While many in the wine industry have spent the past year searching for ways to broaden wine’s audience, Jermaine Stone has been doing exactly that.
As part of Wine & Hip Hop TV—his most recent brainchild for bringing fine wine to his community—the Bronx native spent the last few months canvassing New York neighborhoods with his friend and producer, Terrence Riley. In this new show, called Tasting Notes from the Streets, the two pair great bottles with street food and talk music with hip hop and wine industry personalities.
An early episode features the pair drinking German Spätburgunder with Jamaican beef patties in the Bronx. It brings high-production visuals to the party and is scheduled to air in June (the Wines of Germany trade group is a partner). “We spoke to the people there who gave us some insight into the history of the patties and they were perfect with the wine,” says Stone. “It’s all about us exposing our community to a world that they didn’t know existed. I didn’t grow up drinking German wine.”
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There are Vibrations and Libations playlists on the Wine And Hip Hop website including one called “Stay Off The Streets,” put together for “people who insisted on going out and acting like COVID didn’t exist,” Stone explains. Wine Barz is a fun bro-fest, during which Stone, Riley, consulting producer Jerome Fenton and sommelier John “Vino” Martinez debate and vote on who has found the best rap lyrics that reference wine. Stone recently won with this from rapper Black Thought, who founded The Roots with Questlove:
I’m Jean Paul Gaultier, Tom Ford, and Cartier
Self-made, A fly vintage from the sommelier
As a teenager Stone was a rising hip hop artist and later became a fine-wine auction hand for Zachys and Wally’s Wine & Spirits of Los Angeles. Today he is a visionary entrepreneur who sits atop an ambitious empire called Cru Luv Selections, a consulting and marketing firm that blends the worlds of wine and hip hop.
Wine and hip hop is a genre Stone pretty much created in 2016. Today there’s The Original Wine & Hip Hop podcast, which features Stone talking with a music or wine personality about a wine or song they’ve selected, and the pairings he makes with their choices. Wine & Hip Hop TV, which he describes as “the podcast on steroids,” utilizes video recorded during the podcasts. Wine & Hip Hop Live is streamed to viewers via Zoom. In March for Women’s History Month, Stone invited viewers to purchase a German Riesling and drink along as he talked wine and culture with actress and entertainment producer Yandy Smith-Harris, star of the Love and Hip Hop reality show.
Virtually all of these artful mash-ups of hip hop and fine wine come with a parental advisory because of the language. It is hip hop and the discussion is about an adult beverage, Stone reasons with a husky laugh. Everything is available on YouTube, Zoom, the Wine & Hip Hop website, and streaming platforms like Spotify, Stitcher, and Pandora. Stone says he hopes one day to work with Amazon.
“A bottle of wine is to share, and it’s the same thing with music,” says Stone. “These are things that you want to share and experience with people, and they both have a way of connecting people from different walks of life. Rappers paint pictures with their lyrics. If you think about it, sommeliers do that when they create wine lists; they give you metaphors for tastes.”
America’s Greatest Export
When Stone was 19 and an aspiring rapper who was already getting noticed in that world (he’d made appearances on XM Radio, BET, and Hot 97, and was on LL Cool J’s radar), he took a summer job to earn money for college moving packages in the warehouse of wine retailer Zachys in Westchester County, NY. His supervisors saw he was a fast learner and hard worker so they promoted him steadily, giving him experience working auctions in Hong Kong and picking up consignment lots in Switzerland. He rose to logistics manager, tracking $60 million in fine wine annually.
When meeting new people, he found that hip hop was a great connector (“America’s greatest export,” he believes). After about 10 years at Zachys, he joined Wally’s as a founding director of its auction business in New York City. At Zachys and at Wally’s, he worked with Michael Jessen, who is now Stone’s business partner at Cru Luv and executive producer of the shows.
“Cru Luv started as a consulting company where I wanted to find a way to sell wine to my community, but I knew it was going to be a long road,” Stone reflects. He regularly saw his friends comfortable spending $600 for a bottle of Champagne in a club, but they were unwilling to spend $150 for a good bottle of wine in the store.
“Why is it worth $600 when you’re in the club? It’s because of the atmosphere, because of everything that comes with it. When people see the bottle coming to you, you are now the star, you are the celebrity. It makes you feel better. I want my community to have the same reverence for wine that it does for hip hop—that’s why I started the podcast. Because I wanted people to understand that wine wasn’t stuffy, that wine people are not stuffy.”
“The wine world has been a closed loop for quite some time. Embracing inclusion inspires innovation.” – Jermaine Stone
His podcasts have taken off. “Based on social media and the analytics we have available, our audience is about 55 percent female, 25 to 44 years old, mostly in the U.S., but we have a fairly significant following in Italy and the UK,” says Stone. And many companies want in on his uniquely successful strategies for growing wine’s audience: He has interest from multiple large digital streaming outlets, and works with Opici Wine Group, Major Food Group, Wide Roots Imports, Wines of Germany, and Constellation Brands, among others.
“The wine world has been a closed loop for quite some time. Embracing inclusion inspires innovation,” says Stone. “Look at what brands like Ace of Spades by Jay Z, Black Girl Magic by the McBride sisters, or Maison Noir by André Mack have contributed to wine culture over the last 15 years. Great products and sales numbers through the roof by expressing Black culture.”
The time is right for his brand of outreach, he says. “I feel like we’re very well received everywhere we go. And it seems like people are saying, ‘It’s about time, thank you.’ We’re at a phase in culture where it’s time. Opportunity lined up with hard work,” says Stone.
From Top Somms to Hip Hop Legends
Stone’s list of guests is impressive and includes many friends like Master Sommelier and Verve Wine co-owner Dustin Wilson, who Stone met when he delivered wines to the Michelin 3-star restaurant, Eleven Madison Park (where Wilson was the sommelier). James Molesworth, senior editor of Wine Spectator, has been interviewed—over a bottle of 1997 Château de Fonsalette— and “has become a good friend,” Stone says.
Stone interviewed legendary hip hop producer Easy Mo Bee, who produced many of Notorious B.I.G.’s albums, including his debut album, “Ready to Die,” and “Life After Death,” which was released two weeks after Biggie’s murder. Stone paired a 1997 Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet with “I Love the Dough” from Biggie’s final album and Easy Mo Bee recounted the last time he saw the rapper.
“We wanted to pick a wine that symbolized luxury and also matched the vintage, 1997. The year that those grapes were picked off the vines, Biggie had been in the studio recording that song,” Stone explains.
One TV segment dropping soon will feature hip hop star, actor, and Harlem native Dave East with whom Stone shared a 1995 Krug Champagne. “People consider him a vintage artist—a classic—so we introduced what a vintage wine is to our audience, what to expect when you taste a vintage wine.”
Stone acquired some of the pricier wines during his auction days, but “wine can be an affordable luxury,” he says. He helped Raekwon the Chef from Wu-Tang Clan create his Licataa brand, a sparkling Lambrusco sold through Cru Luv Selections (among other places) and which costs around $30.
“It’s all about opening people’s minds,” Stone says. “Everything that we’re doing is about showing people that this world exists.”
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Dorothy J. Gaiter, senior editor of The Grape Collective, conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal’s wine column, “Tastings,” from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. They’ve written four wine books and created the “Open That Bottle Night” annual celebration of wine and friendship. Gaiter has been a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and The Journal, which twice nominated her work on race for the Pulitzer Prize and once for “Tastings.” She’s won awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and National Association of Black Journalists.