Farah Sheikh - Co-Founder of NOTES International
How many years have you been in the business? Tell us briefly about your background and your current position today.
We started NOTES International 2 years ago in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both my partner Leslie and I have long been wine enthusiasts, and a lot of our time early on in the lock down was spent exploring low intervention wines, learning wine makers stories, and connecting with Black and brown folks in the industry. We realized that much of our own community had been shut out of the wine world, and we organically decided to start NOTES to lower the perceived barrier of entry we saw.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
We were at one of our favorite wine bars in Brooklyn, tasting a deep amber skin contact wine with complex and heady notes. Leslie took one taste and said "this tastes like Hennessy..." It was a funny moment, but it also made us realize that having the audacity to explain how you perceive a wine using your OWN palette, vs the "proper" terms was freeing (and frankly more fun). We both grew up in immigrant families, eating jollof rice or chicken karahi - we didn't grow up in Euro-centric households. Our palettes are influenced by heavy cultural ancestry, so the way we interact with wine may be considered wrong or imprecise, but it's the way wine makes the most sense to us. We were inspired by that moment to invite our community to engage with wine in their own ways.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
The best part of what we do is hearing from someone who attended one of our events that they feel comfortable entering a wine store and asking for what they want. So many of our community members have told us that they previously felt intimidated or silly walking into a wine shop and trying to find something that they would like. Hearing that one of our community members has the confidence to ask for their preferences after enjoying one of our events motivates us to keep doing what we do.
What do you do to create wellness balance in your life? Any particular activity, practices, etc that are meaningful to you?
We are both deeply social creatures, but also toe the line between introvert and extrovert. Creating balance in our lives looks like a consistent physical wellbeing practice (lifting weights, doing yoga, getting proper rest), travel to expand our palettes and our perspectives, and spending time solo (without each other) to recharge and energize. Personally, I love to read and spend my solo time with a good book and a mug of coffee.
What changes do you hope to see in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope that the next five years radically shift the wine industry. I long for a world where sustainable agricultural practices are upheld by labor policies that uplift the people who tend to the fields, where labels are not the primary driver for the wines that are most celebrated, where knowledgeable and passionate Black and brown folks can move within the wine industry with ease and comfort, and where more Black, brown, Indigenous wine makers are celebrated for their ancestral practices and decolonized business approaches.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equality in the wine industry must start with justice - equality is no longer the goal. Equal resources or support after centuries of inequity will continue to leave Black and brown folks behind. Much like any other industry that exists in our society, I would like to see the wine industry pay reparations to those who have been systemically left behind. I would like to see a concerted and intentional effort by the broader industry to reward and celebrate winemakers and wine industry folks from marginalized backgrounds. I would like to see financial support and generational wealth radically redistributed to provide a playing field where the most talented and most environmentally conscious winemakers shine. And above all else, I would like to see spaces that are built with marginalized, Black and brown folks centered - where we can dance and sip and swirl with freedom and with ease.
How do you feel you’re contributing to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive wine industry?
We center our community in everything that we do. We build intentional spaces that grant permission to engage with wine and music without judgement, with care, and with patience. To us, it's not interesting to get the most exclusive bottle drop or to share space with the most famous and world renowned wine folks. What's interesting is to invite someone who feels wine is "not for them" to learn what they love about wine, and find the language to ask for it to then share with others. We see wine as an agricultural product first, one that has the potential to bring people together and shift mindsets. Shifting Black and brown folks perspectives on wine, how it interacts with music, and how both can feel in your body - to us that is inclusivity.
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in the same sector of the wine industry as you?
It can be so easy to talk yourself out of creating space or hosting an event because it seems like everyone else is doing the same right now. My advice: the only person who can bring YOUR idea to life is you. Get out of your own way and make it happen.
Name some people who inspire you in the wine industry and please explain why.
There are SO many but to name just a few...
Jahde Marley is one of the most radical thinkers in the wine and spirits industry. She has changed my whole mindset on what decolonizing these industries could look like AND she puts everyone on by constantly uplifting her friends and colleagues in the space.
Darwin Acosta who founded Cofermented - an organization that focuses on Queer representation in the wine industry. It's a dream of ours to host an event with them.
Laura Marchetti of Riverview Wine is one of the kindest and most knowledgable souls we have ever worked with. Her passion for low intervention wine and her style of storytelling has kept us enthralled each time we visit her store. She (and her partner Chris!) have been huge supporters of NOTES over the years.
Tamy Rofe of Colonia Verde, Comodo and Disco Tacos. Tamy took a chance on NOTES a couple of summers ago by giving us a Summer residency at Disco Taco. She believed in what we were aiming to build and gave us free rein to design the residency with our vision. Plus she has an INCREDIBLE point of view on wine and community building. I want to be her when I grow up ;)
Finally, Rowen McDermott and Rebecca Johnson of Frankie JC and Moonflower in NYC. These two are experts in building convivial, beautiful spaces with incredible seasonally led food and wine. I've discovered hundreds of incredible wines in their spaces and am so grateful for all they've done for Notes!