How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I began my wine journey 12 years ago in fine dining at a Northern & Central Italian fine dining restaurant that was an enoteca, wine library, wine bar and osteria. I started there as an enoteca/wine library server. It was one of the most extensive, exclusively Italian wine lists on the east coast. It was 20 plus pages of only Italian wine with a short list of premium Champagne, so rather than feel intimidated because it was overwhelming, I wanted to conquer it. I continued to build my wine knowledge by working in French fine dining. I studied Spain’s uniquely beautiful wines as well as natural wines at my own leisure and recreationally. Currently, I am the CEO and founder of Wine Culture with Nicole. I am a freelance sommelier and I do pop up wine tastings and wine dinners around the city of Baltimore to make wine inclusive and to reflect the diversity of the city itself. I’m a little nomad of wine.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
My Aha moment was when I had Lacryma Christi del Vesuvius, or tears of Christ from Mt. Vesuvius, for the first time and I was immediately transported to when I studied Latin as a child and learned about the fascinating story of Pompeii, the buried city of ash. The wine grapes today are gown in that same volcanic soil that preserved the city for archeologists in Naples. The wine exudes complexity! The story behind the designation name is that the tears of Christ from heaven blessed that particular land with fertile soil because it was a piece of land that Lucifer stole from heaven when he was cast out. At that moment, I realized that was where all of my passions intersected. My love of storytelling, my love of culture, my love of languages, my love of education, and my love for great food and wine. My journey began.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding aspect is exposing people to something they very much enjoy but would not have normally been exposed to. When someone discovers the uniquely delicious indigenous grapes of Italy on one of my tastings, it’s the best validation. The diversity of grapes there is so fun for me to explore with people through the curated tastings and tasting menus, so I always have plenty of material to pair with all types of cuisines.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
As a Black woman—where do I begin? From not being taken seriously for having wine knowledge by countless patrons to being asked to advance to leadership roles well after white colleagues had advanced. Advancement into leadership roles in hospitality is few and far between for people of color, sadly enough. Watching those with not nearly as much seniority or not nearly the work ethic get job offers and opportunities to travel abroad on wine trips was the most unpleasant thing to observe time after time. Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and often are 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? It always comes down to this: what are we doing as a collective to ensure systemic issues are tackled? By understanding that your platform is to create a better place for the person behind you or next to you is something that should be a reminder—checks and balances. In order to improve anything, it has to first be acknowledged and then bravely resolved. You can’t act like prejudices don’t exist. You have to admit them and them work toward change.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
By better supporting diversity and inclusion, we make it uncomfortable for people who are resistant to change to continue to shut the door on people who are deserving of advancement and opportunities.
What changes do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope to see the wine industry become much more colorful on an executive level. I wish to see leadership opportunities and wine travel opportunities open to people who aren’t usually afforded those luxuries. I hope to see people willing to take guidance from wine professionals that come from races not normally represented in the wine world—not just a certain demographic. I hope to see tasting sheets reflect palates of all different cultures, not just Western palates.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
My advice to women entering into this business is to know your worth. Possess confidence and don’t ever lose that self-love—understand and embrace the attributes that you possess. Definitely don’t diminish them to please those around you. That’s what my journey was perpetually—resentful people trying to dim my light because they knew that, with the right opportunity, I would be able to do great things. They were resistant to passing on help and guidance as a result. They didn’t want to see me be more accomplished due to their own insecurities, which was never my problem. It was a reflection of them. Be unapologetically you! Learn and grow knowing you are one of one.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
My answer before repeated. Speak it into existence! “I hope to see the wine industry become much more colorful on an executive level. I wish to see leadership opportunities and wine travel opportunities open to people who aren’t usually afforded those luxuries. I hope to see people willing to take guidance from wine professionals that come from races not normally represented in the wine world—not just a certain demographic. I hope to see tasting sheets reflect palates of all different cultures, not just Western palates.”
In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
My business plan’s sole purpose is to combat the inequalities in wine locally in my home of Baltimore. I contribute by creating a wine space of inclusion and diversity. My wine events aim to take the pretentiousness out and to replace it with warmth. Nobody likes to be talked down to or talked at—that’s much of what I endured in the wine industry trying to learn and develop my craft. It’s unpleasant and inhibits education. It sucks the fun and life out of it all. I had to create my own lane and my own space just to feel free of prejudices. My Mom was a special ed teacher who gifted me empathy, which was my unique approach to my wine tastings. I try to share that teaching gene with anyone who is open to being exposed to a bit of an unfamiliar culture. Baltimore is a city that is still segregated and very much so divided due to the affects of redlining. So, I wanted Black people to be a part of elevated wine tastings because they are often left out of fine dining spaces because they don’t feel safe and welcomed. It’s a systemic issue that is still so ever-present. I found it to be especially problematic for me on a personal level while working in fine dining downtown because I had history with that gentrified area. I went to Dunbar, an inner city high school surrounded by housing projects—the same housing projects that my Mom grew up in before college. It was something that I found bothersome, I could never really connect with that affluent environment knowing the lack of community resources just blocks over.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Resilience—to see that the landscape is not in your favor and yet still follow your heart and dreams to be able to one day make a difference in that landscape.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
Julia Coney, a woman of strength and grace that’s just a dynamic connector of people. She is the reason I was awarded a scholarship to Napa to attend the Batonnage Forum as a woman of color in wine. That trip changed my life for the better—to meet so many other wonder women of wine was an opportunity of a lifetime. The connections that I made with other like-minded, strong women wanting to change the industry was the one thing that I had been craving the moment I fell in love with wine and knew it was my passion—while also being subjected to its rejection and bigotry. It’s for that reason she is like an auntie to me. Auntie is a term of endearment in the Black community to show love and respect—to show affection to someone that’s like a second Mom. She’s my Shero. Nothing but admiration.