Shaunna Cooper and Shayla Smith, sisters and co-founders of Wine Spencer, which recently began offering five virtual wine tasting classes for clients nationwide. (Photo by Daniel Black, Stratton Studios)
2 sisters behind Wine Spencer offer virtual wine tastings
Red, white and rosé anyone? While wine can be intimidating for some, two sisters behind Valley company Wine Spencer are aiming to change that perspective in a fun and accessible way.
Wine Spencer, which is based in Arizona with a presence in New York, offers customers an engaging and approachable way to learn about the origins of wine, different wine varieties and food pairings through classes and wine tastings.
Sisters Shaunna Cooper and Shayla Smith, who established the brand in September 2019, named Wine Spencer as a way to pay homage to their father, grandfather and great grandfather’s name: Spencer.
Cooper, who lives in Arizona and is the Chief Wine Taster of Wine Spencer, and Smith resides in New York and is the Chief Wine Pairing Officer of Wine Spencer, recently decided to transition their services to offer virtual classes nationwide in the wake of COVID-19 that include: Wine 101, Rosé All Day, Let’s Get Bubbly, South African Wine Tour and Black-owned wineries and winemakers.
Smith said she and Cooper decided to start the business in part because they have always loved wine and batted the idea around to start a business for a long time before moving forward and establishing Wine Spencer last year.
“I called Shaunna after I graduated from graduate school in 2017 and said, ‘what do you think about creating a wine blog as a way for me to learn about wine and be able to explain it to other people as I go on this journey?’ But Wine Spencer didn’t come to fruition until last summer when Shaunna asked me about the wine blog idea I had, and suggested instead of just blogging about wine, to include in-person wine tasting events where we go to people’s houses and bring the experience to them,” Smith said.
As part of an alumni association in New York, Smith has experience planning wine tastings and thought it would be a great idea. “So Shaunna came to visit New York last summer and we did a Long Island winery tour and I think that’s when we decided it was something we were going to do officially so we created Wine Spencer at the end of that summer in September 2019.”
Cooper said she had just had her daughter last year and was trying to think of things she could do outside of her work in human resources that she was passionate about. “At work one day I was telling my coworker, ‘I just want to do something different,’ and she said, ‘you’re always talking about different types of wine that you’ve tried and going wine tasting at different wineries, so maybe you should look into making that into a business’ and I had never thought of it in that way and that was kind of where the light bulb went off and I was like, ‘I love talking about wine so if I can turn it into something more why not?’”
Wine Spencer offers a variety of fun and educational wine experiences for both knowledgeable and novice wine drinkers, in addition to curating wine dinners from their partner restaurants and custom, private wine experiences for special occasions like bridal showers and bachelorette parties.
Amid COVID-19, Cooper and Smith transitioned their in-person experiences to offer 60-90 minute virtual wine tastings for clients nationwide and a portion of each virtual session will go towards supporting the BET + United Way COVID-19 Relief Fund.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to engage with people across the country so we’re expanding our boundaries and not just staying local to our home base, it allows us to be a part of people’s special moments and milestones,” Cooper said.
“For example, we have a wine tasting coming up for someone who had planned to go to Italy and Greece for their 30th birthday and unfortunately that got canceled, but they’re using us to bring their friends together so we can do a virtual tasting for them; she’s in North Carolina but her friends are in Detroit and Chicago, so it’s an opportunity to get together and still be able to celebrate the moment even though they can’t be physically present.”
The five virtual classes offered are:
Wine 101: “It’s intended for the wine novice where we’ll go over the basic winemaking process and introduce them to how to taste wine, so the 5S’s: see, swirl, sniff, sip and savor, so that’s more like a foundational class if you’re just wanting to learn more about wine,” Cooper said.
Rosé All Day: “It’s a fun, seasonal class,” Cooper said. “A lot of people drink rosé during the summertime, so we’ll introduce different types of roses from different regions, the different unique making styles and finish with a rose cocktail demonstration so they can see some different options that they can do with rose in terms of cocktails.”
Let’s Get Bubbly: “This is our sparkling wine class, that’s a fun one for celebrations and we’ll talk about different types of sparkling wines from around the world, discussing the primary method to making sparkling wine and how the process impacts the flavor and different producers of sparkling wine.”
South African Wine Tour: “This was Shayla’s idea, she lived in South Africa for about four months and she got to go to different wineries while she was there so she wanted to incorporate what she learned while she lived in South Africa visiting those wineries. For this class we explore that particular wine region and their own specialty and the different terroirs and how that influences the wine and highlighting how South African wine is a really great value for the wine that they produce and be able to showcase the diversity in the different types of wine.”
