The event at which I have just arrived—a weekend conference featuring multiple-course meals with wine pairings, plus lectures, presentations, and a reception—is called “Wine, Women, and....” It is the highlight of the Divas' year, and the culmination of nearly a decade of learning, planning, organizing, and sipping.
Divas Uncorked started in 1998 when a group of friends decided to learn more about what they were drinking. Now it's a thriving business dedicated to educating consumers about wine, and educating winemakers about consumers—particularly women and African-Americans, who are often overlooked by the industry. To that end, the Divas organize frequent Divas Dine events in restaurants across the country, inviting the public to eat and drink while learning about wine. They act as marketing consultants to wineries and wine stores that become members of the Divas Uncorked Collaborative Consortium. They also manage a Web site, divasuncorked.com. They even have their own wine, Divas Uncorked Chardonnay, produced in partnership with the Mendocino Wine Company.
All of this could be quite enough to occupy the friends, ten energetic women in their late 40s, 50s, and early 60s. But each of them also has a high-powered day job, ranging from executive consultant to educator. “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we started,” says Callie Crossley, a commentator with NPR and WGBH-TV, as she walks with me to our seats at the luncheon.
As we dig into our appetizers, the conversation in the room grows raucous. Although I don't know any of the hundred women gathered here, I feel as at ease as if I were sitting around with friends at a girls-only cocktail hour. And I realize the Divas have succeeded in doing what many of us fantasize about: They've built a business out of their favorite pastime.
Before they were Divas, the women were friends who met doing volunteer work with a nonprofit organization, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. They started going out together after meetings. “We were always eating and drinking,” says Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard, executive director of the Boston Lawyers Group and the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity. “Frankly, we were spending a fair amount of money, and we decided we should know more about this wine thing.” They quickly got organized, as type A personalities will, and began hosting monthly wine-tasting get-togethers. At first they served cheese, crackers, fruit, and “little nibbles,” but before long they were planning elaborate, themed dinners.
“We were just having fun,” says Karen Holmes Ward, a producer at WCVB-TV. And learning a lot. Stephanie Browne, an information technology director at Blue Cross and Blue Shield and president of the Divas, learned not to serve her reds too warm or her whites too cold, for example.
The friends have become educated in more arcane subjects as well, such as vintages and sugar-to-acid ratios. But “wine savvy not wine snobby” is their mantra, and the most important lesson they pass along to consumers is to trust themselves when it comes to taste. “Pick wines that please your palate,” says Ward.
As the conference winds down, I ask the Divas how they balance work and friendship. “The one thing we're not going to lose is what brought us together,” insists Hebsgaard. So on top of all their other responsibilities, they still plan monthly wine-tasting dinners, just for themselves.
No wonder, then, that where others might describe a wine in terms of its nose or finish, Browne compares it to something closer to her heart. “My aha moment was when I realized how a balanced wine tastes,” she says. “The fruit and acid and alcohol are all in perfect harmony. It's like having your favorite food next to your favorite person in your favorite place.” In other words, delicious.
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Julie Powell is the author of Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously (Back Bay Books).