On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter and Tahiirah Habibi, founder of the Hue Society, discuss Habibi’s passion for bringing diverse voices into the wine industry. Habibi, who is a sommelier and entrepreneur, breaks down her goal of helping Black voices feel heard and validated in conversations about wine and how she’s bringing this work to life in the upcoming Wine & Culture Fest.

Wine and Culture Fest is a three-day event that will be held in Atlanta, Habibi explains. Each day will bring unique experiences, events and celebrations that recognize historically marginalized groups and their contributions to the industry. In this episode, she walks through need-to-know event details, the role of education and how she’s putting fun at the forefront.

Give the episode a listen and visit https://www.wineandculturefest.com/ to learn more about the Wine and Culture Fest.

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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter and this is a “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes to give you a better idea of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage landscape. Today, I’m talking with Tahiirah Habibi, the founder of the Hue Society and the Wine & Culture Fest, also a sommelier and just all-around amazing wine entrepreneur. Tahiirah, thank you so much for joining me.

Tahiirah Habibi: Thank you for having me. I’m super excited.

A: So, before we talk about the Wine and Culture Festival, which I’m super excited for, let’s talk about the Hue Society. What is the Hue Society? When did you start it? Give us the rundown.

T: So, Hue Society is a curated community that serves as a lifestyle hub for all things related to wine and culture in the sense of centering the Black voice. So, we do events and educational opportunities. We create access and resources for people who have been historically excluded from the conversations in wine. I founded this in 2017. It was actually a spinoff of a smaller company that I had founded when I was working in Miami. It’s really just about community. You know, the antithesis of capitalism is community. I feel like the wine space operates very much from a place of white male capitalistic endeavors. I just wanted to create something where people could see themselves and they knew they could come and be seen and heard and loved exactly as they are. I wanted them to know that they don’t have to engage in these violent, ugly, code-switching behaviors, where “I want this part of you, but not that part of you.” Those kinds of constructs.

A: That makes a ton of sense. So, at what point when you founded the Hue Society did you then also launch the Wine & Culture Fest?

T: Immediately.

A: OK, so were they ideas that happened at the same time? Almost?

T: When I launched Hue Society, like I said, it was me expanding the original company that I had founded, which was called Sipping Socials. And when I founded Sipping Socials, I founded it on the basis that I wanted to create something that people, particularly Black people, could learn from through our own experiences, because I know that’s how we learn. I know that that is culturally relevant to us, things that made sense where we don’t have to go into this other world. When I did that, it was very successful with Sipping Socials. But it was a smaller thing. When I decided I wanted to expand, I said, OK, I want to create a society. I want this to go across the nation. I want this to go across the world at some point, you know? One of the things, as far as being able to learn and celebrate through that lens is this festival. It was originally called the Black Wine Experience. I used to do it at the Essence Festival. Now it’s the Wine & Culture Fest because it has expanded, and it’s still Black-centered, but that doesn’t mean that it’s Black-exclusive. It has expanded so far. So it’s not just about Black people. There are all kinds of people that are coming to the festival. I think that it’s incredible, and it’s an incredible connection that you get to see how people are when they’re actually in their element and not in these stuffy-ass suits and these ridiculous things. There’s a time and place for it.

A: Yeah.

T: But the Wine & Culture Fest is culture, right? Culture can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But the wine industry lacks culture.

A: Yes, it does.

T: That is what this is. The first events that I did, like I said, were called the Black Wine Experience, and I really centered Black winemakers, brands, importers, distributors, all of that, in the very high and upscale events. But I also centered the consumers.

A: And so when you were doing it at Essence Fest, how long did you do it at Essence Fest, and when did it sort of spin out and become what it is now? Did you do it prior to Covid? Was that the last time you did it at Essence? Just trying to remember.

T: Yes.

A: So will this be the first time it’s kind of standing alone?

T: Yeah. This is the first time that it has expanded this way. So, you know, at Essence we were still doing the Rose and Rosé Awards brunch, we did the tastings and all those things. But Essence is really expensive, and it’s difficult to get there. Hue Society is all about creating access and resources, So, I said, where can I move this that will be accessible for a ton of people to come and support and just be in community? Atlanta is a very easy hub.

A: It’s one of my favorite cities.

T: Right? It’s amazing. 2017 is when the Hue Society was founded. 2018 was the first Black Wine Experience.

A: OK.

