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New North Coast brand aims to expand wine’s cultural reach

Women vintners are a tiny subset of the wine business, and women of color are even more scarce in ownership.

But four female professionals aim to help change that with their newly launched Napa Valley-anchored brand.

Mela is the creation of Ryann Casey, a defense attorney; Erica Estrada, a Sacramento-area event producer; Kyndal Easter, a middle school assistant principal in East Palo Alto; and Chelsea Walden, a physical therapist in the Los Angeles area. Short for “melanin,” the brand is a tribute to the heritage of the equal-share proprietors.

“All of our backgrounds — including us and our family members — was not in any way based in wine,” said Casey, who was born in Oakland and now lives in a Seattle suburb. “This became a passion project for us. Wine has been a big part of our lives in every trial and tribulation.”

The concept came together in the past two years when the college friends connected over video conferencing during the pandemic. They met in 2007 while enrolled at University of Southern California. Now all 33, they looked to craft their passion into a second profession.

“We recognize that there's a huge under-representation within the wine community,” Casey said.

Of the over 11,000 U.S. wine producers, fewer than 1% have a Black owner or winemaker, according to the Association of African American Vintners.

Because they came from circles of influence where wine wasn’t the adult beverage of choice, the proprietors of Mela sought to create a brand that helped to demystify it, Casey said.

“There’s a lot of education that goes into wine — which can never be under-appreciated — and we don't want to ever do that,” Casey said. “But we want to make it more welcoming and more user-friendly, because that's what we found has been most helpful for us.”

Key to making wine friendly to communities under-represented in wine is connecting the beverage with food, music and other culture, Casey said.

Marketing wine to certain demographics can be problematic, especially for vintners who don’t come from such backgrounds. But it’s also a challenge for producers marketing with those connections, according to Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, whose columns over four decades were added to UC Davis’ Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection in 2020.

“Black-owned brands have a great deal of work ahead of them,” they wrote June 3 for online wine review and shop Grape Collective. “Among the difficult questions: Do they want to be known as Black brands? On the one hand, that gives winemakers more visibility in the increasing number of Black retail channels. It also is a good selling point for all consumers who want to buy consciously. On the other hand, being known primarily as a Black brand can pigeonhole wineries.”

Another effort to connect those who love the beverage or want to learn more about it is Black Girls Wine. The networking group launched in 2016 and now has chapters in 22 U.S. cities and London plus virtual gatherings focused on the West and East coasts.

User-friendliness is also why the Mela founders started with wines made from grapes grown in recognizable regions and blends instead of varietal wines.

The winery’s $28-a-bottle white wine is a 13.7% alcohol blend of 2021 gewürztraminer, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and viognier grapes from Napa Valley and Mendocino County in the North Coast and Clarksburg, an up-and-coming cooler-climate area of the Sacramento River Delta.

Its $40-a-bottle red is a 14.5% alcohol blend of petite sirah, zinfandel, malbec and syrah from Napa Valley and Clarksburg grapes.

The wine is made at a custom winery in Napa Valley, and Mela is narrowing down options for a consulting winemaker to take the project further, Casey said. The white blend is aged five months in stainless steel, concrete egg-shaped tanks and French oak barrels. The red blend is aged 16 months in French oak barrels.

A Napa Valley fulfillment house handles direct-to-consumer shipments, the brand’s focus at the moment, according to Casey. An early release of 60 cases a few days before the website melavino.com went live May 28 sold out in 45 minutes after a social media and newsletter sign-up campaign over the previous two months, Casey said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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