“I feel like I came out of the womb an entrepreneur,” says Shayla Varnado with a laugh. So when Varnardo fell in love with wine, she saw opportunities to support the wine industry while also becoming a social media influencer and creating a safe space for Black women to learn about wine.
Based in Richmond, Va., Varnado says she started to crave community when she was working in corporate America. “I never felt like I had a circle, you know, people who got me.” For the past decade she’s been a self-employed business coach, and in 2016 she founded Black Girls Wine (BGW), a platform for Black women to connect and engage over a shared love of wine, including a popular weekly online show called Wine Down Live, which Varnado hosts. In 2019, she founded the Black Girls Wine Society (BGWS), a members-only group with hundreds of members and chapters all over the country.
Varnado spoke with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about how she was inspired to launch the group and how the wine industry can better reach out to women of color.
Wine Spectator: How did BGW and BGWS get started, and how have they evolved?
Shayla Varnado: I came into the wine industry desiring to create a community—somewhere where women would be able to gather and have wine together and feel comfortable. None of my friends were into wine the way I was. I would go to these wine events and I would be like one of five black people walking around in a sea of everyone else. I was like, there needs to be community around this, so that we can feel comfortable too.
That was always my plan; it started in 2016 and manifested itself in 2019 with the BGWS. The first couple of years I hosted wine events and did experiences. In 2019 I created the Black Girls Wine Retreat—an annual event, and it went really well.
The society originally was to offer face-to-face events. I was already going to do a virtual membership, because I do recognize there are some places where it doesn’t make sense to have a chapter—perhaps you don’t have a lot of access to wineries or wine bars. COVID-19, baby, sped that up! [laughs]. So now it’s a whole other world of creating online experiences—partnering with winemakers and wine professionals to provide these experiences online so our members are still getting their value, still getting access.
As the organization continues to grow, I am realizing I have to add more. That has been a fun part of the journey. OK, we can’t do one trip to Napa, perhaps we have to do four because we have so many people. It’s exciting!
I’m in a sorority. I’m in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority ever founded. I know how intense it was—the secrecy and the excitement of it, but once you’re in it, it’s such a sisterhood. It provides instant connection and relationship, and that’s how I want the BGWS to feel.
WS: Do you have a sense of where your members are in the country?
SV: I was smart and I asked that question [laughs]. They all over! And when I say all over, this is a lot of people that are going to have to be virtual—because we don’t currently have chapters there. I’m really excited. Our Atlanta chapter is the largest. But we need more people in more cities.
The silver lining in COVID-19 for my business is that it forced me to move, and act quickly. Because I did, it is going to give me an opportunity to provide this space. We have a lot of partners coming on.
WS: As far as partners, do you work with Black-owned wineries?
SV: I work with all the wineries. I work with everyone. I know that winemaking is a small business. When you offer society members a discount, you will be listed as a partner, we will feature your wines, and our members will be able to shop with you. And the thing is, our members really like wine. These ladies, they buy.
My goal is to support the industry in that way. If we’re going to buy wine, let’s buy wines from people working with us.
WS: Have things evolved at all? When you go to wine events do you see more people of color?
It’s funny, I just went to [a wine festival] and all of the Black people there—I recognized them. That was all of maybe 10 of us. There were hundreds of people there. It’s still like that.
One thing that I think that BGW does is that it opens the door to make people even feel more comfortable to ask more questions about wine. Historically, we weren’t even offered wine. Going back into the slavery days, we were offered the scraps leftover from dinner—wine was not included in that. I think what BGW is doing is opening up that conversation for people. Even getting people getting interested in wine, and in the industry, and being able to ask questions.
Still, so often, people don’t even market to Black people.
WS: Would it feel more welcoming if marketing was more inclusive?
SV: Definitely! One thing I hear people say all the time is I love your [social media accounts] because I get to see classy, beautiful Black women drinking wine. Because if you Google “Women drinking wine” you don’t even get any Black women.
WS: How could wine media be more welcoming?
SV: I think that it’s all about being inclusive—not just in your advertising. If someone is doing advertising, ask, “Why are there no Black people in this picture?” But beyond that be inclusive and consider the lifestyle. I might really like wine, but I grew up listening to, let’s say jazz and blues. Maybe featuring a write up with a jazz, blues and wine spin. Marcus Johnson is a jazz musician who has his own wine. He created his own wine because his audience was mostly women. As everything evolved, he does a lot of jazz and wine events. But you don’t see that at most wineries. Usually it’s music I’ve never heard of in my life.
It comes to this: Wine is a lifestyle. But when you take into account a wine lifestyle with a person, you have to look at the entirety of who they are, and how wine plays a part in their life. I think it’s important to tell more of that story. Because for so long, all we have seen historically is this is what’s happening in only one part of the industry.
What you want to do is to tell the story of what does it look like when people of color incorporate wine into their life experience
WS: I’ve heard from some Black wine lovers that when they walk into a wine shop the assumption is that they only like sweet wine.
SV: All the time.
WS: Do you have any good responses for that?
SV: I just like to ask questions. “Oh, do you know how it’s made? Can you tell me more?” And then when they respond and I mention I was at a winery recently—I love to respond and tell a story and then I see the “aha.” Don’t assume that because I’m Black I only like sweet wine.
The biggest issue is: How can Black peoples’ palates evolve if [sweet wine] is all you ever offer them?
I think that all of us are starting to do the work, and I think that’s one thing that’s interesting is that people always ask me: Well, Black Girls Wine, what made you start that? And my question back is: When you walk into a wine store, do you ever see Black people up on the wall? Do you ever see them in the ads? When’s the last time you went to a wine festival? You did not see more than 20 Black people there. I don’t care if there were 500 people—you never see more than 20.
And it’s because it’s not marketed. I never see anything about wine festivals in Essence or Ebony magazine. How will I know to go? Because that’s what I’m reading. There are so many digital outlets—I never see ads for wines on those. Again, how will I know?
WS: Do you feel the lists of Black-owned wineries going around are helpful?
SV: I do think it’s helpful, because I think people just don’t know. And I don’t think people think about it. My show last night I featured some Black businesses, and every month I’m going to do a Black-owned business episode.
If I didn’t tell people about it, how would people know? I think the lists are really important because now we’re beginning to discover more people.
WS: Anything else you can think of that the wine industry can do to improve?
SV: I think that it’s just really important that we start to think about who is at the table, and who is part of the conversation when sending out invitations. If you’re inviting five people that look like yourself, invite five people that look like me.
You can invite five people that look like yourself, and none of them are going to be the same. And the same thing is going to happen when you invite five people that look like me. The important thing is to make sure there’s a balance in the conversation, a balance in the storytelling, a balance in the experiences that we are sharing, and what we’re offering.
WS: What are you drinking these days?
SV: I’ve been drinking a lot of rosé. I recently had a really great Zinfandel, so now I have three or four more to try in the next week. It might be my new favorite red. My taste is more to California wines. I like a good Oregon Pinot, too.
WS: Anything else you’d like us to know about BGW or BGWS?
SV: We’re a welcoming community. Yes, the society is created for Black women. But we enjoy everyone. I’m always willing and open to working with all wine professionals and winemakers. I love sharing stories. And I know that’s something my audience really enjoys.
It’s OK—if you got a story to tell, come talk to me. We don’t only drink Black wine here … we just drink wine!