Regine Rousseau had been in love with wine for years but did not think there was a business in it. But her realization that she loved educating others about the joys of wine sparked her to found Shall We Wine, a Chicago-based wine and spirits marketing, promotions and event company, in 2013. "I thought, why don't I create a business based on who I am, versus anything else, and see if that works?" she says.
Shall We Wine helps wine brands reach consumers by hosting in-store tastings and corporate events. The common link is teaching the customers about wines. Rousseau is also the author of a poetry book, Searching for Cloves and Lilies, which has two editions. And she began contributing a wine column for the Chicago Defender in 2013 and makes frequent television appearances. Earlier this year, Rousseau was awarded a grant from #SheCanThrive2020, part of a scholarship program created by the McBride Sisters Collection.
Rousseau recently chatted with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec on how she got into wine and how rewarding it is to introduce people to the wonders of wine who thought it was not a world for them.
Wine Spectator: Tell us how wine came into your life.
Regine Rousseau: I really fell in love with wine my senior year of college in France. I was born in Chicago, grew up in Haiti, but French was my first language and I decided that I wanted to reconnect to the language, so I did a study abroad.
I was invited to one of our host families' homes for dinner. We walked into the dining room, and there was a table filled with bottles of wine—the father owned a wine shop. What I remember is not necessarily what the wines tasted like, but the ceremony and the conversation around each bottle. It was the same feeling that I've gotten when I walk into an art museum or art gallery, the sense of this is where I belong. Something's happening here. There's a connection.
After that, I would go to the grocery store or a wine shop and pick a bottle. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Everyone does that right? Someone invites you over, you bring a bottle of wine. That's when I really started practicing the wine lifestyle.
WS: So when you graduated from college, where did your career path take you?
RR: I came to Chicago, and I thought I was going to be an actress; I majored in theater and focused on writing. But I ended up in sales as a way to make money. Around 1996, I was working in a restaurant. I had the wine basics, but everything changed the day we had staff training. It finally connected that there was formal education around wine. I don't think I was aware of that prior— maybe I'd pick up an article or read a label. So I had the idea right then of starting Shall We Wine.
I ran home. We had just moved into this lovely apartment. We had no furniture, and I told my husband this is what I'm doing. So I rented tables and linens and bought the worst cheese possible because I didn't know anything about cheese, and I invited 20 friends to come over and do a wine tasting. After that, I started working for a wine distributor.
WS: I'm guessing there weren't a lot of other black women selling wine in Chicago at that point. What was that like for you?
RR: I'm going to speak honestly, but this is the part that I'm always very hesitant to talk about. I've been in so many white spaces that I don't even know if I thought about it. I really don't, and now I'm like, how did you not think about it? I honestly never thought about it because my entire life has been in white spaces.
The only racial incident I remember was going to one of my restaurants, which was in an area that had a reputation of being very white. As soon as I walked in, everyone turned around. I've been in enough white spaces to know that, oh shit, I am not where I'm supposed to be. So I walk in a little further and I introduce myself, and the entire space was just quiet.
There were a lot more incidents where I definitely wasn't even welcomed. I wasn't expected to be there, right? Even just being a woman in that space could be very uncomfortable. My exposure is a lot broader now, so if you ask me the same question about the last five years, my answer would be different, but you know in my 20s, I just kept moving and I don't know how sensitive I was of it, but definitely women were being challenged. There were a lot of inappropriate conversations, sexual suggestions and things like that that we had to just ignore and keep moving.
But I really enjoyed the consumer part of it— turning the consumer on—so I did these little pop-up events at various restaurants and galleries.
WS: I'm curious about your approach as an educator. When someone says, "I don't get all the cherries and strawberries in the wine," how do you approach that?
RR: The reason I enjoyed turning people onto wine was because I felt like I was opening up a world to them that they were not invited to. I would watch how my friends—who were predominately Black—would get so excited by a bottle of wine and have a million questions. They wanted to know everything. I realized that this was because no one had introduced them to wine. So at that time, what I was most interested in was just opening the door.
Now today what I do is I ask, what does it remind you of? How does it make you feel? If it's someone who is really new to wine, if you ask them, "What does it taste like?", what you're doing is testing them. Nobody likes to be tested—all of a sudden there is this guard up because they think they have to have the right answer. So instead I ask, how does it feel? What do you like about it? What does it remind you of when you smell it?
WS: That's a good point. "What does it taste like?" can feel like you're putting someone on the spot.