T: Like, immediately. Then we did 2019, and we had planned 2020 out. I was in the thick of planning it, and obviously everything got canceled in 2020. I said, you know what, I’m not going to go back to Essence, I want to do something different this year. Now it’s in Atlanta. This is the first year it’ll be in Atlanta. And I’m really excited about that because it is also a very culturally rich city.

A: Totally. With the festival in its form that it’s taken now, how have you conceived of it? There’s so much happening at this festival. You have this incredible cookout that’s happening on a Friday night. Then, you have this really cool event with R.I.C.E, which is also centering rice dishes from around the world and why, which I think is so super cool. Then, a crazy afterparty. Also, there’s a lot of partying going on. I don’t know, I’m coming. I don’t know if I’m gonna have the stamina. Then there’s the Roses and Rosé awards brunch. Like, there’s so much. First of all, how are you doing it all? And what was the overall vision for what the weekend has become?

T: You know, to answer your question about how I’m doing it all, I used to do this by myself. I learned very quickly that in order for me to scale as an entrepreneur and as a leader, I had to hire help. So, I hired help. That’s how I’m doing it.

A: OK. Good.

T: If I can give you one tip on trying to be a boss, hire people to do the things so that you can go and make money. That’s it. But yeah, like you said, there’s three very distinct days. I did that intentionally because, again, I think that sometimes, we get stuck into being a monolith. I wanted to show, from a cultural perspective, just how dope we are. So, Friday is the cookout. That is centered around Black wine because I needed one day for us where we can just still be able to celebrate and showcase our brands.That doesn’t just include wine brands that are made by Black people or something like that. It’s executives, brand ambassadors, these people who are very integral in making sure that brands are successful. That’s what Friday is about. This is the cookout. It’s a super-laid back, dope event. Saturday is almost like a reclamation for me. R.I.C.E. When you talk about rice, we’re talking about something that crosses cultural lines. Most cultures cook rice in some capacity. Then, we’re talking about socio economics as well. Rice is a very inexpensive dish. Even people who are in poverty to people who are affluent eat rice in some capacity. You talk about fancy sushi dishes, you talk about rice and honey for people who live in the hood, where I’m from. Right?

A: Right.

T: The most fascinating thing about R.I.C.E to me and why I really wanted to do this event, and it’s an acronym, it stands for rising in community everyday. But more importantly, rice was the first grain that enslaved people farmed when they came over here. Everyone thinks about cotton. Rice is what really put the economy on the map in America while it was forming, and through that, free labor. Also, it jumpstarted a lot of the exportation into other places. In South Carolina, we do South Carolina gold rice.

A: Yeah.

T: We’re gonna have some real conversations around that, but also, we get to see how it has expanded in the world and the different cultural dishes and their takes on rice and how they make it. I just think that it is such an incredible event. We’ll have a bubble room there, too, where we have bubbles from around the world. It’s a super-cool activation. We have a live band and we’re having an afterparty. And it’s just a super-fun event, but it’s also really educational as well.

A: Yeah. So during R.I.C.E, there’s a lot of panels that you’re doing, right? So, who are some of the people that are speaking, and what can we expect to hear from them?

T: We’re doing a panel with chef Todd Richards and chef Deborah Vantrece. They’re local chefs here from Atlanta, but they are renowned chefs. They’re James Beard affiliated. They’re incredible humans as well. And we’re also bringing in Alex from Just Add Hot Sauce, and she’s an up-and-coming chef. She’s younger. She’s going to moderate the panel. I just think this is going to be such a great dynamic and conversation, really about food culture and wine culture. Right? Like, how we always leave our community to go pair wines.

A: Yeah.

T: We don’t pair wines with the things that we actually eat at home. We’re asked these questions. You don’t think about soul food and wine. You don’t think about Caribbean food with wine. We just really need to crack that conversation open.

A: I love that that’s why you’re doing it. We talk about that a lot at VinePair. Why does this wine always go with this French cheese and this steak preparation and whatever in terms of the only thing that can be paired with wine when that’s not what the majority of us eat. That’s not American food culture, right? That’s a very Eurocentric, white food culture that we’re talking about. This event, I’m probably — well, I’m actually pretty excited for the cookout, I’m not going to lie — but, I’m also very excited for this event because I think it’s so cool that you are going to not only be centering this cuisine, but also educating a lot of people about it and making it OK for people to say, I want to talk about my community and my food with wine. You know, I don’t want to have to only talk about this one community that the overall wine industry has said is the correct way to talk about pairings. I think that it’s going to be super cool. So then, how does the bubble room fit into this? Is it sort of just on top of it, where you’re going to be doing bubble education and things like that throughout the event?