Black-owned wineries and winemakers: “This was important for us to do as two African American women in the wine world,” Cooper said. “We wanted a class that really highlighted Black winemakers and Black owned wineries that might not necessarily be a household name that people are familiar with wine. Each of those winemakers has their own unique story so we want to be able to incorporate that into our presentation and our classes and really give it an opportunity to dig a little deeper and show appreciation for Black winemakers.”
Smith said she and Cooper decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from the virtual classes to the BET + United Way COVID-19 Relief Fund because both are actively involved in their respective communities in New York and Phoenix and want to give back. Smith, who works in healthcare, said understanding health disparity and promoting health equity have always been important to her.
“In my work, I do a lot of partnership development with community organizations and focusing on things like job training, food security and improving access to healthcare,” Smith said. “Seeing how the COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionately affecting Black communities and then on top of that there’s been this added layer of people losing their jobs, and people are wondering where their next meals are coming from, and to then have the social unrest and protests happening across the country, it’s been this very difficult time.
“In my work I was familiar with United Way and understood their programs and seeing that the BET and the United Way were partnering to donate to organizations that were focusing on aspects that were really important to uplift the Black community that we wanted to focus on,” Smith said, which is why they chose to donate to United Way and BET. “They have a wide array of programs focusing on food insecurity, financial support and healthcare…so by partnering with the United Way we’re able to support a lot of programming across the country which we are really excited for.”
Smith said Wine Spencer is creating a new wine experience for both knowledgeable and novice wine drinkers. For people who don’t know that much about wine, Smith said they want to encourage people to learn about it and break stigmas that it’s intimidating.
“One of our goals is to give people the vocabulary to explain what it is they like and don’t like about wine. I think sometimes when people have conversations they use all this flowery language, which ups that intimidation factor,” Smith said. “I know for me when I first started drinking wine, I would refer to tannins as ‘this wine is dry’ when dry really means whether the wine has a lot of sugar or lack of sugar, so being able to explain the different terms is important.
“One of the hardest things about wine and being able to really appreciate it is identifying the different aromas that are present and sometimes when we do wine tastings people will say, ‘all I smell are grapes or wine’ so being able to say ‘I smell jasmine or plum,’ so we encourage people to start smelling the fruits they might already be purchasing or trying new fruits in general because the way that you identify the aromas that are in wine is based on the memories of things that you’ve smelled previously,” Smith said.
“So once you become familiar with what a strawberry smells like, or blackberries smell like, smelling it in wine becomes a lot easier and at our tastings we provide a small menu-sized card or for our virtual tastings we put it on the screen that break down the aromas based on the characteristics; so some examples of citrus notes or floral so that it can jog someone’s memory and is helpful for them,” Smith said.
For more experienced wine drinkers, Smith said Wine Spencer focuses on the origin story of that wine, so the viniculture and terroir of that particular region and food pairings.
“For the origin story or the terroir of each wine, we go into detail about the vineyards, the type of soil the grapes are grown in, the climate and elevation, and explain how all those things affect the outcome of what the wine will taste like,” Smith said. “So going into more detail outside the general, ‘this is how white or red wine is made.’
“Shaunna and I both like to cook, so the food pairings have been really fun for us to see which wines pair well with which food,” Smith said. “We explain that if you have a really acidic food, having an acidic wine goes well with it because the two kind of neutralize each other and make everything taste smoother, so really explaining the science behind why certain wines taste better with certain foods, and going into detail about pairing their own food with certain types of wine.”
In addition, Cooper said some of the most rewarding parts of Wine Spencer have been creating the business with Smith after discussing it for a long time and hearing positive client feedback.
“It’s rewarding to hear feedback from clients when you make recommendations to them with different food pairings and how they tried new wines because we posted some different recommendations on our social media pages that they tried that they weren’t even aware of,” Cooper said.
“I hope people see us and realize that there’s a new generation of wine consumers that want to learn more about wine, and we want to make it fun and approachable, so they can feel like when they leave a tasting that they learned something and they can share that with their friends or family members.
“It’s nice to be able to work together as sisters; we’re six years apart in age, so growing up there were always these different phases of life that we went through at different times, so it’s been great to work on a project together that we’re both very passionate about,” Cooper said. “We named the business Wine Spencer to pay homage to our dad and our grandfathers named Spencer, so the name can be a part of what we can hopefully establish as a legacy for years to come.”