They say it’s hard to be what you can’t see, but when it comes to wine, building a diverse industry is about more than breaking barriers for the next generation of winemakers — it’s the key to evolving palates and expanding wine’s consumer base, according to Oenoverse co-founder Reggie Leonard.

Highlighting and encouraging diversity throughout the wine world is a labor of love for Leonard, who leads career development at the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science. He was 22 when he tasted his first tipple after noticing how much wine people were drinking in Italian films. “I also heard you could cook with wine, so bought some Yellowtail Cab Sauv to see what flavor profiles it would add to food. I licked some from the spoon and hated it!”

Meanwhile, Leonard became interested in the Mafia throughout his youth. “I would get Garfield comics and Mafia biographies from the library,” he says. “I think what really fascinated me was organization and networks.”

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Today, it’s the power of his own networks that is helping transform the wine scene in Virginia and beyond. As co-founder of Blenheim Vineyards’ inclusive wine club Oenoverse, he helped launch last October’s inaugural Two Up Wine Down festival, which spotlighted BIPOC wine professionals, enthusiasts, and allies in Virginia.

Leonard spoke to VinePair about what he finds special about Virginia wine, how the pandemic helped promote diversity in the region, and why something as simple as music can help break barriers.

1. How did you get into wine following your unfavorable first taste?

I moved to Charlottesville in 2015, where Market Street Wine ran wine tastings. Being an ambivert, I knew I’d skew introverted if I didn’t make myself do things, and free wine tastings were an easy way to get out of the house. They would talk about smell and taste and I would think, “I don’t taste violets and oak; I taste bitter or sweet.” But eventually, I started noticing nuance in taste, which piqued my interest.

I also watched this YouTube video of chef-turned-rapper Action Bronson eating amazing food and drinking wine in electric-looking colors in Paris. I went to Market Street Wine to ask if they had wines from the episode, then had a friend chip in on a $55 bottle of 2016 Munjabel Bianco by Frank Cornelissen. I fell in love and dove into natural wine.

2. What was the Virginia wine scene like at that point?

There’s a big vineyard called King Family Vineyards and in summer, they have free horse polo matches where women wear flowy sundresses and floppy hats and guys are in linen. That was my visual representation of Virginia wine — this fancy, old, Southern hospitality vibe.

Virginia wine wasn’t known to be great. Our red was definitely not great, white wine was better, and Viognier was Virginia’s grape — those were the messages being pushed out by folks. What really opened my eyes to Virginia wine was attending my first seated wine tasting at Market Street Wine, where Ben Jordan and Maya Hood White presented wines from Early Mountain and Lightwell Survey. I did a similar tasting with Blenheim Vineyards. Those set me onto exploring Virginia wine.

3. Were there many BIPOC producers in Virginia at the time?

I didn’t know of any, but during the pandemic, I discovered Wine Unify and applied to do my WSET Level 1 through their Welcome Initiative. I was paired with mentors including Julia Coney, who started Black Wine Professionals. It was my first time seeing Black folks in the space in Virginia.

[During] the pandemic, Clubhouse was popular and there were chat rooms with Black wine professionals and people from various ethnic and underrepresented backgrounds in wine. I got connected with a whole new community. It was incredible seeing how many people of color have been in the industry a long time, but not highlighted. That coincided with more Black celebrities getting into wine, which helped raise the profile of BIPOC people enjoying wine.

It also coincided with organizations like Wine Unify, The Roots Fund, The Veraison Project, and The Hue Society helping more opportunities to work in wine emerge.

4. Did movements like Black Lives Matter and the subsequent support of Black-owned businesses help BIPOC professionals have a stronger impact?

Yes. Those conversations lit a fire under industry folks to create more opportunity. Allies, who might not have been from those underrepresented communities, also saw that need for more representation. People started pooling resources to get more people of color in the industry. I’ve seen people leave other industries and join the wine industry between 2020 and now.

5. What do you think BIPOC producers bring to the industry?

Research shows a diversity of perspectives yields the best outcomes at a net level in any industry. Expanding market segments is good for business.

