This feature is part of our 2023 Next Wave Awards.
Despite having a flourishing career in wine today, Cha McCoy actually started out as a civil engineer. While she didn’t know then that she wanted to become an entrepreneur, after observing the staggering lack of Black people and women in the field of civil engineering, she knew she wanted to devote herself to uplifting others. It wasn’t until 2010 that her love affair with wine would begin.
Studying for a degree in international finance in Italy, McCoy became enamored with Italian wine and the culture and lifestyle surrounding its consumption. By the time she graduated with her MBA, she knew she wanted to work in wine. But when she returned to the United States, she found that, despite her immense knowledge surrounding the beverage, no one took her seriously without sommelier or WSET certifications.
“I had this moment of realization where I thought, ‘Oh, if I don’t get myself into a higher role, I’ll never be able to reach back and pull people forward,’” McCoy explains. “So I thought that no matter what industry I was in, if it was engineering or wine, I needed to ensure I would be in a position where I could reach back and pull forward.”
She hustled. She still had a full-time career in civil engineering, but picked up a part-time job at The Winery, a wine shop in Harlem, and spent weekends as a special events coordinator for a Brooklyn bed and breakfast. “I literally worked seven days a week,” she says.
After obtaining her sommelier certification and passing all of her tests, McCoy still felt like she couldn’t get a seat at the table. So, she built her own.
In 2017, she launched The Communion, a pop-up dinner experience that pairs dishes from some of the world’s finest chefs with wines McCoy sources from lesser-known and undervalued regions and producers. Through the experience, which has since been held in five countries, McCoy hopes to make wine more accessible and understandable, humanizing wine pairings by talking about the wine’s terroir and culture.
“We always tend to focus on land and vintage when we’re talking about terroir, but I’ve always thought that the culture of the people in the region dictates terroir as well,” she says. “People have always made wine depending on what they eat, and so I try to make sure we don’t forget about culture when we talk about it.”
Shortly after starting her pop-up, McCoy launched Cha Squared, a wine consulting agency that serves as an umbrella for her other smaller projects, including The Communion. Through Cha Squared, McCoy’s mission is to spread accessible knowledge throughout the wine community with particular focus placed on educational experiences, event planning, and tourism. By delivering engaging talks at a number of hospitality conferences, McCoy highlights the inequalities that still plague the industry, offering solutions to propose a better future for everyone. In 2019, she spoke at the Cherry Bombe Jubilee — an annual conference held by the magazine celebrating women in food and beverage — detailing her experiences as a Black woman in wine in her talk titled “I Am More Than Moscato.” The next year, she joined the team at Cherry Bombe as its first beverage director and editor. In addition to her work at the publication, through Cha Squared she advises clients like the James Beard Foundation and the Charleston Wine and Food Festival on creating immersive, tangible experiences with wine that open the door to new audiences.
“Cha Squared is all about creating that same vibe, education, and entertainment for other people,” she explains. “I was able to build my own table and make sure I had a seat at it with The Communion, and now I can do that same thing for other brands and their goals.”
For her, operating her consulting agency is all about uplifting anyone who has felt like they have been marginalized and kept out of the rooms that would allow for them to advance in their careers.
Last year, after operating The Communion as a pop-up for five years, McCoy opened her flagship brick-and-mortar location of the same name in Syracuse, N.Y. There, she continues to host dining experiences, while also operating a full-fledged wine shop, offering private tastings, pop-up wine bar experiences, bi-weekly “Thirsty Thursday” tastings, and even excursions to local wineries.
“I’m a New Yorker, and we all have to start identifying a bit more like the way people from California do. I’m from wine country, too,” she says of her native state of New York. “The excursions are my way of telling people that we should be prideful about our wine regions, especially the Finger Lakes.”
When she reflects on her work in the wine industry thus far, McCoy is humbled and grateful for the ability to open others’ minds and have a hand in teaching them how to get ahead.
“If I have had the opportunity to open a door, to come in, and have a teachable moment? That’s what the last 13 years in wine have been all about for me,” she says.