Brent Faiyaz’ smooth voice trickled through the speakers the first time I entered Domestique – not what you’d typically expect to hear in a wine shop. While it was a pleasant surprise to find a young business on the corner of Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street reflecting the tastes of its predominantly Black neighborhood, I had a quiet suspicion.
The events of last year have intensified the age-old attempts of white-owned businesses to pander to Black consumers. While I can appreciate the vibe, I can’t place too much stock in a carefully curated Spotify station. We must be critical about accessibility, community engagement, and economic empowerment, especially in industries like wine that have been historically exclusionary towards both patrons and professionals of color.
Domestique, however, is in fact taking meaningful strides towards closing the gap.
Domestique, a partnership between restaurateur Jeff Segal and Selection Massale importers, opened in late 2018. It sells exclusively natural wines, the stringent definition of which is debated among producers. At its core however, this venture centers on low-intervention winemaking free of pesticides and preservatives.
At its best, natural wine is a return to regenerative farming – a form of agriculture that follows the lunar calendar, and encourages biodiversity through crop rotation and harvest by hand to prevent soil erosion.
In keeping that ethos of honoring people and planet, Domestique launched its inaugural Major Taylor Fellowship last June, a three-week program for people of color interested in learning the ins and outs of running a retail wine operation. The program, intentionally designed to increase equitable opportunities for nonwhites, offered a $3,000 stipend and coverage of housing costs.
Last summer, Kayla Mensah, 29, counted among the five million restaurant workers affected by pandemic shutdowns. Before COVID, Kayla was the co-beverage director at Lincoln Ristorante, the fine dining restaurant atop New York’s Lincoln Center – a far cry from Domestique’s no-fuss environment.
Beating out more than 70 applicants, Kayla was selected as the inaugural fellow. She came to Domestique as a certified sommelier with more than five years of experience.
As part of the mere two percent of the industry that identifies as Black or African, Kayla has experienced discrimination from peers and customers. At networking events, she’s been asked if she works for the venue. As a floor sommelier, she’s been told that she must have the wrong table, only to inform stupefied guests that she is, in fact, the sommelier.
Since starting at Domestique in November, Kayla has experienced less overt racism. Even so, she’s confronted with microaggressions, often in the form of customers averting eye contact before happily engaging some of her older, whiter and/or male coworkers. Thankfully she feels consistently supported by the entire staff, many of whom are also young people of color.
The fellowship included a three-day intensive with Streetsense, an experiential branding and design collective. With their team, Kayla ideated her future restaurant concept: carefully crafted beverage service paired with the traditional Jamaican and Ghanaian dishes of her childhood. As the daughter of immigrants with rich culinary heritages, Kayla’s been frustrated with the industry’s lack of knowledge about foods from the global south:
“When I started in wine, I would ask what you should drink with peanut soup and they would have no idea,” Kayla told The Bridge. “Having to figure it out myself in a field that was supposed to be culinary focused didn’t make sense. The focus is exclusively through a Eurocentric lens.”
Kayla’s Pairing Recommendations
Peanut Soup & Fufu x White Rhône
Oxtail x Red Mencía
Ghanaian Jollof Rice x Champagne
Kayla has similar goals to shift the retail space as an educator who intends to reach Black audiences that have historically been shamed away from wine. “I’m really passionate about making wine accessible to people, which means being able to teach them about it in a way that’s not unnecessarily verbose and purposefully exclusionary,” she told The Bridge.
A large part of that work is speaking to people from their frame of reference, evoking flavors and feelings that are familiar. For young Kayla, that was an island palette. “I grew up eating mango,” she told The Bridge. “I knew what fresh sugarcane tastes like, I could tell you what a star apple is, but I had no idea what a gooseberry was until I entered fine dining.”
The second prong of accessibility is cost. Wine, which is considered a luxury product, can ring in at luxury prices, but the idea that you have to spend a certain amount to get a good bottle is a misconception.
Domestique carries bottles at a range of price points and has a consistently stocked “Under $20” collection on their website. Their sales reps are trained to respect a budget. That means there’s no pushy upselling or coded condescension, an outlook that Kayla hopes to see mirrored throughout the industry.
“At the end of the day, wine is meant to be shared with one another,” Kayla told The Bridge. “If all we see is a dollar sign when someone walks in the door, we’ve missed the point.”
After completing her fellowship, Kayla was hired on staff. Due to COVID, the shop is only open for pick up or delivery, but you can follow her wine exploits on Instagram @winegriot.
The 2021 Major Taylor Fellowship is expected to reopen for applicants in mid-summer. You can find more information on the program here.