Ben Jordan and his brother Tim have a project, Common Wealth Crush. They’re developing a custom crush facility and wine incubator to incubate new wine projects in Virginia because they believe the more diversity of people we have making wine, the more we can see what Virginia wine looks like and the further it will go. Walsh Family Wines is similarly incubating wine projects in Northern Virginia.

6. How does having a diverse array of producers affect consumers’ wine experiences?

In addition to the wine potentially having an expanded array of tastes, it influences the way we pair wine. There are so many different cuisines being introduced into the pairing lexicon.

And my own mother was telling me, “I was concerned when you got into wine because my only reference for alcohol is people taking it too far. But you’ve shown me a different side. I hear you appreciating the nuances and it’s making me want to try things.” It’s wild that I introduced my mom to wine! I also have friends who say, “I don’t usually drink wine, but I’ve tasted things you’ve given me; they’re good.” The more people we have in this space, the more people will enter it.

7. What are the challenges or barriers that BIPOC winemakers and consumers face?

I grew up listening to hip hop and R&B, and that’s what I listen to when I’m drinking with friends. But when I walk into a winery, I don’t hear the music I’m used to listening to, whether it’s live music or Spotify. I hear singer-songwriter music or bluegrass. They’re playing music to create an ambiance, and I’m walking into an ambiance that isn’t reflective of my experience. Things like that are barriers, where even the context that wine is in isn’t a context some folks are used to.

The language of wine can also be a barrier. Often, it’s elitist. Sweet wine, hybrid grapes, and co-ferments are second class to vinifera. Those are unnecessary barriers because you shouldn’t have to like wines [that are seen as higher class].

In terms of BIPOC winemakers — being historically marginalized, you don’t grow up with your parents hoping you’ll work manual labor in a vineyard, especially given the history of manual labor for Black folks. That’s a mental barrier because many parents want their children to have corporate careers. Aspiring to a career in wine sales isn’t something they’ll necessarily think about.

Part of what we learned in Wine Unify was, “What are some jobs in wine?” because it’s like, “I know there’s a winemaker and I see people pouring it in the tasting room, so there’s those jobs. But what else can I do in wine?” There’s a lack of vision with what tangible wine careers look like.

8. What’s surprising or underrated about Virginia wine?

What excites me so much is that it’s so uncharted. There’s a spirit of pioneering and exploration. We have people growing Mencia, Garganega, and Albariño. Petit Manseng is my favorite white grape here. There are cool things happening with hybrids.

If you’re a winemaker interested in experimenting, Virginia’s a great place. Part of that experimentation comes from necessity because you can’t trust the weather. Last weekend, it was unseasonably warm and today, it’s [in the] low 30s. So many winemakers have made wine in France or California, but they chose to build their careers here because of the challenge Virginia presents and the compelling wines coming out of this region.

9. Who are some of your favorite Virginia producers?

Early Mountain, Midland, Walsh Family Wine, Blenheim, Ankida Ridge. I love what Grace Estate’s doing with new winemaker Robbie, and I love Stinson’s sparkling wines, like their sparkling Mourvèdre. Lightwell Survey Wines are super fun.

10. How did Oenoverse come about?

I co-founded it with Tracey Love at Blenheim Vineyards because people of color working in wine in Virginia weren’t getting invited to give talks and tastings. We wanted to highlight them so we chose several to curate a 4-pack of wine. This evolved into the Oenoverse Club, with events hosted by each winemaker. It’s one of those wine clubs where you walk in and hear hip hop, R&B, and reggae! It’s a way to onboard folks into their first wine club and make wine more accessible.

We also did Oeno Camp, modeled after Oregon Pinot Camp, to invite influencers to come learn about Virginia wine. We capped that off with Two Up Wine Down, a festival with our Oenoverse Club hosts. It was tables full of people of color pouring wine, discussing wine and [sharing] knowledge about Virginia wine. Oenoverse is about making Virginia wine more inclusive, and the festival felt that way.

11. What are you working on for 2023?

We’re partnering with The Veraison Project to bring more people from out of state to learn about Virginia wine in April, and we’re doing a bigger, better Two Up Wine Down Festival in October. We’ll also be doing pop-up events throughout Charlottesville, and we’re in talks with the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center about a series of events.

We’re also looking at partnerships with different wine regions and bringing on ambassadors who share this vision of a more diverse Virginia wine scene.

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