• Unchartedwines

A Place at the Table: Nicole Kearney with Sip and Share Wines

Nicole Kearney. Photos courtesy of Nicole Kearney,

There are a few ways to start a winery, and Nicole Kearney did it her way. Tired of there not being a space at the table for her, she got out her power tools and made a her own table. As the winemaker and founder of Sip and Share Wines, Nicole has created quite a name for herself in the Indianapolis wine community, both the quality of her wines and her vivacious personality. She has won numerous small business awards and received recognition in numerous media outlets such as Forbes and Wine Enthusiast. We were delighted to sit down with Nicole to discuss her winemaking journey, how we can help create a seat at the wine table for everyone, and the challenges of an urban winery.

We have previously reviewed some Sip and Share Wines before, and you can find that here.

As always, this interview is edited for clarity and flow.

Tell us how about your wine journey and how you came to start Sip and Share.

Sip and Share was really started out of my frustration with the wine industry. I had joined a large wine tasting group, where you purchase a certain dollar amount of wine, and then you were invited to these big wine tasting parties. The first time I showed up, they told me my name wasn't on the list. And then they were telling my guests their name wasn't on the list. We got around that, but then we were seated all the way in the back by the bathrooms or were put around a large empty space. This continued over a couple of tastings, but we were always buying wine and continuing to attend. Then, we went to a large tasting where we purchased no wine because we had just bought a whole bunch of wine at our private tasting. And when they realized we weren't buying, we were told if we wouldn't buy any wine, we wouldn't get invited back. I then started talking to some other people I knew who had been a part of that group, and they said they experienced similar treatment, and this had occurred over the span of a decade. We had bought $2,000 of wine over the course of a couple months. And we decided that we're just not going to continue to be treated this way.

We left that group, but still kept experiencing wine tastings where people would say, "are you sure you're here for the wine tasting?" And then I would be asked, "don't you really want to drink sweeter wine?" I'm actually a dry red drinker. They would also say things like "people like you like this Moscato." I call these "drinking while black incidents."

What I really desired was a community where we can drink wine, ask questions, and learn about wine in a way that is not patronizing to us, in a safe and comfortable space. And that's what Sip and Share Wines is all about, creating community with wine. We are primarily for black and brown wine lovers, but we invite everyone to come and hang out because of course, wine brings people together. It's one of those things where you get to drinking wine and all of a sudden you're best friends with people you just met 20 minutes ago. So that's how we started.

I do want to speak frankly, I think you saw from my questions, they are a little bit generic. And the reason for that is, when I see features involving African American or winemakers of color featured, it can be treated as a novelty of some sort. For example, "it's Black History Month. Here's some African-American winemakers!" And then nothing until the next February. And for me, when I interview individuals, I don't want it to be about the novelty. I want to say we got individuals making great wines, here they are, celebrate diversity, but not put that into a monthly box.

But I say that to say this, I want to give you the space to talk about what you want to talk about. But I do want to talk about how we create spaces for individuals, because wine is, just like you said, about bringing people together.

I love it. Yes, thank you, because we get a lot of that. I cannot deal with the sheer number we get.

So what did you do before you started Sip and Share? And how did you come up with the name?

Nicole is a popular attraction at many wine and food events.

The name Sip and Share comes directly out of what I did before. I'm a writer and college professor by trade, and I've done a lot of community organizing work. I also have a background in Community Economic Development. Winemaking was never on the list of things I was going to do. From the time I was eight, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I've done that. But when I was in graduate school, that's what me and my friends would do-sip wine and share experiences. We would talk about our writing, our families, and our experiences. And that was the concept I wanted and the feeling for people to have. That's where the name comes from.

We started out as a home and event wine tasting company. We wanted to introduce people to black and brown winemakers. And then we evolved into becoming a winery. When we first started, we were just doing parties and we always made sangria. I was also still producing theater as a job, and theater season had just started. We started rehearsing in August, our first show went up in September, and we had shows back to back to back. I did my first wine event in October, and it just it took off like gangbusters. It was so chaotic and stressful. We were doing 100 person events all right out of the gate, it was super crazy with everything else I had going on.

It's a great name, because I think of just sitting around a table with friends, or at your grandma or aunt's table. Everyone seems to name their winery after some landmark, a place, or a family name, and yours is an emotion

I want to invoke feeling and memories. I think the best bottles of wine are paired with friends and those moments. You may not even remember the particular wine but you remember the moment and the memory. So yes, we want to create that emotional bond and that tie to it for people. Absolutely.

So when did you first start producing wine for sale?

We started in 2018, though in 2016 is when we started with the sangria. It was never our intention to bottle that. It was a supplement to going out and doing events. We didn't know how to calculate the math on how many cases we should bring, so we would take a couple of cases and let people taste those. The whole purpose of the events was to get people to let us come to their house and do a tasting for them and their friends. The sangria was the way to loosen up and start the conversation. And people tasted it and told us it was good and they wanted to share some with their friends. And then people started asking us to take bottles home from the events. I realized I needed to figure this out because we were selling more sangria than at the wine tastings, and it was a lot easier.

