Regine Rousseau is what you would call a “Renaissance Woman.” She is a wine connoisseur, entrepreneur, author and art collector. Born in Haiti, Regine moved to Chicago when she was 10-years-old, and it is here where she has imprinted herself in the Chicago food and beverage scene as a wine expert and the owner of the wine, spirits and beer tasting company, Shall We Wine.
It was during a study abroad excursion to Besançon, France that introduced Rousseau to the allure of the wine world. On one very ordinary day, she traveled to the home of her host’s father for a simple dinner. There upon the table were several bottles of Bordeaux through which they tasted as the host’s father described each one to her over the course of their meal. Thus began her love affair with wine.
After she returned to the U.S., Rousseau’s wine hobby quickly turned into a passion and then eventually into a career — though not through the traditional route, “Restaurant work … [was] not my thing.” Instead, Rousseau jumped into wine sales as an account manager for Direct Import Wines, going on to build a successful career in sales that would lay the foundation for her tasting company, Shall We Wine. She knew that she loved wine, that she loved interacting with consumers and thought about her talents in management, sales, and working with people. “I figured if I could get people to do that then I’d have a business. I noticed a lot of people doing demos who didn’t know enough. So when I went in to pitch a client, I knew the language.”
It is this level of excellence that Rousseau believes is critical for black men and women looking to make their own mark in the wine industry. “… there has to be an understanding of the level of excellence [needed] to get in until someone else can open the door for you. It has to be super, super high because that’s what they’re looking for and that’s the only way.”
Finding someone to open that door is what Rousseau believes to be one of the major barriers that black men and women encounter as they try to make their way into the wine industry, “A lot of [African-Americans] who are interested in wine don’t know anybody in the wine business or they don’t know who to ask or they don’t know all the opportunities,” Rousseau says. “So there’s a huge barrier — exposure — I like this, I’m interested in this, so who do I talk to and how do I even start?”
Rousseau is hoping that the recent conversations about the lack of national and local attention on black men and women in the food and beverage industry helps to change this. In September of 2017, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, one of the leading wine publications in the U.S., presented its list of the “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers.” None of the 40 men and women in their list included an African-American and it did not go unnoticed.
Wine writer, Sabrina Jackson, then presented her list of "40 African-American Tastemakers" which included Rousseau and 39 other black men and women across the globe. “We’re completely ignored which … drives me crazy,” admits Rousseau. “I realized I’m so conditioned to not seeing black people that when I read these articles … I don’t even think about it until somebody says, ‘Where [are] the black people?’”
When asked what she thought contributed to this imbalance of media representation, Rousseau said, “We’re ignored partly because I think the publications don’t see us as important. And we’re also ignored because we’re not in the sphere where the conversation is happening.” It doesn’t help that there is an abundance of stereotypes surrounding black consumers of wine, “We only like sweet wines and we won’t spend any money and that is not true.”
But as for her experience as a black woman in the industry, Rousseau says that her experience in Chicago has lacked the challenges that others she knows of have faced. She believes that continuing to do the work of understanding wine and investing in her learning is crucial to her success. Rousseau encourages other black people looking to get into the industry to also be dedicated to their formal education in wine, “… if you’re African-American and interested in this business, you have to be very specific in saying ‘This is what I want,’ so you can find people to support that. And the support comes through education. Once people see that you are actually taking the time to study everything, the game changes. They begin to take you more seriously.”
In addition to continuing to grow Shall We Wine’s presence nationally, Rousseau will be presenting at the Blacks in Wine Symposium alongside other tastemakers and winery owners and winemakers such as Larry Boone of Boone Selections and André Mack of Maison Noir Wines. Rousseau is also releasing a new edition her book of poetry titled, “Cloves and Lillies: The Wine Edition” in February of 2018. A trip to Spain last year resulted in a conversation with The World Wine Guys who encouraged her to pair each of her poems with a wine. “It’s been such a cool project because it’s helped to look at wine from an emotions standpoint. It’s helped me to explore wine in the way that consumers do.”
What else is next for this lady maverick of wine? “I’d love to be on the cover of Black Enterprise,” Rousseau says, swirling her glass of Brown Estate Cabernet*. “I’m just in my space, doing my thing, trying to take over the wine world.”
*Brown Estate is the first and only African-American owned estate winery in Napa Valley.