A Wine for Me event at Cafe Erzuli (Courtesy Erica Westley | @hiiamericaaa)
Jul 20, 2023
Wine For Me is an unpretentious club creating community for BIPOC enthusiasts
"Everyone's an expert in their own palate," says Wine for Me founder and curator Joan De Jesus of her grape-fueled mission
About a year ago, it had become a habit for Joan De Jesus, a certified sommelier, to regularly gather with friends on her stoop in Bed-Stuy to share her passion for natural wine. For a few hours every Sunday, they would drink and congregate to help combat the “Sunday scaries.” Pretty standard stoop behavior. But once these meetings began to outgrow her apartment steps, she created Wine For Me, a monthly event for wine lovers in Brooklyn.
Wine For Me isn’t your typical, stuffy, industry event. It’s a party “for people who aren’t typically represented in the traditional wine world,” the Brooklyn native explains.
“It’s for people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, colors, experiences, exposure to wine, to have a good time.” Most events run on Sundays, between 6 and 9 p.m., and offer a curated selection of affordable natural wines. Whether it’s happening at Cafe Erzulie, Cherry On Top, or Prima, each event is soundtracked by hip-hop, R&B and lots of Mariah Carey. Every detail is designed to be the antithesis of the wine world De Jesus found herself in when studying for her sommelier certification in 2021.
A creative strategist by day, her foray into wine started with her love of food and flavors.
“I have a really keen sense of smell. My husband complains about it all the time. I can smell everything, and it can really gross me out sometimes,” she laughs. “So I really appreciate wine for the sensory experience.” But as she got further into the sommelier course, she started to feel “completely unseen in terms of how we talk about countries and which countries are included in wine studies. These classes are really heavy on European centric wines and a small section on Chile, if you’re lucky.”
After earning her certification, De Jesus decided to eschew the traditional wine world — “which prioritizes the palate and culture of old white men” — in favor of building a community where people wouldn’t feel othered. “Everyone’s an expert in their own experience, in their own palate. There shouldn’t be any wrong answers when describing wine.”
Brooklyn Magazine caught up with De Jesus Joan after Wine For Me’s first-year anniversary party, held in Prospect Park. A rainy forecast couldn’t keep 80 or so from showing up to drink wine (a testament to the power of the grape) — and come together as a community. By removing cultural barriers, injecting her own sensibilities, and centering the community experience, De Jesus has built an unpretentious meeting ground for mostly femme millennials.
“It’s not the kind of party where there’s an expectation of knowing about wine or even being in the industry,” she says.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
How would you describe a Wine For Me event to someone that hasn’t been?
It can just be a place for you to catch up with a friend. It’s held on Sundays because for me, Sundays are the new Friday. And it finishes early because I wanted an event that would be a soft place to land at the end of the week. I curate the music, so that can be a playlist or some femme DJs spinning. The parties do run really femme, which isn’t a bad thing. You’ll see all these gorgeous women and two random guys in the corner. But the guys that do go know what’s up.
Tell me about the menu.
What is most exciting for me is I get to curate an abbreviated menu for the day. It’s all natural wine that I’m into. Knowing that wine can still have its own accessibility issues, I work with the bar manager or somms to make sure that there’s a wine that is at the $12 or under price point.
How does your sommelier certification inform your events?
My instructor was lovely, but there were several times during this class that I felt completely unseen. Once there was a Sauvignon blanc we had to sniff, taste and describe. Because it was very fragrant, people were saying things like, “This is lemon zest,” or “I’m getting citrus notes,” or likening it to green cut grass. When it was my turn I said, “This tastes like a quenepa.” No one in my class of predominantly white people knew what the hell that was. It was wild to me because a quenepa, which is a Spanish lime, makes a lot of sense to call out when describing a Sauvignon blanc. There’s 50 different terms for a quenepa in communities of color, and everyone knows what that fruit is, especially if you’re from the Caribbean or a hot-weather country. But here it was completely out of left field. That’s when I decided I wanted to take what I had learned to build a community where I don’t have those moments anymore.
How have the events grown over time?
It fills my heart to see a bunch of Black and brown people drinking natural wine and listening to Mariah Carey and/or Whitney Houston on a Sunday. The first one I did was at Cherry On Top. We packed the rooftop. Though, we really built the community in the depths of winter. People were coming out in the snow and rain to have a cozy glass of wine in Prima. All of that work over winter came to fruition during our event this May at Cafe Erzulie. We had over 1400 RSVPs, which is essentially everybody who I follow on Instagram and their friends. We went through our entire wine order in the first two hours and had to start pulling things from reserve spaces. My friend Mark owns the spot, and once he and his partners saw how much wine we were going through, they started calling me Young Dionysus. I should probably get a name necklace plate now.
Why do you think there was such a demand?
I’m a bit of an outsider in the wine industry, which has probably been the key to my success. People aren’t creating spaces like Wine For Me for people to tap in to. I can’t say that what I’m doing is novel or unique. I just think that the people who typically control the wine narrative haven’t put in the work to gain community trust and have wine events that actually feel cool. Some of these wine events, even if they’re “D&I-related,” are corny as hell.
So now you’re a year in, where do you see Wine For Me heading?
It’s a good thing that more Black and brown people are drinking natural wine together and are in spaces where they feel connected emotionally safe, open to really dive into wine, right? I don’t want to limit that on some hype thing, and simply create smaller events to keep it as an intimate moment. But at what point do you try to give a few people a better experience or make a really big open event where anyone can come in? I’m leaning more toward growth that’s sustainable and intentional for the community, whatever that looks like. I don’t want to grow for the sake of growing. The community will let me know, they’ll hold me accountable when it’s becoming too much.
Zooming out, how do you feel about the future of the wine industry in terms of inclusiveness?
Hopefully the future of natural wine is going to include more community components. You read a lot of articles about how wine consumption has been down year over year because Gen Z and millennials aren’t drinking as much wine as their grandparents. I don’t actually believe that; I don’t think the stats are correct. Folks aren’t really considering Black and brown communities in these equations or really catering to them or their experiences. Like the moment I had with the quenepas. There’s going to be more versions of Wine For Me, and there probably already are across the country. Hopefully there’ll be a shift from traditional wine expertise to wine spaces that are centered on culture and community, and that’s a win for literally everyone.
Check out the next Wine For Me event on Sunday August 13 at Cafe Erzulie. Find more details @wineformebk on Instagram
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