Then in 2018, we did this "Pouring for the People" tour. We went across the country for 18 months with 12 or 15 wines we made. We would let people taste them and rank them. We had made the made the wine, but we didn't even have labels designed at that point. And then we got a call to do Essence Fest. So we had to create our labels and really up our game. We got the call right after Memorial Day, and the event was in July. We had less than a month to get everything together. That's what really what got us on the path. With the wines from that tour, we learned what people liked, and that became our initial wine collection, and those came out in January of 2019.

What is your annual case production now?

We moved our space in January. We used to be in a 200 square foot space, which now I can't believe. And then we rented a co-share kitchen. And then we had another 200 square foot warehouse to keep all the wine after it was done. This year, I think we're on track to probably put out close to 2,000 cases. We've grown tremendously, and we're now triple the capacity we were at. We hope to maybe do a little bit more, but right now my team is like please stop for a bit (laughs).

How many people are on your team?

I have a full timer in David who is my life partner and my partner in wine. He's also the assistant winemaker. We just hired a production associate, who I call my bonus son. We're looking to hire one more person. And then we have a lot of contractors who round out our team. So, there's about six of us. And then my mom steps in and does some work on the side. My niece is a wine ambassador. My brother gives us some business development experience. He came out of Salesforce. We have a pretty well-rounded team, which is mostly family.

And how does that work out?

(Laughs). All things considered, it's fun most days. It's interesting to carry over from when you're at work, and then you go home, have dinner, watch a movie and you don't talk about the business after a certain hour. It is a learning process because my partner came in full time last August. I'm learning how to lead with grace and ease.

You're what we call an urban winery. Definitions vary, but usually it's a winery with no acreage, and you source your grapes, and you typically have set up shop in the city as opposed to out in the country. Is there anything you would add to that definition?

For us, the only thing that is totally different from most urban wineries is we do not have a tasting room. We did plan on it, but we don't have the space because we turned what was going to be the tasting room into other rooms. We strictly do events, festivals, and we still do the whole wine tasting at home model. We are also about to go back out on the "Pouring for the People Tour." We've done about four or five dates so far, and we've still got the rest of the summer to go. We go to people versus them coming to us. They can come and pick up our wine, and a lot of people come by and pick up their wine just to see where we really are. Right now, we are just what we call a working winery.

And is there a mentor or someone who helped you on your journey that deserves a shout out?

Oh, absolutely. The first person would be Benita Johnson, she owns the Vine Wine Club in Richmond, Virginia, and she hosts an event called the Exclusive Blacklist in Richmond. When I first got into this, no one would answer my DMs, but she took two hours of her time talking to me and made introductions. She opened so many doors. She introduced me to my next mentor, Marcy Jones, who was with The Urban Connoisseur, which at the time was in Maryland, but now she's in California. Those two women single handedly introduced me to in one night to everyone I wanted to do business at a conference. I had reached out to so many before, but when she made the introductions and people realized that I flew in that I was serious. Then Marcy introduced me to Phil Long, who owns Longevity Wines, who we affectionately call Uncle Phil. I would consider him my winemaking mentor. We did some tasting and punchdown work with them. I will say that trifecta and then just so many people over the course of time that we've gotten to meet who have just graciously given us time, energy, and their talents.

What's your winemaking philosophy?

Our philosophy is to make wine that's accessible to all palates. And to make it at an entry level price point, specifically, again, aimed at Black and Brown wine lovers, because wine is not our cultural norm. So many of us did not grow up with wine at the table. I'm a military brat. I lived all over Europe, so I did grow up with wine, as part of my cultural norm. But a lot of people didn't. I always say wine is the beverage of business. You should not be at a business meeting or dinner and when your boss orders a Cabernet, order a whatever and coke. You have to use wine to speak the language of business.

We are also little intervention; all of our wines are vegan. And we do that because I have so many plant-based family members. And you couldn't just buy that wine off the shelf, but you to check and see what's in it.

You've already said you have a passion for bringing wine to people who may not normally drink wine. With new wine drinkers comes a lot of education. Tell us how you approach educating your customers.

We do a lot of virtual wine tastings and in person tastings, so people can book us. We try to give people digestible information like the Wine Spirits Education Trust (WSET). We try to take that 101-level information and make it understandable and relatable. Here are the styles of wine, here's what wine temperature should be, what wines you should let sit. You just provide it to people in a way they can remember. I guess for me, it comes from being an educator at the college level. You just break it down, so they can share that with their friends.

Tell us about the business environment for wineries in Indiana. You did it in an unorthodox way. I'm used to talking to people who have acres of land that they convert to grapes, but you're totally different.

We didn't really realize how different we were when we did it. For us, it was just relationships. We go back and forth to California a lot, and we just met growers, we met farmers, and we just made relationships with people so it was easy for us to get what we needed. So, for us it was less of an investment.

