Benita Johnson founded The Vine Wine Club in 2014. Johnson’s The Vine Wine Club is a subscription-based company that offers wine, education and lifestyle events to its members. In 2005, Johnson became the first Black woman-owned wine shop in Richmond, Virginia, when she opened Grapes and Barley that later closed in 2009.
An accountant by profession, Johnson pivoted smoothly into the wine world when opening her wine shop. She earned an MBA from the University of Virginia and a certificate from the Master Court of Sommeliers. Johnson is also a member of the Guild of Sommeliers. In the past, she’s hosted “Off The Vine with Benita and Terricinia” and has always been an advocate for wine appreciation and education. She plans to launch Wine Art and Soul in 2021 as her next venture in the wine world where she will merge her love for art and wine.
Johnson’s future includes hosting a virtual wine festival project that she is teaming up with a friend and six wineries, but in the meantime, we wanted to learn a little more about this 15-year wine veteran.
Tell us a little about your background in wine?
My background is in accounting. I did an abrupt 180 and in the summer of 2005, I pivoted to the wine world. At the time, I was married and my husband said, “Can you wait 90 days?” And I was like, “I don’t know what 90 days is going to do. But I’ll wait 90 days.”
So we eventually looked at commercial spaces to rent to open a wine shop. I jumped right in. I did whatever I needed to do where my ABC license was concerned, so I can be ready. We found two spaces and we secured both of them. We asked if we could delay (about four months) the opening of the second location, so I could open one and focus on the other.
In Virginia wine is COD (cash on delivery); nothing is on credit. So you have to have money to pay for everything, so it becomes somewhat of a cost-prohibitive business to get into. We had to have a build-out in this store and our first store was called Grapes and Barley in November of 2005. Then we opened our second location in February of 2006.
That was my first dance in the wine industry. I love retail because I love people. If I could make a lot of money doing it, I would. I understood retail because of my background in accounting, but what I did not have was wine knowledge. I knew nothing about wine. Everywhere we would go on vacation and we would do the wine tours, but I truly didn’t know anything. I’m a quick study, thank God. I have a lot of wonderful friends and family in Richmond. They were patient with me.
How did you come up with the name The Vine Wine Club? What inspired The Exclusive Black List?
We closed Grapes and Barley in 2009. We were doing fine, but the landscape changed in Richmond. There was a major grocery store that dominated Richmond. What was good about them is that they didn’t sell alcohol. I had these clauses in my leases if the anchor store changed, we had a certain amount of time we could break our lease. Fortunately, I had that clause and we broke the leases and personal stuff was going on too; my marriage was changing and so [I] took a break. I was still doing some consulting with small restaurants to help develop wine lists and such since I had that knowledge.
In 2014, we came back with The Vine Wine Club. In naming stuff, sometimes we just need to tell people what it is. Adding “wine club” is exactly what it is. We are a club of folks who enjoy tasting and learning about wine. August 2020 makes it six years. I also started a wine podcast with a friend; it was called “Off The Vine With Benita and Terricinia.” We were on Blog Talk Radio and we did that up until a few years ago.
The reason why The Exclusive Black List was born in 2015 goes back to 2006. I went to Napa Valley on an industry trip with my husband and friends. I had a these really cool private winery tours scheduled.
It was six of us, all African American, and we went to this festival and it seemed we were the only African Americans there. I saw a Black person pouring wine, so I moved closer and closer to the table and it was the Browne family. I walked up to the table and Mr. Browne shook my hand and he was so kind. I had never heard of their estate. I didn’t know even there were Black people in Napa Valley.
I know Black folks make wine; my grandmother used to make wine. I asked Mr. Brown if his wines were available in Virginia and he told me who was his distributor. I was buying wine from that same distributor every week. I felt like, “They know I’m the only Black shop in the city, they couldn’t tell me about the one Black wine they got, and the wine is good.” And I thought I have to do something about this. When I got back to Virginia, I added the Brown Estate wines to both stores and I was promoting them regularly.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
This time during COVID-19 has been interesting. Clearly, a lot of people are drinking wine because my company (the wine club) set-up to be an online retailer; that’s one of its aspects. So we’ve been shipping quite a bit of wine. So folks are sitting home doing a lot of wine drinking, apparently (laughs) for which I am grateful.
We are a membership group as well, so typically our members get together twice a month for tastings and we haven’t been able to do that. We started that back in July, but prior to that we started a Virtual Tasting Tuesdays. I set up a private group on Facebook for our members. I would send them a bottle of wine and they would do curbside pick-up and we would taste the wines together via Facebook Live. It was engaging in that way via social media.
Also, I’ve become a gardener during COVID and now my entire backyard is a garden. In July, we started these wine tastings in the garden. Everyone brings their own lawn chairs and I do individual charcuterie boards for everybody and we keep it socially distant in the yard and we taste wine that way. We’ve been adapting as best we could during these unprecedented times.
What lessons have you learned along the way that you now share with others?
I recommend people to gain some knowledge even if you take a WSET course. Understand a little bit about wine, don’t do it the way I did it; that was the hard way. You’ve got to have the passion and the commitment because it’s not all fun and games in this industry. It’s hard.
It’s competitive and so you’ve got to have the stomach to stick this through. It’s not for everybody. You won’t believe the number of inbox messages I get from people; they just want to be in it somehow. They don’t care how and they don’t know anything. I love us, meaning Black people, and I feel like we really have to be on point to be taken seriously.
We say that business is a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Knowing this as a seasoned professional/business owner. What would you tell yourself as a young entrepreneur today?
I’m a super positive person and so the things that have not gone well for me, I take those as lessons. I would tell a young person don’t give up, to take it as a lesson and not a stopping point. Learn from it, process it and figure out how to do it differently.