Lashonda Modest opened Melanated Wine in August and hopes to remove preconceived notions of minority culture, one sip at a time
By Hannah Lee | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Lashonda Modest had little to no experience in the wine industry (outside of the occasional glass she’d drink in the evenings). She spent the first decade of her professional career working as a researcher in life sciences. Eventually, the wine connoisseur couldn’t help but do some research of her own on her favorite wind-down beverage of choice.
What she discovered shocked her.
“In the wine industry, women – there are so few of us,” Lashonda says. “African American women – it’s so few of us. I was like, ‘But why?’ I was curious and really wanted to figure out what I could do.”
What she ended up doing was opening Melanated Wine, Durham’s first woman-owned, Black-owned winery, this past August.
Black-owned wineries account for less than 1% of all wineries in the U.S., while Black people often make up more than 10% of American wine consumers, according to “Terroir Noir: 2020 Study of Black Wine Entrepreneurs” published by Monique Bell, a professor at California State University, Fresno. Black women? They make up an even smaller fraction of that miniscule number.
But that didn’t deter Lashonda. She comes from a lineage of entrepreneurs – she kindly remembers her late grandfather making pork sausage and selling it to neighbors in Illinois. “He was the inspiration behind our family [restaurant] that’s still open 20 years later,” she says. She, too, received that gumptious gene. That drive, in combination with her prior work experience, was the perfect base to propel her newfound passion.
Before Lashonda could even dive into developing her business, though, she had to learn how. That meant applying for permits with the state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Commission, finding a brick-and-mortar location – on Industry Lane, just a short drive from the Southpoint area – and, you know, building a business model. At first, that was to focus on e-commerce.
“It was like, ‘OK, we don’t need a facility that’s too big,’” Lashonda says. “We need something where we can store all our wines, and we’re just going to be on a computer shipping across the states. That quickly changed. … Wine is one of those things where people want to taste before they buy.”
And did they ever. Lashonda already had that idea in the back of her mind, but Melanated Wine’s grand opening in October confirmed it; she anticipated 60 people showing up that day… and wound up serving several hundred.
Much of her early success, she says, stems from quickly-developed relationships with several local vineyards and wineries. For example, she works directly with the popular Childress Vineyards for both production and bottling. The Yadkin Valley Wine Country, which constitutes the wineries in seven central North Carolina counties, is another group that provides Lashonda with high-end local options.
“The people, the wineries, vineyards and all the owners, they are amazing,” she says. “They have welcomed me with open arms. Had I gone anywhere else or decided to put my business anywhere else outside of North Carolina, I don’t know if I would have had that [support].”
The support, naturally, has been essential. But doing what she enjoys is, too. Who wouldn’t want to sample 100 varietals, or types, of wine in the process of developing their signature flavors? Of the current four offerings Lashonda has, her go-to is the riesling “Manifest.” It’s a crisp, semisweet wine that reflects her aspirations for the future of the company and beyond – which, importantly, includes her hopes for her 5-year-old and 11-year-old daughters.
“I’m all about creating generational wealth,” Lashonda says, “and starting that for my family.” She holds out the bottle and paraphrases a quote she once heard: “Your manifestation can be an inspiration to a generation.”
“We have to continue to dream,” she adds.
The three other varietals Melanated Wine offers – a white blend, a red blend and a white sangria – have similarly inspiring names, all with stories behind them. And a fifth varietal could be well on its way. Lashonda hosted a tasting for Melanated Wine VIP members in January to play around with a few ideas. Expect an announcement this spring.
And, more urgently, stock up. The bulk production shipment Lashonda received in November is already running low – the white sangria, especially, is flying off the shelves. After just a few months in business, people already come from as far as Virginia asking for it.
The affordable wine, but also the tastings and Saturday paint-and-sip events, are all the more reason to stay and imbibe. The inside features a stylish wall dressed in faux greenery and twinkling fairy lights. There’s also a permanent ring light, which begs for photo-ops. It’s all part of the fun-loving, educational experience that Lashonda promotes. She wants customers to feel connected to the brand and remove those preconceived notions of minority culture. Hence, Melanated Wine’s slogan: “Uncork the culture.”
“It’s a pretty heavy load to carry me in as the first woman-owned, Black-owned wine brand here in Durham,” Lashonda says. “I don’t take it lightly, and I feel honored.”