In the weeks that followed, the pandemic raged and the country fell into racial unrest after the killing of George Floyd. The wine industry — like many others — found itself accounting for its lack of diversity. Mensah spotted an Instagram post advertising a fellowship at a small store specializing in natural wines in D.C. called Domestique. The fellowship offered a $3,000 stipend and housing expenses for three weeks in the nation’s capital to learn about the wine retail business, as well as shifts in some of the city’s top restaurants. Mensah applied and was selected over more than 70 other applicants.
“The fellowship wasn’t just about your wine knowledge, but what wine means to you personally,” Mensah told me over a socially distanced glass of water at Domestique on her second Friday in Washington. “Wine has so many barriers to entry — the expensive certifications, the classic wines you never really have a chance to try. They didn’t focus on those things, so I could tell they had thought about it.”
Domestique offered the fellowship to make a small crack in those entry barriers, says co-owner Jeff Segal.
“We’re looking to address an overall lack of fresh voices and diversity in the wine business, especially in retail,” Segal told me. “It’s such a stuffy, white boys’ club.” Domestique’s fellowship is named for Major Taylor, a Black professional cyclist who won the world championship in 1899.
“It was important for us that it would be paid and well paid,” he added, “because so many opportunities like this in the wine business are for people who can afford to do it.”
Over the past several months, several programs have been announced to improve diversity in the wine trade. The Napa Valley Vintners last month announced a $1 million partnership with the United Negro College Fund for a scholarship program for people of color to pursue college degrees in viticulture, oenology, marketing and business. Professional basketball player Josh Hart, a devoted oenophile, teamed up with online retailer Wine Access to offer fellowships for 100 people of color to take the introductory-level certification from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.
Mensah caught the wine bug while working at a small Italian restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., while studying at the University of North Carolina. “I had trouble describing wine, so I started reading about it,” she said. “That’s when I discovered the language of wine.”
Her studies were in engineering, but she soon decided that “being an adult and working in an office” wasn’t for her. A stint at a wine store in Miami preceded her move to New York and a job as a sommelier. Being young, African American and female, she felt she had three strikes against her.
Many guests had “an inherent belief that I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “Day after day, it can be soul crushing.” She remembers one customer exclaiming, “Oh, you can be sommeliers now?”
Lincoln Ristorante has not permanently closed, but Mensah is, of course, exploring options. Along with the retail experience gained at Domestique, she has learned about creating a business at Streetsense, a design, marketing and consulting firm. Streetsense partnered with Domestique in funding the Major Taylor Fellowship.
Mensah also learned about another side of the wine trade with Selection Massale, a natural wine importer affiliated with Domestique. And she worked shifts, called “stages” in the restaurant trade, at Komi and Bad Saint, two of D.C.’s most highly rated restaurants. “These were not typical stages,” Mensah said, as business now is mostly takeout. “I was able to ask questions I wouldn’t be able to ask on a normal busy shift.” And she explored more of the language of wine with writers Zachary Sussman and Julia Coney, the latter a leading advocate of diversity in the industry. Week 3 was to include a visit to Rocklands Farm Winery in Poolesville, Md.
Her experience in D.C. has given Mensah tools that she hopes will help her follow her dream of opening a wine bar where she could showcase the cuisine of her Jamaican and Ghanaian heritage. “I grew up not knowing that wine could be paired with the foods I love,” she said. “There’s a whole segment of the population that thinks wine isn’t for them. I want to have a place where these cuisines and wine can be celebrated.”
Where will this be? “Maybe Asheville,” in North Carolina, she says. “Great food scene, but wine hasn’t caught up. Or Florida — Orlando, perhaps, or Miami. I’m not a fortune teller, so I don’t know the future. But I want to be in the wine business.”