Two Black female wine entrepreneurs breaking boundaries in Mid-Atlantic wine scene
For Kimberly T. Johnson, winery ownership began with a much less complicated mission— free admission into some of Maryland’s biggest wine festivals by working as a volunteer.
At the time, her career was rooted in finance and accounting, but it took one “horrible day” at her full-time job to prompt a call to her best friend, Denise Matthews. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m so tired of this mess. Do you want to start a winery with me?’ And she said, ‘Yes, sure.’”
That conversation triggered the beginning of Philosophy Winery, what the founders call a ‘mobile boutique’ wine business: Johnson and Matthews sell their wines at farmers markets, festivals, and online, as well as make home deliveries.
Philosophy is the first Black-owned winery in the Maryland, and one of just two in the whole mid-Atlantic.
And when the director of the Maryland Wineries Association told Johnson that Philosophy is also the first fully female-owned winery in the state—she was “floored.”
“It’s 2021, you know? It’s not 1957,” she says.
Johnson says one of her most influential role models is fellow female wine-entrepreneur, Lisa Baker Hinton, who runs Old Westminster Winery with siblings Ashli and Drew. Located 35 miles northwest of Baltimore, Old Westminster is acknowledged as one of the East Coast’s top producers—and Hinton one of region’s best winemakers. “It has been great learning to make wine from a female,” Johnson says. “She is, like, my hero.”
Johnson, a Baltimore City native, joined Hilton when Old Westminster Winery was first established in 2013. She worked in every facet of the business’s operations: “It was all-hands on deck because they were so small at the time,” Johnson remembers. She’s still employed at the Baltimore winery part time while she continues online classes through UC Davis for her winemaker certificate.
Matthews, also raised in Baltimore, is training as a sommelier.
“Kim and her partner Denise are not only making history, they’re making incredible wines,” says Lisa Baker’s brother and business partner, Drew Baker. “It’s been amazing to watch her develop from an employee into a peer. I’m really proud of her.”
In time, Johnson says, she and Matthews would love to have their own brick-and-mortar establishment. “Ideally, what we want to do, is grow into having a tasting room and fermentation area,” she says, “I’ll make wine and [Denise] will serve and talk about the wines we have.”
Today, Philosophy’s portfolio includes a Viognier and a Cabernet Franc, with a new vintage of rosé on the way. Sales, Johnson says, have been pretty good over the past year, less affected by the pandemic than those with tasting rooms. Changes in the law allowed them to deliver wines to homes. “That was actually the best thing for us,” she says. “We were bombarded with orders.”
Beyond selling their wines at several local events and festivals, the owners have also established connections at a couple of Baltimore-based independent wine shops, including Off The Rox, Serenity Wine Cafe and The Wine Collective. The latter is an urban winery, located in a former Sears warehouse, that recently opened its doors this past July, 2021. It hosts a collection of Baltimore businesses, including several artisan craft winemakers like Philosophy.
Not only are Philosophy’s wines produced here, with a hand from The Wine Collective’s owner and consulting winemaker, John Levenberg, but it’s also featured and sold on-premise the first Tuesday of every month.
“We share the equipment and [John] consults us on how the wine is made,” Johnson says. “I personally source out grapes, work with our different vineyards here in Maryland. And every step that John makes, we work together.”
”I believe Kimberly and Denise represent Maryland’s growing and diversifying wine industry,” says Levenberg. “As they continue to hone their craft, I see them developing into a successful and sought-after Maryland winery.”
That winery may be mobile—at least for now—but Philosophy’s winemaking philosophy is firmly rooted: “An expression of two purpose-driven women’s love of wisdom, passion of wine & spirit of service.” A quote found on every label.
Johnson says she and her partner chose the name Philosophy “because of who [Denise] and I are, our personalities. We tossed around so many names, but Philosophy stuck because we live by a specific way of living, a code.”
Who they are will help push what they are trying to do—draw more Black wine business owners into the industry. Many are sommeliers, Johnson comments, “but no one has taken this next step.”
To help close that void, Johnson and Matthews select one young Black woman each vintage with an interest in either the wine industry or Maryland agriculture to mentor throughout the entire grape growing and winemaking process.
“It’s a really wonderful experience to give back to someone all that that has been given to me,” Johnson says, “to someone who looks like me.”
Paul Vigna is a writer and editor in Harrisburg, Pa., who has been covering East Coast wines for 10 years. He was the first winner of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association’s Birchenall Award in February 2018. You can find him at the Wine Classroom at www.pennlive.com and follow him on Twitter @pierrecarafe