Donae Burston walked away from some of the most prestigious wine brands in the world to chase a pink dream. A veteran achiever at LVMH who managed accounts like Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon, followed by a stint at Jay Z–owned Armand de Brignac Champagne, Burston had an abiding love of rosé, and in 2019, he launched his own. The founder and CEO of La Fête du Rosé (“the rosé party”) is the first Black business owner with a Provence rosé to his name, and he's on a mission to change how Americans view pink wine.
Originally trained in math and engineering and employed in IT, Burston, now 45, made the leap to wine in 2003 after helping out some friends doing drinks promotions at nightclubs; within a year of his hiring at LVMH, he'd visited vineyards in Cognac and Epernay. He'd go on to design an in-arena Champagne bar for the 2011 NBA Championship series and head up sales for Armand de Brignac in the southeast, Caribbean and Latin America.
During the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, Burston struck up a conversation with Charles Moreau, owner of St.-Tropez's Domaine Bertaud Belieu, that turned into a business proposition a few months later. Burston, who is based in Miami, now visits France three times a year to plan for harvest and taste for blending. La Fête du Rosé, meanwhile, has found its way to high-profile fans like Carmelo Anthony and Michael Strahan. Wine Spectator associate editor Gillian Sciaretta tasted the wine non-blind and rated it in the "very good" range, sharing her notes: "This salmon-hued rosé is marked by a firm, integrated acidity that highlights notes of tangerine, melon and spice, with herb and wet stone underpinnings. This has good focus, and would make a great food companion."
From the get-go, Burston has been adamant about finding more and better ways to include Black wine lovers in both the industry and the broader wine community. Following the killing of George Floyd, Burston announced he would donate $2 for every bottle sold online to Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization.
“I felt that as a Black business owner, there’s also some onus on us to do our part to contribute, whether big or small,” Burston told Wine Spectator. “Yes we want social justice, but everything isn’t just about changing the way police police in our communities. How do we provide economic empowerment to teach more people about business? If I don’t do my part, how can I ask the larger community to do theirs?"
Burston spoke with editorial assistant Shawn Zylberberg about his formative experiences at LVMH, his dual devotions to pink wine and sustainability, and what the wine community can do better to connect with Black wine lovers and drinks pros.
Wine Spectator: What were some of your biggest influences early on in your wine career?
Donae Burston: When I was first hired, I was to be the Hennessy Cognac and Moët & Chandon ambassador in Atlanta really focusing on the African American community. I had a boss at the time who was very adamant that that was not going to be the scope of my assignment while I was with him. So he really pressed me and pushed me to work on those same brands, but outside of the target demographics that were initially outlined for me. He had me going to high-end Cognac dinners at the Four Seasons and the Palm, and he would push me to go on sales rides with distributors to understand the selling techniques. That really helped me to get a more well-rounded understanding of the beverage industry. I thank him to this day, because I wasn’t pigeonholed into just being the Black guy promoting Hennessy Cognac in the nightclub.
WS: When did you discover rosé?
DB: When I took a trip to St.-Tropez for my 30th birthday, I was exposed to rosé wine. That was about 15 years ago. I took that first trip and everyone was drinking this pale wine that at the time I really believed was Zinfandel. I didn’t know any better because in the U.S. that’s what everyone was drinking. It just became part of our everyday routine there. I fell in love with the idea, and it became this whole nostalgic piece in my mind. It’s kind of like when you hear a great song for the first time and you can always remember where you were.
WS: What's your goal with La Fête du Rosé, and what have you learned about making rosé?
DB: [Rosé] was being marketed by the bigger players in the U.S. as this [wine] that was for white women in the Hamptons with sundresses and pink flowers and all that good stuff … It made it uncomfortable for me and my boys to drink rosé. We started feeling like people were judging us. That was the first reason I chose rosé. I had female friends who were Latin or Black who all liked rosé, but no brand was saying, "Be a part of us." Little things, like having someone of color on the Instagram page that’s authentic, go a long way. People like to see themselves in anything. Or they want to look at something and dream and say, "One day that’ll be me." And that’s everything we’re trying to give with La Fête du Rosé.
Going through this process has been an education for me to have a better appreciation for the complicated winemaking process of rosé. I learned a tremendous amount about blending and what certain grapes offer rosé wine.
WS: How does La Fête practice sustainability and why is it important to you?
DB: Living in Miami, you start to really have an appreciation of the environment. We know things are happening to this world, and I love being on the water and I love to travel. So I know for me as a brand owner, we have to do our part to preserve our world. And when the domaine started to explain their practices of using zero pesticides and recycled water, I was happy to partner with them for that reason. We’re gonna start introducing cork and bottle recycling programs soon.
WS: You have partnered with the charity All Abroad, donating proceeds from La Fête du Rosé sales. Did your travel experiences influence that choice of beneficiary?
DB: Absolutely. I grew up watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with Robin Leach, and every Saturday that would whisk me away. I always wanted to travel the world and luckily I had the opportunity. It was the best education I could have ever gotten and it made me a more well-rounded person. I wanted to give that same opportunity to underprivileged kids. Making kids global citizens will in turn spread knowledge, whether it be in the corporate world or in university. That’s why I chose travel. All Abroad takes 10 or 15 high school–aged kids from the Atlanta area on excursions to expose them to a different way of life.
WS: The recent protests following George Floyd’s murder have rippled across every industry. How does the wine community have to step up for inclusivity and work against racism?
DB: The brand certainly appreciates the way the industry opened up after the George Floyd murder. Part of the problem is awareness. I think the wine industry needs to deal with the fact that they’re not even considering some of these great brands owned by minorities; if you don’t have the chance to tell anyone about yourself then how will you really succeed? It’s not about giveaways or handouts. It’s just basically saying, "Let’s give it a shot." If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. But if you can’t even get to that point, what do you do?
I think from a somm standpoint, we have to stop thinking that all Black people or people of color like sweeter wines or Moscato. We all start drinking and liking sweeter wines. But as you mature, your palate changes. Let’s not hold this one community accountable to think for the rest of their lives they only want to drink Moscato. So it’s a lot of microaggressions, but I also think it’s representation. If we can get magazines and publications to shine a broader light, that will help the wine industry. On the corporate side, I think the onus is on the big wine companies of the world, the Constellations, the Gallos, to say, "How do we help the pipeline help small independent minority brands to succeed?"
So it’s different initiatives like that that I think we should think about. Nothing should be a giveaway or a check for the sake of checking a box, but real conversations about integration. Let’s be open, and when the opportunity is great and fitting, give that person a chance. One of the first places I ever pitched was the W South Beach in Miami, and the guy said, "I’ll give you a shot, but if it doesn’t sell I’ll take it off the menu." That’s all people want.