Bringing Hospitality to Wine Retail: TJ Douglas of Urban Grape

The Boston wine retailer is growing his audience by recruiting younger, more diverse customers

Bringing Hospitality to Wine Retail: TJ Douglas of Urban Grape
TJ Douglas opened the Urban Grape with the idea of making wine more approachable and it has paid off. (Courtesy Urban Grape)
Feb 18, 2022

The concept of hospitality crystalized at a very young age for TJ Douglas. Growing up as the only Black person in a small Vermont town with a single mom, he worked odd jobs from the age of 11 because he had to: The family relied on government assistance and odd jobs to make ends meet. But he soon began to appreciate the gratification of delivering top-quality service, especially his customers' reactions when they saw "their perfectly stacked wood pile, or their beautifully mowed lawn," he recalls.

Douglas found his way to restaurants through a few dishwashing gigs and a two-year stint at McDonalds—"Getting people what they want, while moving very fast and with a smile; that is hospitality," he says—before moving to Boston at age 21. He found his way to wine when he landed the bar manager position at a new Todd English restaurant in 2002 that failed to get its liquor license. "We only had a beer and wine license, so I was forced to learn wine."

Almost immediately, Douglas noticed how the language around wine made it difficult for servers to connect customers with the right bottle for their palate or meal. If only, he thought, there was a foolproof way to simplify the conversation and match customers with the perfect pour, he could sell more wine. So he created what he dubbed the "progressive wine list," which categorized wine by body rather than variety or region, and suggested food pairings. Within months wine sales tripled.

"We became a really fun restaurant with a great wine program, and our success gave me confidence in the way I think about wine," he says.

In 2006, newly married and with his first child on the way, Douglas left restaurants and took a job as a salesman for a fine wine distributor, where he used his progressive wine scale to help restaurants and bar managers to build better by-the-glass lists. Then he set his sights on retail.

Douglas and his wife Hadley took out a second mortgage and cleared out their 401Ks to open the first Urban Grape in Boston's Chestnut Hill neighborhood in 2010. A South End location, now the flagship store, opened two years later. A book, Drink Progressively, and events company, Urban Affairs, followed and the Urban Grape franchise has morphed into one of the more successful independent wine retail concepts in the country.

Perhaps Douglas' proudest achievement is the creation of The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color, which he founded in 2020. "The big problem with our industry is that there are very few people of color in it—and a lot of that has to do with the base from which we source employees," Douglas says.

Launched with $10,000 of his own money, the scholarship grew to $225,000 through outside donations in eight months' time—the fastest created endowment in Boston University's history. Recipients attend a yearlong certification course at the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center at Boston University and receive paid internships at a range of companies in the wine industry. His hope is that this program will bring about "generational change" for the recipient–and make the wine industry a more diverse and inclusive place.

Douglas chatted with senior editor Kristen Bieler about the progressive system, how wine can attract more people, and what some of his favorite wine discoveries have been.

Wine Spectator: The Urban Grape is organized very differently from most wine shops. Explain how bottles are displayed.
TJ Douglas: We arrange bottles according to the "Progressive Scale" we developed, which classifies wines by body from 1 to 10. Just because someone likes a high-acid white wine from the Sancerre region of the Loire, it doesn't mean they are going to like a Chenin Blanc from the middle of the Loire that may have some residual sugar, or even that they will like other French whites. By grouping similarly-styled wines, customers can find the bottle that suits their palate. If you like high-acid whites from the Loire, for example, you may like high-acid wines from Greece, Italy or California.

WS: The wine industry is struggling to recruit younger consumers, yet this demographic is your fastest growing customer base. How do you connect with them?
TJD: We've really focused on building a community through beverage, and our younger clientele sees that. Younger generations are very intentional with how they spend their dollars, time and energy. They want to support businesses and brands and people that align with their values. We've tried to take a lead in creating more access to beverages made by BIPOC producers, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Particularly with all that has happened in the last two years with the social justice movements, younger drinkers read through the bullshit; just because a company posts about something doesn't mean it reflects their core values. We post about Black Lives Matter and we promote vaccinations; this transparency has cost us some customers for sure. But we have gained so many more, especially younger drinkers.

WS: You've also been successful at attracting a more racially diverse customer base. What has worked bringing these new consumers to wine?
TJD: If you don't see someone that looks like you, you don't think you are welcome. At Urban Grape we have worked really hard to seek out BIPOC winemakers and promote them. We launched La Fête, the wine brand from Donae Burston with Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul now an investor. We sell more wine from the Brown Estate in Napa than any other market in the U.S. In fact, we are responsible for two-thirds of all sales of Black and brown-owned wine brands in the state of Massachusetts. This is why we see a lot more Black and brown customers in our store than most retailers.

WS: Urban Grape was closed for over a year to customers during the height of the pandemic. During that time, you managed to grow sales volume and bring in new customers. How did you do it?
TJD: I think it comes back to the customer base we have built. Because we have a more diverse clientele, we are simply selling more wine to more people–and people seek us out.

The pandemic forced us to stop and think about how we could enable customers to shop "progressively" online–we completely revamped our website so people could shop like they would in our store. That enabled our delivery business to skyrocket, and we went from two to four delivery vans and hired more staff. In the last two years we have doubled our sales.

WS: What gave you the idea to start the Urban Grape Wine Studies Scholarship?
TJD: About five years ago, I received a job application from a young Black man who wrote that he wanted to be a "stock boy"–it made me so sad. White applicants all apply for sales or management positions–whether they have the experience or not. Wine doesn't feel accessible to people of color and we can't be a diverse company or industry if the only people of color are delivery drivers.

We worked with the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center at Boston University to develop this one-year program where a student receives wine education and paid three-month internships at Urban Grape, [fine wine wholesaler] MS Walker, the restaurant Row 34, and at a winemaking facility in Sonoma. Our first recipients worked harvest at Opus One with Michael Silacci!

Our goal is to show this community that wine is a career they didn't even know existed. We have enough funding to continue this program for the next 50 years, and hopefully in the future we will partner with HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities].

WS: What have been some of your most interesting wine discoveries of the last year?
TJD: I really like Kumusha, a South African wine brand created by Tinashe Nyamudoka, a Zimbabwean sommelier based in South Africa. And I've discovered so many incredible Mexican wines from the Valle de Guadalupe on the Baja peninsula–they are delicious and we've been selling a ton of them. I've also been seeking out and promoting more wines from regions around the world that take a minimalist approach to winemaking, yet don't fall in that bubble of "natural wine."

WS: You and Hadley are partners in life–and parenting two teenage boys–as well as in your business. How do you delegate and find work-life balance?
TJD: I wouldn't want to be on this journey with anyone but Hadley. The business was my idea: When she was on maternity leave, I said: "Hey baby, I really want to open this wine shop. Would you mind writing my business plan?"

She has tried to quit so many times! She is our company president and fills the CMO role, writing all our newsletters and social media, directs our business partnerships and philanthropy. I am the CEO and run the store and staff and do the wine buying. We make every decision together, often after much debate and with different perspectives, but we always find a way to move forward. The only downside is that the business is always on our minds, and we have to make an effort not to talk about the day's sales at the dinner table.

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