RR: One of my favorite classes to teach is when I send students a list of things they have to buy, like skim milk, whole milk, 2 percent or cream, and they have to swirl it around their mouth. We talk about which is heavier, we start talking about fat, richness, viscosity. It's the same with wine, but you don't have this wall up because no one has made milk fancy.
We do the same thing with tea, steeping the tea for different amounts of time. They were able to describe all of these characteristics and I say, wine is no different. But there's a wall with wine. Once we figure out how to break down that wall, we will have consumers who can better express what they like and what they're tasting.
WS: Tell me how you handle confusion about sweet wines.
RR: People always like the wines that have the most fruit. As Americans, there's sugar in everything that we eat. Our palates are conditioned to sweet. So this idea that we don't like sweet wines is a lie. To explain balance, I use lemonade as a tool to help people understand sweet wine. If you came over and I offered you a glass of sweet water, you're probably going to say no, although we used to drink sugar water in Haiti.
But if I say to you, I've got a really great lemonade where you have this balance of acidity from the lemon and sugar, most people would say, Of course I want a refreshing glass of lemonade. So that's what really good sweet wine is—you have the sugar, but you have acid to really balance it out.
The other thing I talk about is pairing. You really have to pair sweet wines properly. A sweet wine with the perfect dessert is when your wine is sweeter than the dessert or a sweet wine with something salty when you get that peanut butter and jelly sweet salty effect.
The other thing I want to say about sweet is Black people have gotten this reputation of only drinking Moscato. It has nothing to do with Black people. It has to do with being a beginner. As a beginner, you tend to like something sweet or something that resembles what you're drinking at home, which is Coca-Cola. Moscato is really beautiful and really delicious if you get a great producer.
WS: I've heard from other Black wine lovers that they feel they are only offered sweet wines.
RR: I don't think it's that people are not introducing Black people to any wines other than sweet wines. I think that sweet wines are marketed to all new drinkers. Although I realize because of certain hip-hop songs there's been an association.
WS: How did Shall We Wine evolved into a fulltime job?
RR: In 2013, I decided I wanted to do events, TV and I wanted to write about wine and I wanted to bring all of these elements into the business. The funny thing is I hated the name "Shall We Wine" for such a long time. But yeah, that's what I'm doing—I'm inviting everyone to wine, and what a beautiful thing to invite someone to something.
Our clients are predominately distributors and importers who say, Hey Regine, I have this wine or a spirit. We want to create a program and hit all of these stores in three months. We create an entire schedule, I train the team and then we go out and we execute the demos.
Back then we were doing primarily in-store demos, then we added corporate events. In 2018 I really went after the TV stations. I worked with a PR person, and we started doing television.
After the murder of George Floyd, we had an event planned. I was so broken up. I knew I could not get on this thing and be happy-go-lucky, but I also could not cancel. I had a sponsored event.
I started the event by saying, I'm in pain and if I'm in pain, I think you are too. We're going to have a good time because we're here to have a good time. But I want to open the floor up to talk about the murder of George Floyd.
I was panicking because I didn't know how they were going to respond. We had one of the most beautiful conversations. So it continued, and we talked about a lot of other things. We talked about politics in a safe way. There were people with different views, there were white people who said they were afraid to speak and we talked about it. We all learned something.
WS: How did you decide to write a poetry book about wine?
RR: I never considered writing a book, and I never considered pairing wine with poetry. So I always give credit to Mike de Simone and Jeff Jensen, the World Wine Guys. I was on a press trip in 2016, talking to Mike and Jeff, and I asked them if they could be my mentor. I remember them giving me a look that I figured out was because they thought I already had my stuff together.
When I told them my ambitions, they said, you need to write a book because doors open up for you. I said hell no, I will never write another book— they said, wait, another book? I told them about a book of poetry—Searching for Cloves and Lilies—it got a little write-up in the New Yorker. But it was too much emotionally; I could never do that again. They suggested pairing wines with poems and I thought that makes no sense.
But I couldn't get it out of my mind. Is that possible? Can you do that? I spent 10 days in Portugal after this trip, and I just kept thinking about it. I decided if it's possible, I have to figure out how to make it really authentic.
I thought about what wine means to me. As much as I personally enjoy learning about wines, my mission is to work with consumers. This is an art form. The connection is about the story, and not just the story of the producer. Not just a story of the region. But everything that happened to create that bottle creates a story that makes you feel something.
I thought about what I felt when I read a poem or when I wrote a poem. What did you feel? What is the story? Then I thought about what wines tell a similar story. You can find the point where they both meet, and that's what I did with this book, Searching for Cloves and Lilies: The Wine Edition.