything in return to keep her status. This should not have to be our only option; we have to demand more, not give in.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I came into the industry because it simply was my passion. I did not think I was contributing to anything until people started sharing with me what I meant to them. I am always humbled by this thought. Creating the Communion was to connect more people who I know were being left out of the equation as it relates to hospitality, which is the community to which I belonged. Today, the travel industry has caught on a little earlier, but the secret is out: the middle-class is rising, and with more discretionary income in these communities, they are more likely to purchase status items and dream vacations more frequently. Wine lovers who craved for the palate and sophistication that comes with wine, but don’t understand how to appreciate it, left me with the charge to speak wine in their language. Use tasting terms that are relatable, giving them a safe space to ask questions they always felt embarrassed to ask sommeliers at the fine dining restaurants they love.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Most of them are winemakers who, when the family wanted to shut the vineyard down or go a different direction, chose to revitalize their brand and keep the vineyard alive, therefore making living and new legacy through their winery. Some are recent sommeliers that I have met (I didn’t really know any before— I am always the somm with the chefs, lol). I would say the wonder women of wine I admire are all warriors. They go where no man has gone before (literally sometimes) to get things done. They all are explorers, real down-to-earth people, who make wine work feel like an Indiana Jones tale, so I relate more to these types of women because we live life like an adventure.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
I can mention a few but I don’t want to miss anyone. So, I will name one person who I knew from a distance. Lee Campbell was the first image of a woman in wine, who just happened to be from Caribbean decent and killing the wine scene in NYC when I first got introduced to the industry. And since my first job in 2012 was at a wine store in Harlem, NY, and she worked with a competing shop as the buyer, she was often brought up. She was always this mysterious wonder woman, and tales of her work were my only connection to her. Since, as women of color, we always must work twice as hard, it was her work ethic, palate, and her work portfolio that granted her the respect among the people I knew who always spoke highly of her. Her reputation precedes her, and we finally met when she crashed one of my client meetings in 2018. Needless to say, I was honored.