Curious about wine but can’t tell a Chardonnay from a Pinot Noir? You need to meet Cha McCoy, one of the world’s few certified black female sommeliers. Food & Wine Magazine describes her as the “Harlem sommelier you actually want to drink with”. Cha hosts Communion experiences where she shares her passion with wine enthusiasts across the world. We spoke with Cha about her journey, global wine trends, balance and wine inclusivity.

 

Meet Cha McCoy

What sparked your love for wine and gastronomy?

Being raised by a foodie in a very diverse city like New York, it was easy to fall in love with foods from other cultures. My father went the extra mile to make sure that my brother and I were part of his food adventures and so we were exposed to restaurants at a very young age.

However, my passion for wine developed when I relocated to Italy. Wine and food is a religion [to Italians] so I felt at home and soon became an Italophile. Wine became part of my lifestyle.

Cha McCoy is a black female sommelier based in New York City

 

Walk us through your first wine memory…

I would say going to my first wine festival in Italy was very memorable. I went with other expats and just drank everything (rookie mistake). A friend recently shared a picture of that day. It felt like the perfect reason to live in Europe, nothing could go wrong!

 

You vocally encourage the ideas of ‘affordable luxury’ and ‘The Cha Life.’ Are both ideas synonymous?

Yes, they are. I think most of my life people assumed that anything I was wearing or eating or even doing was unaffordable. However, I grew up around people who were well dressed but who would travel to get the right deals. They were more interested in quality instead of brands.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Cha 2 Times (@cha_squared) on

My father used to sew a lot of his jackets and coats and get great quality materials. He’d add a touch of luxury to simple things, like a fur collar to a classic denim jacket.

I am the same way about food and wine. Living ‘the Cha Life’ (my personal philosophy) is about valuing quality over the sake of being “showy”. Some people eat, travel and make purchases just to show off to others. I make these decisions based on the quality of life I want to live.

 

What do you love most about wine culture?

As an avid traveller, wine is always the perfect souvenir. One glass of wine can remind me of my time in Barolo (Italy) driving around with my adopted zio (uncle) picking up fresh bufala (Buffalo mozzarella).

I also think of wine as an equalizer. When I am talking to people that are from a different tax bracket, they are usually impressed by my wine knowledge and travels; as it sometimes allows me to get the ear of someone who would [traditionally] count me out.

I also enjoy exploring the wine culture in New York City. Some of my favourites are Vinateria and Clay [both] in Harlem. Ten Bells is classic in the Lower East Side.

 

The black sommelier experience

As one of few, black female sommeliers in the world, have you encountered any situations where you were made acutely aware of your race and gender in the industry?

We are few, but we are out there. Most will probably be nameless unless they’ve passed the Court of Masters high-level exams, or they are an “O.G.” with experience in some of the top restaurant brands. This is not a role that black women traditionally hold in restaurants. I hope that my work also helps shed light on those who have been in this industry for years.

Cha McCoy, The Harlem Sommelier, New York

In New York, racism is not presented in the same way as other places within the US. However, I get a sense of it when establishments that I apply to, and meet all the requirements for their sommelier position, come up with excuses on why they think I am not a “good fit”.

I also see it when I pitch my services to wineries and wine organizations (to represent them for events) or brands that I know need services I provide, and they come up with reasons about why they are not interested.

So the struggle is real. I have to continue to be creative about making headway in this industry…by building my own table.

 

An image search for ‘wine drinkers’ will return only a handful of wine experiences where people of colour are represented. Do you think this lack of representation is problematic? If so, what steps are you taking to change the narrative?

That’s definitely problematic. The media typically depicts wine drinking as an exclusive experience.

I decided to become certified through various wine organizations so that I can add to the numbers of professionals who are people of colour. That’s one way I hope to dismantle the elitist views of wine experiences. 

A wine tasting event hosted by Cha McCoy

I curated The Communion (casual pop-up wine events she hosts around the world) with the same intentions. My events allow me to promote the knowledge and love for wine to others who identify with me. I’m also happy to do interviews with brands like yours that are open to sharing my message and story.

 

Sommelier and engineer – creating balance

You balance several career roles including construction project manager, CEO/Founder of Cha Squared Hospitality, and as a host for intimate wine experiences. Any plans to merge those roles together in the future? If so, how?

Wow, I rarely get asked this question. I do think that there are synergies as both a project manager and event organiser.

Constructing buildings or events both require the point person (and that’s me). I have a lot of experience in interfacing with multiple players, being the liaison, executing precision on ‘game day’, managing the process, and staying on time and on budget.

Since my two worlds do not directly relate to each other, I have to manage my personal brand carefully for me to continue to grow in the hospitality industry. That started with attending wine school, getting certifications, and hosting my own events. I didn’t wait for someone else to validate my goals.

