It’s no secret that when it comes to the wine game, most of the players are white men. But twin sisters Nichelle and Nicole Nichols are on a mission to change that and bring a lot more Black folks with them. If the name sounds familiar, actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Nyota Uhura on Star Trek is their aunt.
The Nichols sisters launched their brand, The Guilty Grape in 2020 with a mission of bringing “inclusivity, culture, and luxury back into every bottle.”
The Root had a chance to catch up with Nicole and Nichelle to learn more about how they turned their love of wine into a successful business.
Note: They definitely did that cute twin talk thing, where they finished each others sentences during this interview. This made it a lot of fun, but incredibly hard to keep up with who was speaking. So to make it simple, we’re just going to attribute all of the quotes to both of them!
It All Started With a Tasting
While working in corporate America, the twin sisters and Chicago natives couldn’t help but feel like they weren’t about that life. “We would go to our 9 to 5s and get hives because it just didn’t feel right,” they said.
They’d always loved visiting the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma to taste and learn about wine. But it was a 2015 invitation to a tasting from well-known Black winemakers, the McBride Sisters, that inspired Nicole and Nichelle to start making wine of their own. “That was the first time we saw Black women represented in the industry,” they said. “We never even thought it was possible as a career until we saw them. It was our aha moment.”
The Nichols say they wanted to soak up as much knowledge as possible. So they didn’t waste time forging a relationship with the more experienced winemakers. “We emailed them within 48 hours asking them to be our mentors, and it was off to the races from there.” Nichelle and Nicole began putting the pieces of their plan in motion.
“That was really what helped us form the basis of our company – the mission, the name, the purpose behind it,” they said. “They got us developing the thought process behind the Guilty Grape.”
Ready, Set, Reset
The Nichols launched their brand with a wine cocktail box. But they felt like something was missing. So when the COVID pandemic hit, they took time to hit the reset button. Nicole and Nichelle knew they had an opportunity to make a name for themselves in a white male-dominated industry, and they wanted to get it right.
“We didn’t want to sit back and procrastinate on our dreams when people were losing their lives. We thought it was the perfect time to get started,” they said.
Without finances, a business plan, or a family business to inherit, the sisters jumped in with both feet. “It’s easy to take a risk when it’s two crazy people,” they laugh. “So we pitched our idea to our family and friends and asked them for help.”
A Different Flavor
The sisters knew they wanted to offer the Black community something different with their wine. “The wine industry pushes a lot of sweet-flavored wines off on us, and our palettes are more diverse than that,” they said. “If you aren’t used to drinking red wine, the tannins can be overwhelming. So we wanted to create a Cabernet Sauvignon that was approachable.” And the result was a success. “Black people who say they don’t normally like red wine tell us they like ours.” The Peach Mango Bubbly is the brand’s bestselling variety. “We didn’t want it to be as sweet as a Moscato. You can drink it on its own or add juice or a spirit and make it a cocktail.”
In addition to making good wine, the Nichols want to help their customers have a better understand of what they were drinking. “We did our homework because we wanted to educate our consumers on the culture of wine and where the wine comes from,” they said. Part of that education includes a QR code on their packaging that gives customers information about the grape varietal, proper serving temperature, and pairing recommendations.
All of that information, Nicole and Nichelle say, helps their customers feel confident, rather than confused when they look at a wine list. “We want them to be confident, so when they sit down at a table, they can say, ‘Give me that wine list. I got this.’”
A Wine-Loving Lifestyle
Looking ahead, the Nichols say they want to be more than just winemakers. They’re out to create a whole wine-loving lifestyle. And part of that includes producing glasses and decanters that give their customers the best flavor and lets them sip in style. “We wanted to make something that stands out on your table or your bar cart and makes other people take notice.”
They also hope to expand their varietals and lean into more collaborations, including loungewear. And they say they’ve got their eyes on Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage X Fenty as a dream partnership. “We don’t just want to sell a bottle of wine. We want people to have the best experience possible.”