T: So it’s literally a room.

A: OK.

T: It’s a glass room. When you walk in, you’re going to feel like you’re walking into a bottle of bubbles.

A: OK.

T: It’s one of my signature activations that we’ve done, and it’s so cool. First of all, it’s a great photo opportunity. But more importantly, it also tackles the misconceptions about bubbles.

A: Right.

T: That’s a big thing for people. It causes anxiety, and it doesn’t have to. Bubbles are pretty simple. It’s really geographical. Once you start figuring that out and you can see for yourself, OK, Cava comes from Spain, but Cava can also be made the same way as Champagne. Champagne is only from Champagne, France. Those things start to click. I love doing education. This is how I’ve always done education with all of the organizations that I’ve founded. I love doing education through experiences and not forcing things down your throat, particularly with wine. Wine is such an easily intimidating thing. You have all these languages, all these words you’ve never seen. No one likes to feel stupid. No one wants to put themselves out there. And then, you have somms, who are just jackasses who enjoy making people feel stupid. And it’s just like, we don’t have to do that. We can learn how to do this. You can read this on your own. You can taste these things. That’s really how you learn wine, from tasting. If I’m telling you that Cava can be made the same way in the same method as Champagne and you’re able to taste those side by side and you can see those similarities, but know that they’re from different places, that’s an easy education and it’s enjoyable.

A: Yeah, I think that’s super cool. And then the blind wine tasting that’s happening as well, is that, again, education around just blind tasting and how that works?

T: Well, you know, this is kind of me tapping into somms and our egos with, you know, who’s the champ here? Who’s getting the belt? Who’s going to win that prize?

A: So is there going to be a competition?

T: Yeah. There is actually a competition between professionals. That’s the first thing. Then, throughout the day, we made it so that anybody can jump in to compete and test their knowledge as a fun thing for the community to do. There’s a monetary prize for the competition. You know, Wine Folly is in on it. We’re giving out a scholarship from the WSET. It’s real out here.

A: That’s awesome. Then, the final day is the big Roses and Rosé awards brunch. What do we expect from that event and how long have you been doing the awards brunch now, because you started it when you were doing it at Essence Fest, correct?

T: Yeah. So this will be the third year.

A: OK.

T: I started this because, again, we didn’t see us in the space. So, I looked up and I’m like, so you’re telling me there’s not a single Black and Brown brand that deserves to be celebrated at these white awards brunches? Are you telling me that? Or, are you telling me that you get to cherry pick who you have political connections with or who’s palatable to you?

A: Right.

T: A lot of times, Black and Brown brands don’t even get through the door because you don’t like the label. It’s economics again. A lot of people are bootstrapping. We don’t get the loans. We don’t get those things. So, I really just wanted to create something where we can be celebrated and amplified, and I wanted to be able to give people their flowers while they’re here. That’s why it’s called Roses and Rosé. So the brunch is Sunday. It’s going to be amazing. We’re doing an awards show. We’re livestreaming the award show to Facebook. It has two components this year. We’re really honing in on the legends of the space — people who have been doing this work for years and years, who’ve never really been celebrated the way they deserve. So you have Dorothy Gaiter, Brown Estate. We have Iris Rideau, who was the first Black woman to open up a tasting bar in the country. These people who paved the way for us to even be here and be doing things are being celebrated as legends. Those awards, next year, will be named after them.

A: Oh, that’s really cool. That’s really awesome.

T: Yeah. Every one of them cried, and I said, I didn’t even think about it that way. I just really wanted to celebrate them. The fact that it touched them so much and they literally cried and were just like, “Thank you for seeing me,” that’s literally all I needed. Then, we’re doing fresh faces, which brings in the new group, the newcomers, the people who are coming in. These are people who just got into the industry and are trying to make a name for themselves. They deserve to be recognized because we push the trends. We push the cultures forward. We need to be paying attention to who is doing what. I’m super excited about that. And then afterwards, like you said, there’s lots of partying.

A: Yeah, I love it.

T: We’re going to the roof. We’re doing a rosé lounge up on the roof. It’s just a day party with a DJ, and we’re just gonna vibe out and celebrate with each other. This whole thing is really just a love fest. That’s just what I keep saying, because it’s a love fest. It’s not just for Black people. It’s what a community should look like. It’s the standard. This is the new standard. This is what we can look like if we come from an equitable, non-traumatic space and just celebrate each other. I think that that is incredible. I mean, VinePair is up for an award, by the way. I don’t know if you saw it.

