For the novice, wine culture is shrouded in mystery and perceived elitism, blocking many of the most traditionally competent tastemakers from fully engaging. However, Texas-based chef and winemaker Rhonda Russell has made it her personal mission to change that and if anyone is equipped to demystify wine culture, it’s her.
A Southern girl whose love of Cajun cooking was honed in her grandmother’s Southern Louisiana kitchen, Russell progressed from a home cook to certified personal chef to become the first and only African-American female to date to hold the prestigious certification for Chef of Wine Arts. As a member of the world-renowned United States Personal Chefs Association, James Beard Foundation and the International Wine Guild, the vitae of this certified winemaker speaks for itself. But underlying her many certifications and accolades lies a passion for teaching and exposing new audiences to the beauty of wine culture.
“Being someone from the South, they [people] think all we drink is beer, mint julep and cocktails,” she jokes. But Russell believes that folks, particularly those from the rural South, are uniquely positioned for a high appreciation of wine. She curates her signature wine tasting experiences to ease tensions and preconceived notions surrounding wine by guiding her customers through a tasting in a way that allows them to understand the different colors and tastes, the drys and the sweets, as well as which foods complement each. “It’s really about being comfortable in knowing that this is something we’ve always done. You’ve got to bring it back home,” says Russell. “It’s like remember when we used to go out and pick the blackberries and grandma would make the cobbler and then from that frame of reference, they’re like ‘oh yeah, I can taste that.’”
In addition to hosting these down-to-earth wine tastings, Russell also seeks to educate the masses on wine culture through her meticulously curated subscription wine boxes. “With my wine boxes you’re going to get a product, something like an olive oil or a bread dipping oil that transports you to that region,” she says. “You’re going to know why I made this wine and why I paired it with this particular food item and you’re going to know what you want to pair it with the next time because you’re going to be educated.”
Her love for wine doesn’t just stop at exposing others to it, she brings that same level of passion to her own brand, Taste Collection Cellars. With six selections that speak to different aspects of her Louisiana upbringing, Russell puts her heart and soul into each offering. “Where I grew up in Lake Charles, La. was in the same yard as my paternal grandparents, Raymond and Vivian,” she explains. “My malbec and chardonnay are named after them respectively.” Also included in her collection are wines named for her maternal grandparents. From her Vivian Chardonnay, Raymond Malbec, Isabelle Sauvignon Blanc, Henry Zinfandel, Jazzy Cabernet Franc and a vintage That Southern Taste Syrah Rosé, each bottle represents a visual depiction of the beautiful country scenery that surrounded her childhood.
When it comes to curating one of a kind, beautiful wine tasting experiences for all, this is the job that Russell was born to do.
Russell’s Taste Collection Cellars wines are carried in selected wine shops and online at www.tastebychefrhonda.com where you can also book tastings by appointment and participate in her fun food and wine pairing courses. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo credit: Rhonda Russell