Steffini Bethea is the founder and owner of the Purple Corkscrew Wine Shop & Tasting Room in Avondale Estates, Ga. She’s also a former Democratic nominee for Georgia State Representative who left her political aspirations (along with a former career in pharmaceutical sales) behind to pursue her dream of building a career in wine. In the spring of 2012, she realized that dream when she opened the Purple Corkscrew.
One year later, during a visit to the wine store, Racquel McCreary, now wine manager of the Purple Corkscrew, recognized that Bethea was doing something unlike anyone else in the Atlanta area at the time. She believed in Bethea’s vision for the Purple Corkscrew and wanted to assist her in building a wine business greater than any other in the area. Bethea hired McCreary as wine manager in 2014, and both business and friendship have grown since then.
With the help of a dedicated team of wine professionals on staff, Bethea and McCreary have created a community haven for wine enthusiasts of all levels. The part wine store, part tasting room serves as a popular lounge space for the surrounding community, offering a place to discover a new bottle of wine while indulging in a glass of your favorite; a place to prepare a presentation, or read a book, or simply unwind after a long day at work.
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Whether patrons have questions regarding charcuterie pairings, up-and-coming grower wine brands, or wine tariffs (both are in strong support of reversing the current tariffs on wine), Bethea and McCreary have a knowledgeable and informed answer. Follow along as Bethea and McCreary (a.k.a. the “Purple Corkscrew Ladies,” or simply “the Purple Ladies,” says McCreary) share top strategies for running a successful wine shop, their experiences as women in the wine business, and who their dream drinking partners would be.
1. Steffini, why did you decide to open a wine shop?
Years ago, my mom and I took a trip to Spain to explore and drink wine. During this trip, I fell in love with Tempranillo. That was the first varietal I had really experienced outside of the noble grapes. I loved it so I kept trying different varieties, seeking out more wines and tasting opportunities in order to grow and develop my palate. You know what? I really enjoyed it! Eventually, my husband sat me down and said, “Listen, if you’re going to drink this much wine, you have to figure out a way to make money doing this.” Well, I knew that I loved wine but I just wasn’t sure about which direction to take within the industry.
2. That’s quite a story. Did you have any previous experience in the wine industry?
I had a career in pharmaceutical sales but was laid off. After deciding that I wanted to open a wine bar, I got a job at a wine shop here in Atlanta. Soon after, I convinced the owner to let me run the wine bar. I worked hard, studied wine, and anything I didn’t know. … Well, let’s just say Google was my best friend. I did that for several months before I felt it was time to step out on my own. I don’t know if I was smart or stupid but I found a spot and just went for it. So just for laughs, I enjoy telling people, “I went from selling drugs to selling wine.”
3. Racquel, how did you step into your role as wine manager of the Purple Corkscrew?
I was a member of a local group named “The Sipping Sisters.” Every first Saturday of the month, we would meet somewhere new and immerse ourselves in wine. I found out about a new wine shop opening called the Purple Corkscrew and chose the location as our monthly meeting location. It was just a great and wonderful space to experience wine!
At that time, Steffini had both an on-premise wine lounge and a retail shop adjacent to one another. She just happened to be looking to hire someone to run the retail wine shop part-time while her business partner was on maternity leave. Over time, my role transitioned into a full- time managerial role and seven years later I’m still here.
4. What has been your experience running your business in the male-dominated wine industry as Black women?
RM: Luckily for us, in Atlanta, the retail wine and wine-bar business is fueled by women. As a matter of fact, being two of the few Black women in this business in metro Atlanta, we stand out. You may not remember our names but people always remember the “Purple Corkscrew Ladies” or simply “the Purple Ladies.” Whether we are talking to a winemaker, attending a trade show, meeting with a distributor or traveling the world, once people realize that our wine knowledge is solid, we suddenly become less of a novelty and more like kindred spirits in the wine arena.
SB: Being two of a few Black women in the retail wine industry has had its challenges. Sometimes we’d be the only Black people at the trade shows, and it would be so hard to get the attention of the winemakers, our wine reps would have to step in and make introductions … and it’s not like that for others in the room. We would face some of the same challenges when dealing with distributors. We’ve had distributors bring us what they thought we should have versus what we wanted. This year we’ve been offered allocations of wines that we were not offered previously. So basically, I think our greatest challenge has been getting people to take us seriously.
5. What is one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned when it comes to the relationship between a distributor and a retail wine business?
SB: In order to be taken seriously by distributors, you have to be excellent in sales. Our distributors and suppliers recognize our growth and knowledge and our strength in sales, which has translated into access to greater wine choices and allocations. This didn’t happen instantly. Women have to work harder than our counterparts, and as Black women, we have to work even harder still. It has taken years to gain the respect and consideration of distributors, but we are wine buyers and we know wine. People tend to take us much more seriously these days.
6. What tools or strategies have you found work well for you two in business?
SB: Knowing this business and continuously learning. Fostering positive relationships with suppliers, winemakers and our clients. Developing good relationships with the delivery drivers. They actually have helped us tremendously because through them we know what’s being delivered across town. We get information on new wines on the market, how many cases are being sold or allocated. Because of this we now know what to ask for and/or order for the store.
RM: I believe being hospitable and being able to read our customers are both our secret weapons. While we would love to sell the more expensive bottles of wine, it’s more important that we recommend a good wine that closely matches a customer’s needs. Also, organizing the store in an easy-to-shop format. Old World, New World, and Bubbles. This also makes it easier to explain the wine’s nuances to the customer as well.
7. Owning a wine shop is hard work and certainly not for the faint of heart. Can you name a few small yet often overlooked details that may contribute to a wine shop’s success?
RM: Impeccable stemware, a good playlist and a very friendly staff. Glassware should be of good quality, clean/dry, free of perfumed soaps, and polished to a brilliant finish. A playlist establishes a certain vibe in the shop and if curated correctly, encourages your clients to linger and shop longer. Lastly, hiring staff that enjoy helping people and are able to read a client’s mood.
SB: When hiring, Racquel always says, “We can teach you wine, but you have to be up to the challenge of offering exceptional customer service.” There is a famous quote that says, “People may not remember what you say but they will remember how you make them feel.” This is so true, especially in this business. We also pride ourselves on establishing a great ambiance through a curated playlist. We always receive lots of compliments about our curated playlist, too. A great playlist makes all of the difference in the world in the retail business. Also, impeccable stemware goes a long way.
8. Steffini, you’ve been very active in spreading the word about the effects of tariffs on American wine businesses. What were some of your strategies for educating wine professionals and consumers? Also, how have the tariffs affected your business?
The currently enforced, as well as the threat of future tariffs, forced me to play an active role in highlighting the issue with my elected government officials. I joined a coalition and we scheduled meetings with our senators and congressmen, stressing how dangerous these tariffs were to American businesses. We mainstreamed the information and created awareness for people in the wine world. As a result of the hard work of many people, we are looking forward to the tariffs not being an issue in the upcoming months. As far as the tariffs affecting our business, we did see an increase in wine prices. We also found some wines were difficult to get, but again, with the new administration in D.C., we are feeling very optimistic.
9. Who would you love to share a glass of wine with?
SB: I’d love to sit along the Seine River and share a bottle of wine with James Baldwin.
RM: I would love to share a bottle of wine with Langston Hughes. The rhythm of his words are akin to wine swirling in a glass.
10. What does the future hold for the Purple Corkscrew? Any big plans you’d like to share?
SB: We’ve got big plans and there are so many great things coming up for us. I don’t want to say too much right now, so you guys will just have to stay tuned. We’re feeling great about our future because our wildest dreams are coming true.