The Swirl Suite podcast was launched by four friends to spread wine knowledge and make it approachable for all while sharing how they turned their love of wine into fulfilling careers.
What fascinates me most about wine is not that it is liquid gold, but the people who build their lives around sharing the brilliance behind its existence. How climate, fermentation, region, soil and topography all play a part in producing this ancient elixir. The nuanced stories that connect us to the wine producers, from the harvesters to consumers—the vines link us together.
Around the world, many cultures have culinary traditions tied to wine that span centuries. France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain—you get the point. Humans have been gleefully consuming wine for thousands of years. Drinking wine is much like sharing a story you enjoy retelling. The vines lay dormant until they are ready to give forth their fruit and we get to savor their entropic results without counting the calories (at least I do).
The Swirl Suite team is taking up space in the wine world in a way that is approachable and inclusive. For many budding oenophiles, like myself, we are eagerly paying attention to their fresh take on wine and where they see the industry going in the next year. Their knowledge, individually, is expansive, and collectively is altogether impressive. I had the honor of speaking with Sarita Cheaves, Glynis Hill, Leslie Frelow and Tanisha Townsend for an in-depth look at how they met, the impact of their careers in wine, the future of wine consumption, and where the Black consumer fits into the wine landscape. As well as how wine brands can better market to Black wine consumers more authentically.
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How Their Paths Crossed
The Swirl Suite podcast is a hub for wine education and oenophiles around the world who tune in. Past guests include the grande dame of wine and oenophile, Julia Coney as well as Krista Scruggs, winemaker at ZAFA wines and André Hueston Mack of Maison Noir Wines who recently added restaurateur to his name. The Swirl Suite team ensures that their community of listeners have a wide variety of guests who are seasoned wine professionals.
Sarita Cheaves, a Washington, D.C. native, is a blogger at Vine Me Up. Before launching The Swirl Suite, Cheaves, who is WSET certified from The Capitol Wine School, met Leslie Frelow in 2013 while attending wine events. “We all lived in Maryland. We met separately and our worlds collided. I met Leslie while she was doing research for Vino301. I was working as a senior tasting room associate at Black Ankle Vineyards and I did her tasting. We realized we had a lot in common. We became fast friends and business associates,” says Cheaves. Soon, Frelow invited Cheaves to one of her first set of tours and Cheaves blogged about her experience. A partnership was born.
Frelow, a Maryland native, owns a wine concierge business, Vino301. Glynis Hill, a New Jersey native, owns Vino Noire, a “wine education and lifestyle” platform that provides today’s consumer with “insights into fine wine, tourism and culture.” Tanisha Townsend is a Chicago, Illinois native, now lives in Paris, France and she manages Girl Meets Glass. They all met in Maryland.
“Glynis and Tanisha met at a mutual friend’s party. They soon realized they were both wine bloggers. Tanisha would invite Glynis. Leslie would have a booth, marketing Vino301 and I was the new blogger bouncing around. Eventually, all four of us would be invited to the same Embassy tastings and we'd hang out after,” recalls Cheaves.
In 2014, the Swirl Suite team met for drinks in Chevy Chase, Maryland and Cheaves suggested they start a YouTube channel. “We took wine seriously but made it fun. I felt like this had to be captured in some way. We would talk about wine once a month live on YouTube. Everyone agreed,” says Cheaves and soon The Swirl Suite was born. Creating podcasts was a natural progression. Cheaves spent time honing her skills as a podcaster. “I listened to ‘The Read and Another Round’ mostly. The wine podcasts I listened to were informative but a little bland. In 2016, I decided to transfer the audio from our videos to Soundcloud and iTunes. In 2017, I took a 6-week certified production course at DCTV,” a public access corporation of the District of Columbia. This valuable training allowed Cheaves to make The Swirl Suite a “more polished” show.
The Swirl Suite Podcast
When you tune into the Swirl Suite podcast, immediately ebullient laughter fills the airwaves, a camaraderie that draws listeners from all over the country, inviting them to taste the “wine life.” I asked each wine expert the value of the podcast and they mentioned the perspective it brings to the wine world. It’s approachable for anyone who seeks to learn more about wine without it feeling unattainable.