Wines that are made in Indiana, you're limited to a specific type of grape. We knew we wanted to make something different. Oliver is now growing Cabernet in Bloomington, so of course now we wonder if we can grow it. But for us, it was just the easiest thing to contract with West Coast farmers and get those grapes and get them crushed. That was a more efficient path for us, business wise. And then we still do all the fermentation and everything else in Indianapolis.

Can you think of something that happened in those early years that just made you think what have I gotten myself into?

Every day I still think that! Some things you just don't know. When the juice arrives frozen. You heard him say it was gonna be frozen, and you think that makes perfect sense. But then it arrives frozen and you don't know what to do with it. This is an actual perishable product, so you have us trying to thaw that out. We then had to get people to send us juice in smaller containers. You don't realize how big it is until it shows up on your door.

In the very beginning, because we were in a limited space, we could only order bottles in a limited amount. We would order the bottles and ask them if they could send some to us every few weeks. They thought we were crazy (laughs). It's fortunate that now, everyone that in our shared space, we're kind of having similar issues. We all take turns having these huge patterns of items just dropped in. There are things that you don't know, like how much how big a pallet was. I'm a writer, and I can tell you how to produce a show in my sleep. But so much of winemaking was a mystery to me.

We learned and we're learning something new every day. We just we introduced our canned wine, which meant learning about cans and our labels, and that has been a learning process.

Tell me how Sip and Share is weathering COVID.

A Sip and Share Sampler pack.

I cried at first. We found out March 13 of the shut down and March 25 we were supposed to be going to our first festival in Fort Wayne. We already spent all the money for this back in January, as well as Vintage Indiana. I thought our business was ruined because we have a face to face tasting model. But we adjusted. We made sampler sets, we ramped up our wine club. We also ramped up our education with our wine club. We're giving you some wine education, we're talking about pairing, we did online interactive virtual tastings, we send people wine and cheese information beforehand so they can pick that up when they go to the store. We called it our pandemic pivot, and that saved us.

Where do you see Sip and Share in 10 years?

We plan to be one of the top wine wineries in the country. Obviously, not by volume, but just by name recognition, brand recognition, and experiences for people. One of the recent changes in Indiana wine law is you can now hold a micro wholesaler license and that will happen for us this summer, so we'll be able to wholesale our wine more effectively ourselves. We'll be able to be in a lot more retail outlets because of that.

We will introduce another higher end line of wine. There's a couple of things I can't say but they're coming down the pike. We're going to have a big reveal soon. But for me personally in 10 years, I plan to be on the other side of this and have passed it on hopefully to my children. I gave myself a 10-year window. And because we started in 2016, this is really our fifth year as a business, but then I back it up to 2018 when we first released, so now we're really in year three. So, I give myself about seven more years. And by then I should be on the other side of it just doing the big creative stuff.

So Nicole around five years ago is thinking to herself, "I'm going to start my own winery." Knowing what you know, now, what advice do you give yourself?

Raise more money and hire more people before you even start. I'm grateful that we started in a co-shared space because it gave us the time to grow and really figure things out on a small scale. But now as we grow bigger, it would have been much easier if we could have raised more money upfront.

So what do you drink when you go home at night and you're not allowed to say one of your wines.

Tequila. During the week, I drink bubbles. I like sparkling wine and champagne. And I like grower's champagne specifically.

So in keeping with the whole Sip and Share theme and creating spaces at the table for others, what can consumers do? What can other winemakers do to ensure wine is more equitable, to make to make sure that everyone who wants to make wine like you has a place at the table?

Sharing information is key. And I am fortunate to have had some good mentors that work for some major wineries in California. You also must give people the opportunity. I'm part of a group called the Roots Fund and they provide scholarships and learning opportunities. They just took a whole group out to California and they did a whole immersive Napa and Lodi trip. Those opportunities are key.

But it's also exposing people. It's like theater exposing people to the many other facets of performance. We need winemakers, but we also need the creatives and the distributors. We need to create equity in those avenues as well. If I want to get my wine in a certain store, I've got to get a Johnson Brother, a Southern, or a Republic to even talk to me, and they're not talking to me. I'm not even registering on their radar. That becomes a barrier for people and then a lot of people just don't get in. Wine is a very romantic notion, but there's a whole business behind it. The equity is in getting it in stores and building relationships. It's getting black and brown wine into spaces that traditionally have not carried us.

Well, it has been wonderful talking to you. I appreciate your time and wish you great things.

One thing I do have to say. This is so cool talking to you. We got your reviews, and you didn't call us beforehand, it just caught us by surprise when we started hearing about it. Since you did that for us, it has been a trend of people buying it, of others reviewing us and further putting us out there. So I just want to say thank you for that, because you gave us our first like, our first numbered reviews. And it so good for us and it was so cool to give some validations to what we have been doing.

Well those reviews were well-deserved, and well-earned. We knew after tasting them we wanted to chat with you.