A: I mean, I didn’t want to make it about VinePair. We’re very honored. Look, we’re coming down with five staff members. We are pumped for this. I have to tell you, I’ve never been this excited about a wine festival because, as you said, a lot of them are really boring and are just not about fun. It’s much more about pretension. Who are you going to see? How are you going to interact? I will tell you, I just got a little nervous because I was looking at the Roses and Rosé Awards brunch, and I did see the attire of nude, pink, and red and was like, I don’t know what I have. I gotta figure it out.

T: Oh, wear what you have. It’s not that serious.

A: Should I wear a tux?

T: Oh my god, I would die laughing if you wore a tux. Wear what you wanna wear!

A: I think it’s just super cool what you’re doing.

T: Thank you.

A: This entire event, it just makes so much sense. It’s so needed. Where you’re doing it makes so much sense. It’s this city that, again, we say this a lot. but I don’t get why the producers in wine ignore all these other cities that have amazing wine cultures. These cities have people who are really excited. So, putting the spotlight on Atlanta, the largest city in the South, just makes so much sense. I think this thing is just going to be amazing.

T: I’m super excited.

A: So how many people are you expecting?

T: We cut back because we want to be responsible with Covid, even if Atlanta’s still open, we cut back. Some events will only have 100 to 150 people;150 is almost the max. City Winery can hold a great amount of people and we have almost the entire space except for the basement. Even so, we cut back and we’re very conscious of Covid. We want people to be safe and comfortable. A lot of events are outdoors, which was very intentional as well. The numbers don’t really matter to me. If the numbers are not outrageous this year, that’s fine with me because at least people are safe.

A: So, how are you navigating it? Especially in the last few weeks, everything has changed so much. Probably, when you were really thinking about this in the spring, it felt like we were going to get past this thing.

T: It did.

A: And now we have Delta and people are starting to sort of freak out again. So, as an entrepreneur, how are you and your team thinking about Covid?

T: When we saw the numbers starting to rise, like I said, we put a cap on the number of tickets that could be sold. Then, we started rearranging seating and all the rest of the stuff. We put some protocols in place. So, with City Winery, for instance, everybody has to have either a negative Covid test from 72 hours prior or be vaccinated. You have to show proof of one or the other. If you get to the door and you don’t have either, we’ve made it even easier. We’re giving rapid tests.

A: Wow. OK.

T: We’re just really trying to make sure.

A: Yeah, I mean, you’ve got to, right. You’ve got to be as safe as possible. And the cookout’s outside on the roof?

T: The cookout’s outside. But even so, we’re still encouraging people to get Covid tests and, if you’re not vaccinated, at least show us that you want to be in the space with humans.

A: Right. Totally.

T: You’re entitled to whatever you think. Those are your rights, and I’m not pushing anything on anybody but safety. I am going to push safety on people because I will not be responsible for having an event that’s spreading a deadly virus. I don’t feel comfortable with that, obviously.

A: Totally. So, where are people coming from? Are they coming from all over the country?

T: Yes. This room block has sold out four times now.

A: That’s awesome.

T: People are definitely traveling in. I really would love to get the locals to ramp it up because the days are almost sold out. Once they’re done, like I said, that’s kind of it until next year. Definitely lots of traveling guests, and I’m super excited that everybody gets to see and meet each other, finally, and just be in support and community together. No competition. Yes, it’s an awards brunch, but at the end of the day, we’re all validated because we’re all supporting each other, and that’s what it’s centered around. So, I’m super excited about that.

A: Very cool. Well, look, I’m really excited for this. I think we’re going to have to probably do another episode afterwards where we recap what happened.

T: Yeah.

A: People have to know what went down. I can’t wait to hang out with you in Atlanta. This is going to be so much fun.

T: Yes. Thank you so much for all of your support. I told you before, I totally respect your work and VinePair. I absolutely love what you guys are doing. You guys were ahead of the curve prior to 2020 when everybody decided, let’s jump on this bandwagon. It wasn’t a bandwagon for you. I always had a lot of respect for that and the work that you guys do.

A: Thank you so much. That really means a lot. We love supporting you and what you’re doing and all of these other amazing initiatives.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating on review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

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