The value of The Swirl Suite podcast brings “fun, humor, excitement” to wine and many brands miss the mark because they make it appear “stuffy, elite, unattainable, and unaffordable.” In contrast, the Swirl Suite team has a lot of fun with each other and invariably draws listeners into wine.
“We make wine and the beverage industry familiar and comfortable and when you’re familiar and comfortable with it, you’re not worried about mispronouncing a wine from Bordeaux because you feel comfortable with it. The wine industry needs to work on bringing these things into our neighborhood ‘cause you know we’re going to buy it. But we also need to demand it, as well,” says Frelow regarding the importance of The Swirl Suite.
The intersection of Race and Wine
When asked about their respective experiences in the wine industry as Black women, the ladies were very candid about the reception they’ve had through their careers. Cheaves reveals, “I still get those titled-head looks like…’How did you get here?’ I remember going to a private restaurant tasting in D.C. and I was the only blogger. The winemaker and restaurant owner showed me special attention and I could feel the looks of annoyance. Finally a woman asked what I do [for work.] She couldn't stand not knowing the reason this young Black woman was getting this treatment. I think that was the main reason I got a certification. Many other bloggers have no formal education in wine, but I wanted to be ‘credible’ because I know I wouldn't be taken as seriously if I didn't.”
“The lack of enthusiasm of service that other people get,” Townsend says about experiences in her career as a wine expert. But such unfavorable encounters have not deterred her from pursuing a successful career in France.
“In the United States, my experience has been interesting,” shares Hill. “I was in Florence and they were very interested in me and have different experiences overseas. Instead of disdain for the knowledge, they get intrigued versus the United States.”
Frelow states, “People who were pouring would point you to sweeter wines and I would think to myself, ‘That’s not my palate.’ And so being a minority you, were profiled in this demographic that isn’t true.” Their candor speaks to the importance of platforms such as The Swirl Suite. Cheaves says even though The Swirl Suite “guests are people from all walks of life and nationalities.” “We want people to know that everyone loves wine. We have our opinions on certain aspects, but we all are free to enjoy wine any way we choose. We want to make sure people know wine is no longer unattainable and intimidating.”
2019 proved to be a big year for The Swirl Suite team. They were invited to attend Essence Festival’s Wine Experience and Townsend was interviewed on France 24, a French news outlet.
Black Consumers and the Wine Market
Cheaves admits the best way for brands to pay attention to Black consumers is not to “isolate us.” “We drink wine like any other wine lover. It's very easy to box us into a lane of sweet wine with bright colors, but we appreciate it so much more than that. We all love the experience that wine brings. Don't leave us out of that.” Her favorite wine is cava, a Spanish sparkling wine.
“It’s something simple as inclusion. With ads, do they see people of all colors. What is that vision they are putting out? Have a group of sisters kicking it for a girl’s night at a wine bar. Just include us please,” says Townsend, who enjoys red wine from Côtés de Rhône and more aromatic white wines from the Rhône Valley such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
For Hill’s go-to when she is at home, she enjoys the Loveblock brand and all of their varietals. Frelow has always been a red wine drinker since college and enjoys “big, dry-out your mouth” red wines. Her favorite is “[the brand] Tenet, which is very hard to find,” but worth trying.
In speaking with the Swirl Suite team, they shared their take on trends this year. Townsend notices the industry is “moving a lot more [into] organic, biodynamic wines and more alternative packaging, not just the natural corks and glass bottles.” “You’ll see a lot more bags in boxes, single-serve, smaller bottles, because that is the kind of thing that is making the numbers. Wine is a little slower than anything else, but I believe the American wine industry is moving in that direction.”
“We want to do more live events. We want to get out there and meet our listeners. Swirl Suite was at Essence last year and did a few live events and interviews. We all were together. We want to do more live show meet-ups, meet the fans, and drink with them. We have fun and enjoy each other—I just have to come back to America. I’m the hold up,” Townsend laughs. For the ladies, community is important.
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Whether it’s a curiosity, a memorable experience or a dinner enjoyed with friends, wine has many entry points for the women of The Swirl Suite. Their hope is that you stay curious and enjoy your own “wine life,” however that may look.