Nicole Kearney never thought she’d be making small batch wine for a living. In fact, she never thought she’d have a career outside of economic development and writing. Besides the fact that Indiana isn’t exactly known for its winemaking, Kearney worked in a variety of personally fulfilling fields for the last 20 years and winemaking was nowhere on that list.
Like most wine lovers, Kearney remembers the moment she got hooked; while pursuing her MFA. She spent countless hours with classmates chatting while opening and sharing bottles of wine. These informal sessions piqued her interest and created a hobby that would eventually snowball into a passion when Kearney stepped in to lead a wine tasting with friends after the original host never appeared. Soon, Kearney became the go-to wine tasting host for her circle of friends and when she began to make her own sangria, the idea of creating a business flickered somewhat tangibly in the distance.
But after taking a winemaking course, which was a gift from her children, her dream took shape and she began formulating what would become Sip & Share Wines. If that sounds somewhat straightforward, it’s because Kearny’s liveliness and infectious passion give the impression that opening a wine and spirits business is a walk in the park.
But the hustle and grit in her voice prove otherwise. More than a year of meetings with excise officers to learn the ins and outs of state and federal liquor regulation has brought Kearney to this point. As founder and CEO of Sip & Share Wines, she’s entirely devoted to and involved in every step of the process and it’s proven to be painstaking work.
Since launching Sip & Share Wines in 2016, Kearney has learned that between traveling to events, attending regulation and business meetings and blending wines, there is no such thing as a regular day.
It took nearly a year of mixing, tasting and tweaking the wines – some of which are varietal blends – to create the ‘7 words’ wine collection. Each bottle is labeled with an affirmation such as “INTENTION” and “GRATITUDE” to help set the stage for what’s in the bottle.
To come up with the affirmations on each wine in the collection, Kearney met with a spiritual practitioner friend who helped her to envision the energy of each type of wine. Each bottle also has its own color which intentionally maps back to an energy signature or a crystal. Kearney sources her grapes from Lodi, California, an area known for its hearty zinfandels and after the grapes arrive, Kearney’s touch turns them into the wine that makes up her collection.
The winemaking process is one that is close to Kearney’s heart. She even plays different music as she is making different wines. Think Erykah Badu and Jill Scott to express “LOVE.”
“It’s like we’re saying a blessing over our wine. We want it [to] give people a feeling,” Kearney explains.
To take her intentional wines one step further, Kearney’s wines are all vegan. In conventional winemaking, winemakers often use animal-derived products such as dried fish bladder, gelatin, and egg whites during the fining or clarification process. This results in wines that are crystal clear and free of unwanted sediment, but ultimately unsuitable for vegans and vegetarians. Kearney has opted to use bentonite clay to refine her wines and with a close network of vegans and vegetarians, Kearney was thrilled to be able to offer them something to grab for.
While her love of wine is an important part of why she does what she does, Kearney wants to have a broader conversation and create a community of wine lovers who are encouraged to be curious and have conversations about wine that they might not otherwise have. She’s hoping to help disrupt the current homogenous climate in the wine world to help create a space that’s inclusive and more expressive to Black people who have an interest in wine.
Turning Curiosity Into a Business
In the coming year, Sip & Share will be looking for brand ambassadors to promote the wines as well as expanding the brand to extend beyond the 7 Words wine collection. She even hopes to dabble in sparkling wine production.
“Our goal is to look at individuals who we want to be a wine ambassador and give them the opportunity to expand their knowledge and also create their own financial opportunities in the wine world,” says Kearney.
When asked about tips for first-time home winemakers, Kearney’s first piece of advice is clear – learn about the process. Kearney’s love of wine stems from pure curiosity. Embarking on this business meant she had to ask both business and wine-related questions as she went along. The difference between “scalability” versus “growth” was an eye-opener, as were the minute details of winemaking that often get overlooked in the glamorous world of social media. As romantic as home fermentation seems, there’s plenty of science involved in winemaking. Knowledge of important details such as temperatures and sanitary conditions will ensure your finished product is as delicious as it was time-consuming.
She also suggests taking the regulations and legal issues seriously and giving yourself plenty of time to get organized and sort through the paperwork with the help of an expert. It’s one less thing to worry about, as you won’t run the risk of getting fines that set your business’ finances or timelines back.
The Mission: Longevity and Legacy
Her family brings a variety of skills to the table, including finance, farming, training, sales and development, which she’s hoping to leverage to open a tasting room and vineyard eventually. Kearney wants to be able to hand the business over to her children in ten years to help establish a family legacy, while also combating the tired stereotype that Black people don’t know wine.
According to Nielsen, Black buying power is at a whopping $1 trillion, but there is a noticeable lack of marketing to Black people in wine.
“What I want to see in our community is that we are creating, not only a community of wine enthusiasts and lovers but… also creating businesses that will have longevity three generations from now.”