Justin Harrison is the owner of Vino Lovers. (Photo courtesy of Justin Harrison)
While many people dream of becoming true wine connoisseurs, it does not happen overnight. With over 36 billion bottles of wine produced worldwide each year, many people do not even know where to begin. Imagine, then, if there was a club where you could experience a wide variety of wines, beginning with those you would love most, based on everyday preferences, from how you take your coffee, to the smell of your favorite flower or most tantalizing aroma. What’s more, once your perfect wines are selected, they’re shipped right to your doorstep.
E-commerce site, Vinolovers.com makes this possible. Launched in Washington, D.C., in 2014, the platform was created by Justin Harrison who gained inspiration from his mother. “She had an interest in wine and she’d do events that brought people together around wine, and have them learn about it with friends and family eating good food,” Harrison, told the AFRO in a recent interview.
These intimate occasions began in 2005 and continued for five years. Harrison attended to assist his mother until he caught the wine bug himself. “Realizing there weren’t a lot of African Americans in the wine space, I was intrigued and I thought it would be a differentiation if I decided to get into it,” he said.
Harrison began his journey to expand the family business in California. He took courses at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena where he learned about the wine industry from production and distribution standpoints. He then went to Boston to attend Babson College, where he received his MBA in 2011. Finally, he became a sommelier with a certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
While it’s difficult to choose a favorite, Harrison’s most memorable experience with wine occurred while at the Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. “The founder of the winery opened up his private cellar and gave us one of his reserved cabernets, and that was something that really made everything click for me,” he said.
Professionally, Harrison has worked in the retail and restaurant industries helping others learn about wine, before getting back to the family business. Witnessing the trend in e-commerce startups, he conceptualized the Vino Lovers model that exists today. After about a year of logistics, cases of wine began their distribution to homes across the country.
During the summer of 2014, another element was added to the model as a way to bring D.C. residents together and more customers to the business that was still in its bootstrap stage. “We started doing the Vino Fest festival as a means to bring a diverse group of people together around wine, food, music and culture and to give people a very unique experience that they don’t find at other wine festivals,” said Harrison.
African-American soul artist Jesse Boykins III headlined the inaugural event last year, which drew in 1,800 people. A few months after the success of Vino Fest, the company was one of eight recipients of the Digital DC Tech Fund, presented by then-mayor Vincent Gray.
“That funding gave us an opportunity to retool our business model in a way that was more efficient,” said Harrison, who re-launched the platform in December 2014. It now has nearly 200 subscribers.
The second annual Vino Fest will commence in D.C. this May, and a spring festival in Columbus, Ohio, is also in the works.
While the road has been long, “you try to do the best you can and make a good business,” said Harrison.
And like fine wine, it only gets better with time.
To learn more about VinoLovers and VinoFest, visit www.vinofest.com.