The Communion, a wine and food pairing event by Cha McCoy

In future, I hope that I can expand into building out my own brick-and-mortar wine bar locations, wine stores and restaurants, as well as consulting for others who are looking to open their own establishments.

 

On wine tourism and industry trends

What is your favourite destination to visit for wine tourism and why?

I would say Portugal and more specifically the Douro River Valley Region. As someone who is equally passionate about wine as I am about tourism, I first think about high-quality wine that is accessible and then think about my interest in the city or location as a tourist.

Why you should visit Porto | Douro Valley

Porto to Pinhao by the train along the Douro is a very beautiful ride; with picturesque rolling hills of vineyards tracing the curve of the river. In Porto, you can be on the beach, have great seafood, enjoy the nightlife in the city, have a vineyard tour, and try high-quality wines which are affordable and historic.

Stellenbosch and Cape Town in South Africa are close second choices.

 

Who is making waves in the wine industry that we should keep our eyes on?

I would say watch for more Portuguese wines to hit the wine list in your favourite restaurants. Beyond the fortified wines, they have a lot to offer and are currently doing the work to get recognized for that it.

Why you should visit Porto | Port wine tasting at Sandeman, Douro Valley

Dona Dorinda out of Alentejo, Portugal are making great natural wines using French varietals. Also, Krista Scuggs is a winemaker and owner of ZAFA wines in Vermont. Her wines are getting great reviews!

 

What trends do you see now, and what changes do you foresee in the wine industry?

Natural, organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines are trendy topics but the average consumers are getting them confused. I think as more wine professionals promote these types of wines, we will have more educated consumers. If the demand increases, then the average winemaker will also start incorporating these practices into their winemaking process.

Cha McCoy teaches people about wine

New World wines (Chile, New Zealand) are getting great recognition and dare I say wines from the US State of Virginia. Eastern European wines from places like Georgia, Slovenia, and Croatia are making their way onto wine lists as well.

I hope to see more females and people of colour as winemakers. As an engineer, I am aware of the low representation of females and people of colour in STEM-related fields. Winemaking is very much science and math mixed with magic and romance. But you have to love agriculture and chemistry to love winemaking.

More Americans are drinking dry wines. Our palates are changing and though statistics show we tend to prefer more fruity flavours, I think we are seeing a change happening as we become more exposed and educated on wine styles.

 

What’s next for Cha McCoy?

What exciting events or collaborations do you have coming up?

In June 2019, my Communion event will be held in Portugal. I am excited to work with winemakers in Portugal and a chef that is doing great things in Lisbon.

A wine tasting event hosted by Cha McCoy

In addition, I will be representing Divai wines from Portugal at ProWien in Germany, one of the largest wine trade shows in the world. Hosting trips in Portugal and getting wine lovers to come and connect with me here in NYC is something I look forward to. I would love to help design their wine trip to any region in the world.

I am also open to collaborating with group trips to wine countries for organizations and customized groups. Everything else is still in the works. I’ll share more as everything gets confirmed, but you can anticipate more wine pairing events in the United States and abroad.

 

Fast forward 3-5 years from today. What does life look like for you?

I would say, completely working for my own company for starters. Having my own wine label established and a psychical location in both Portugal and New York where people can experience ‘The Cha Life’.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Cha 2 Times (@cha_squared) on

I have a book idea I need to get out within this time frame. I want to become an industry leader in wine, tourism and hospitality; contributing not only as a female or person of colour but because of my vision for these industries.

I want to continue to create communities in different cities around the world over food and wine. Food is the ultimate connector and wine just seals the deal. I want to continue bridging the gap between cultures using food and wine as the vehicle.

 

Sisters are doing it for themselves!

What is the main piece of advice that you would give to women who want to follow in your footsteps?

Start now. Break up your dream into small, obtainable pieces.

Believe in yourself. When I lived in Italy I never thought about taking wine seriously even when other people noticed I had a passion for it. It took years to believe hospitality and tourism were even professional options for me and that they were worth exploring and investing in.

Take small risks. I was not ready to quit my job, so while I worked a corporate office job, I negotiated with my boss to work hard all year and not come in for 7 weeks (during slow season).

It was a very difficult decision to even request this amount of time out of the office and to still expect a job when I returned. But I did it and spent my time exploring wine countries between Argentina and Chile–and even ended up getting paid my salary during the entire experience!

The Communion, a wine and food pairing event by Cha McCoy

To attend a Communion or to be informed about other events, sign up on Cha’s website, and follow her on Instagram @cha_squared.

 

We believe in drinking responsibly. If you would like to know more about how to do this, visit Drinkaware.co.uk

 

Pin This!

Cha McCoy, Black Female Sommelier, Wine Expert, Harlem, New York

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).