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Rugie Bhonopha, the founder of Amoy Wines, is sipping on the success of her brand, which seamlessly blends cultural diversity and entrepreneurial spirit. A first-generation American, Bhonopha has established a distinct presence in the wine industry.
Bhonopha’s family is originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, but she grew up in Vallejo, California, about 15 miles outside Napa. She jumped from a junior college to the University of Nevada in Reno, where her taste for wine developed.
“At the University of Nevada, I used to do wine walks. It’s for college students who want to drink a little bit but keep it low-key and cheap, so I learned how to drink wine from the walks.”
Wine Palette Expansion
After graduation, Bhonopha moved back home and expanded her palate. “I drank wine in Reno, so let me come back and hit Napa up a little bit more. Then, I started curating small events for my friends and family whenever they said they wanted to go wine tasting because I didn’t see many of us out there,” says the wine entrepreneur.
Organizing these events was important to Bhonopha due to creating places in spaces that might seem exclusive and for people just to go out and enjoy wine. “There are some wine snobs, but most of the time, it’s about having a good time and just having fun with the people that you go with. You don’t have to be scared.”
The success of the almost weekly wine events beguiled Bhonophra, causing her and friends to join various wineries around Napa. Then, she and two friends decided to turn their knowledge into a podcast called they called “The Women’s Rundown: Sports, Wine, and Everything Fine.”
From there, someone reached out to Bhonophra about becoming a wine distributor, and the idea of having her own wine started to creep in. Then, 2020 happened, and Bhonophra got her chance.
“We would take these walks through the pandemic,” she says. “And I was drinking some good wine and noticed in Napa that everyone had wine. I thought it’d be so cool to have my own wine.”
She continues, “I reached out to some wine companies and one said, ‘I would love to work with you, especially with everything happening with George Floyd’ and figuring out that representation really does matter, not only in life but in general, including wine and making sure that we’re seen. I did that, and that’s how Amoy Wines was born.”
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Take a Small Escape with Amoy Wines
Bhonopha chose the Jamaican name Amoy, which means beautiful goddess, and honored her heritage with an elephant as the logo. “It’s one of my favorite animals and has an African head tie because my parents are from Sierra Leone,” she says.
“I really wanted to make sure I gave that nod to my culture. And whenever anybody drank my wine, I wanted them to feel like they were on vacation. I wanted you to feel your best self, especially during a pandemic when we weren’t going out and nobody was really doing anything. If nothing else, I wanted to give you a small escape.”
Bhonopha does a lot with the help of loved ones. “My partner is involved and I have a big entrepreneurial spirit, and so I get that from my dad. My really good friend Kimberley McConnell Riberdy does all of my marketing.
“She can take the thoughts out of my head and create them. I explained it to her, and she brought it to life. I talked to her about the wine, and she said, ‘Let’s do it. I believe in your dreams, so let’s make it happen,’ and then we started off with our rosé.”
In August 2021, Bhonopha gave a “Beyonce-like” teaser on a Wednesday to let people know she had a wine to debut. The following Friday, the rosé ” sold out three hours after launch.
“Besides rapper E40, no one has a wine from Vallejo except me,” she says. “The fact that I am a wine distributor has helped a lot. I was good at getting my name out there, which helped set the scale of how I wanted to run my business.”
She adds, “I decided to keep going with it, and here we are three years later.” Amoy Wines added a cabernet sauvignon in the fall of 2022, which Bhonopha says is the highest seller. “It’s a deep red that tastes so good. It goes with steaks. You can have it as a fun wine just to drink and relax. It’s really important to make sure when you’re drinking your wine, you’re feeling your best. And that’s what my wine does.”
The Need for Balance and Organization
There’s no denying that Bhonopha has a strong, ingrained work ethic. Not only does she run Amoy Wines, but she’s still working full-time. The wine negotiant has a master’s in healthcare and is a program manager for John Muir Health.
“As soon as I graduated from college, I started working at a hospital,” she explains. “Healthcare has always been an important part of my life. After working at UC Berkeley for nine and a half years, I now work at John Muir Health.”
About her role, she says, “I am the belonging and equity manager, overseeing all employer resource groups and affinity groups. It is important to me to represent the community, and I take part in it every day.”
Bhonopha works remotely and shifts her attention to Amoy Wines as soon as she’s done. “The best way for me to break up my day is to be super organized,” she says. “Kim helps me with the social media posting, and I make sure I hit a few popups. I follow up with people who have questions about Amoy Wines and answer inquiries,” she shares.
“If I have sales, I ensure they go out within 24 hours. I might not be as active as everyone else due to my busy schedule. In addition to my home, I ensure my partner and parents are cared for. I still have so much to do during the day. The key is finding a balance, being organized, knowing what I’ll achieve for the day or week, and setting goals. So, if I got to wake up a little bit earlier, that’s just what I got to do.”
Looking ahead to growing the business, she gives us a glimpse, saying, “We just launched a newsletter, and my goal is to get better at social media to really engage with people and hit a couple more festivals this year outside of the Bay Area. There are many that are happening, especially for our culture, but just really getting my name out there, and I want people to be able to shop my wine. That is the goal for 2024.”