She hopes to create community with every pour.
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zwann grays sommelier
Credit: Courtesy of Zwann Grays

Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.

If you ask wine lovers what their favorite varietals are, they probably have a few they can name right off the bat. Zwann Grays, a wine educator and sommelier, certainly can, thanks to her 10-plus years in the industry and longstanding fascination with wine geography. She originally became acquainted with wine through books—she liked combing through the food, wine, and travel sections when she worked at Barnes and Noble.

Later, while she worked in media, she took a side gig at a local wine shop in New York City—and then turned her gaze towards restaurants. "After some years in restaurants and wine retail, I remember making a decision that I was going to be a sommelier after watching Lee Campbell work the floor as a sommelier and wine director," she says.

Grays worked her way up and became the wine director at the Olmsted in Brooklyn, N.Y., just before COVID-19 lockdowns shuttered the New York City food scene. When she was furloughed, she wound up in Los Angeles. "During this time, it was all about connecting via screens—and from there came virtual wine tastings," she says.

As the pandemic eased, the sommelier began hosting wine tastings in Downtown Los Angeles with some help from her friends and industry contacts. When she returned to New York, she realized how much she had missed the regulars at the Olmsted—but treasured the network she had established in California, too. So, she decided to create a community that could be accessed from any coast, by anyone: She launched Zwann's Wine Club on Juneteenth in 2021 as a way to connect virtually with her friends and fellow wine enthusiasts. 

zwann grays sommelier
Credit: Courtesy of Zwann Grays

Tapping Her Network 

Thanks to her decade-long tenure in the wine industry, Grays established a network that would help her create her own wine club. She tapped a mentor and friend to figure out the details and logistics, including how many bottles she wanted to provide, the price point, and the frequency of the offerings.

From there, Grays launched on Instagram and sent out an email blast to kick-start the venture. She prioritized education with each delivery, including links, tasting notes, and pictures of the vineyards where the wines' grapes were grown. "We started with a $160 monthly six-pack/half case of wine hand-delivered or set for pick up," she says. "The theme would range from whatever creative space or wine style that I was into or a region that had my eye." 

With COVID-19 restrictions letting up, Grays is now reimagining Zwann's Wine Club 2.0 to continue creating a community through wine. 

self-made-zwann-grays-cana-glass-1122
Credit: Courtesy of Zwann Grays

Making Elevated Glassware

As a sommelier, Grays knows how wine should be served—but noticed that she and her friends didn't have matching glasses or ones that felt elevated enough in style. To solve this problem, she created The Cana Glass, a stemless piece of glassware that appeals to everyone, from wine professionals to the everyday vino drinker. The sommelier's product can hold cocktails, neat pours, spirits, and soft drinks, too.

During the design phase, she knew she wanted to make a durable glass with a heavier base that could withstand regular wear and tear; it also needed to be easy to hold and unlock aromas of the wine itself. "With wine and spirits in mind, I created a stemless glass that had a wave effect at the base of the glass to invoke movement," says Grays. Every piece is hand-blown in Oakland, Calif., so each one is unique—a small piece of art.

Toasting to the Changemaker

Ultimately, the sommelier wants to challenge the definition of "good wine"—and believes that delicious wine should also be kind to the earth. "It seems there is an undying skepticism to natural and biodynamic wines," she says. "As we dig deeper into agriculture and sustainability, a lot of wineries are already making the move into these practices."

She hopes that she can educate others to expand their horizons beyond the type of wine offered at grocery or liquor stores. "Smaller producers, usually found in smaller wine shops, offer a deeper and more holistic approach to the winemaking practice," she says. Sipping on these vintners' wines, she says, leads to a better experience if a consumer is open to it.

Business Insights

Grays recommends trusting your process when creating a business. "So many unknown hurdles will show up in the path of your journey," she says. Leveraging the learning process early on will only make jumping over each blockade easier next time, she adds.

Down the line, Grays has her sights set on creating a wine label and bar—and hopes to one day have the freedom to visit vineyards around the world and bring new knowledge of all things vino back to her stateside community.

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