Wine is a $70 billion industry, but it tends to be dominated by white vineyard owners, vintners and sommeliers. Although Black people typically make up more than 10% of American wine consumers, less than 1% of wineries are Black-owned, according to a 2020 survey focused on Black wine entrepreneurs.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, however, two wine pros, including the state’s first Black sommelier, are breaking barriers by creating a space where all can feel welcome partaking in wine culture.
GRNoir is a Black-owned wine and live jazz bar in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. When husband-and-wife co-founders Shatawn and Nadia Brigham opened GRNoir during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, they joined a small but growing presence of Black-owned hospitality establishments in the city.
They offer live jazz music that gives a cozy, relaxing experience to patrons with primarily duos, trios, quartets and spoken word artists. The menu features dishes named after jazz greats — such as “Dizzy’s Brisket Chili” (after Dizzy Gillespie), “Coltrane’s Crab Cakes” (after John Coltrane), and “Billie’s Brussels” (after Billie Holiday).
They also have a wine club — a savvy pivot during stay-at-home periods. GR Noir has a private-label wine collaboration with Chateau Chantal — a winery and inn located in Traverse City, Michigan. Some wine names are also inspired by jazz greats like The Red Monk, (after Thelonious Monk) a red blend with red cherry, raspberry and strawberry notes and a Select Harvest Riesling with aromas of peach, apricot, pear and green apple. Bottles come with an exclusive jazz playlist curated by Shatawn Brigham, who is now a Level II Sommelier certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust through Napa Valley Academy.
The GRNoir founders pose outside their wine and jazz bar. (Photo courtesty of GRNoir)
“We had no trends to pull from, so [we] relied on our mentors and coaches, as well as transferable knowledge from our careers to make adjustments where necessary,” Shatawn says.
The Brighams didn’t qualify for PPP or restaurant support, but eventually found a financial partner in the CDFI Northern Initiatives. Shatawn and Nadia felt immediately understood when they reached out after winning a startup pitch through a local initiative called Start Garden.
“After winning Start Garden’s 100 Ideas, Northern Initiative was the first more traditional investor in our vision,” Shatawn says. “They didn’t bat an eye. We presented our vision, they caught it, and supported us in making it a reality. And since, have been supportive in ensuring we are successful during the pandemic.”
Elissa Sangalli, president and CEO of the CDFI Northern Initiatives in Marquette, Michigan, says GRNoir is already an asset to Grand Rapids.
“They offer a unique service to the community that was worth investing in, even as the business had to continually adjust its model throughout the pandemic,” Sangalli says. “They’ve worked hard to craft a wine and jazz club that’s truly a community center.”
This isn’t the Brighams first go at creating a business together. The couple co-founded Brigham Consulting, LLC in 2019, and have used their background in presenting concepts to the public and bringing people together. Shatawn has a master’s degree in educational leadership, which he says he now applies by educating their customers about wine, and Nadia’s background is in philanthropy and equity and leadership training.
Their expertise prepared them well to weather the huge learning curve of opening GRNOIR — from shelf life and preserving beverages to finding the right music and programming to serve their local clientele.
The Brighams have big goals for the future, including expanding the field of Black wine and jazz professionals, as well as growing their wine club and events. In every element of their work, however, the community is prioritized.
“[Our goal is] giving people an experience that extends from the essence of who we are as a family and community,” Shatawn says. “An experience that exudes excellence, warmth, love and belonging. It’s not just wine and jazz, but it’s how we do wine and jazz that sets us apart.”
This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at capnexus.org.
Hadassah Patterson has written for news outlets for more than a decade, contributing for seven years to local online news and with 15 years of experience in commercial copywriting. She currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.