It’s pretty uncommon to bask in the wisdom of sommeliers at a young age. Still, for Justin Trabue, the founder of Ward Four Wines, this was a part of her upbringing as early as high school.
The future vino-enthusiast eagerly claimed her destiny, understanding the vast opportunities surrounding the spirit industry. As she approaches her new business endeavors, she’s constantly striving to support small businesses, make wine accessible for Black communities, and source from vineyards that honor ethical labor and climate-friendly practices.
Wine at the Table
“Growing up in Washington D.C., I always felt lucky to have wine on the table,” Trabue tells me for Cuisine Noir. The winemaker is a fourth-generation native to the nation’s capital. D.C. and no stranger to vino either; over 50 vineyards and wineries make up D.C.’s wine country throughout the DMV (District of Colombia, Maryland and Virginia) region.
While wineries exist in her hometown, for Trabue, wine education started at her kitchen table with her parents pouring sips for her to savor and learn about. This led the future entrepreneur to move and pursue a degree in wine and viticulture with a focus on the wine business from California Polytechnic State University in 2013.
Unlike a traditional college experience, Trabue’s involved a 14-acre campus vineyard and pilot winery to give her the hands-on education necessary to understand all aspects of wine.
A Boundaryless Wine Education
Despite enrolling in one of the most extensive four-year wine programs in the U.S., Trabue knew that pursuing diverse forms of learning would only teach her more. For example, during her sophomore year of college, she interned in Santa Cruz, taking apart irrigation systems and further maintaining the production of apple and pumpkin orchards. “This was my first lesson in understanding why the earth matters,” she says.
It didn’t end there, either. The wine enthusiast decided to study abroad across the globe during her junior year in Australia, where she continued to study viticulture. “It was life changing to be there during their harvest season. I got to witness people getting dirty with their hands and producing wine. At that moment, I realized that’s what I wanted my career to involve,” she explains.
- Kitchen Designer Caren Rideau Creates Spaces Inspired by Food, Culture and Wine
- Texas’ Wine Vibes Micro Winery & Bistro Brings Community Together
To put this into practice, as soon as she got back to the U.S., she participated in another internship, this time one that taught her how to make pinot noir under the direction of Lane Tanner, a pioneer in the industry and partner and winemaker at Lumen Wines. “Lane Tanner is my inspiration; she was one of the first women winemakers in Santa Barbara and why I’m in this field of work,” the east coast native shares.
Embarking on a Career in Wine
After graduating in 2017, Tanner recruited Trabue full-time to work for her. What started as a college internship turned into a five-year endeavor involving trips abroad, a life-changing harvest in New Zealand and building community through wine tastings.
Trabue found a fascination with the wine-tasting component of her career. “It was empowering to let people know that their palates are important and that just because a specific wine is popular doesn’t mean they have to like it,” she explains.
But after years of working in that part of the wine industry, Trabue decided to explore the production side of the business. In 2021, she moved to Napa Valley, where she found a home at Heitz Cellar in St. Helena, a historic winery in operation since 1961.
“I got an opportunity to make a beautiful, elegant classic Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.” she shares. Around this same time, the wine enthusiast also obtained her level 3 WSET, which involves a blind tasting and extensive exam. From there, she continued gaining experience in production across different parts of California and even South Africa at the Almenkerk Wine Estate.
“South Africa was amazing because it was the first time that everyone around me that I worked with was Black. It was so nice to be around people that look like me.”
Founding Ward Four Wines
As early as 2013, Trabue dreamt up the idea to start a business of her own, but of course, before embarking on that journey, she had a lot of life she needed to live. So in 2022, when she finally returned to the aspiration, she knew it was time to act on it. With the help of grant funding and mentorship, she officially founded Ward Four Wines.
“Ward Four Wines pays homage to Washington, D.C., where I am from. I am a fourth-generation native from the fourth ward. I come from a small family of four people, and my mom’s maiden name is Ward. This brand is an extension of myself,” she explains.
Ward Four Wines works with small businesses like artists and growers to create the branding and supply the inventory for her various products. For example, the 2022 Mourvèdre sold on her site has a label illustrated by Rhythm Bowerrs, a multimedia artist from the D.C. area.
She sources from vineyards that uphold proper labor and sustainable agricultural practices for her wine portfolio. Each is available through her website and as part of her fun experience as a guide at the Napa Valley Gondola Company, hosting scenic wine tours on the Napa Valley River along Napa’s downtown waterfront.
For an hour, Trabue leads up to four people through an intimate tasting on an authentic Venetian Gondola with a Gondolier. These experiences are just another way that Trabue enjoys sharing her love of wine with others.
As she continues to grow her brand, she plans to keep her values front and center. Eventually, this looks like even creating internship opportunities to support the next generation of Black wine leaders.
For more information on Ward Four Wines, visit their website and Instagram. To sip their wines, you can place an order here. Guided wine tastings with Napa Valley Gondola Company can be booked through November.