Kilolo Strobert first stepped foot in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights wine shop Fermented Grapes to drop off her résumé in 2004. Fresh out of culinary school and unsure where a career in hospitality could take her, she had no idea that nearly two decades later, she’d be the owner of the very shop that jump-started her wine career.
“I’ve been on the importer side, I’ve been on the sales side, I’ve been on the supermarket side, and I’ve been on the restaurants side. I’ve touched a lot of the hospitality departments,” she said in a recent interview. “But retail is where I think I fit the best.”
In anticipation of the opening of her own version of Fermented Grapes, Strobert has been breathing new life into the space while honoring its legacy in the neighborhood. Her selection reflects a variety of natural and organic wines alongside more conventional offerings, and while she doesn’t restrict her wine selection by maker or varietal, she’s intentional in highlighting the increasing diversification and globalization of the wine space. This means bringing greater attention to female, Black, and indigenous winemakers from all corners of the globe.
“The wine community is growing so much,” she says. “And every day, I see it becoming more and more diverse. … The wine that we all love is starting to show in terms of diversity. We drink wines in Georgia, we drink wines from Croatia, we drink wines from South Africa, we drink wines from everywhere.”
VinePair spoke to Strobert about making a full circle back to Fermented Grapes, and the lessons she carries with her from a two-decade career in the industry.
1. How did your educational background and career path lead you to wine?
I went to Johnson and Wales University — I did my culinary degree first. You’re required as a culinary student to take a couple of classes outside of your department, and I now they have a whole beverage program. When I attended, there was only one beverage class. They were the school that could serve underage students, they were one of the only ones in the country, you know, because you’re tasting real vodka, real gin, all that stuff as part of your education. And that semester was the best class that I did. But I didn’t know I wanted to get into wine.
I was making a sauce one day and I needed some red wine, so I went to the wine store down off of Gano (in Providence, R.I.). And I just got bit by the wine bug. I had a really tasty Syrah. I started really thinking about being in the culinary space and being in the wine space after working and traveling within the country. In 2004, I fully jumped into saying, ‘OK, I’m going to try this wine thing.’ And so I dropped off my résumé at this wine store in the neighborhood over from where I grew up — I grew up in Crown Heights, and this one was in Prospect Heights — called Fermented Grapes. I worked there for a little over a year, and 18 years later, I purchased the store.
2. Did you always know that you wanted to end up in retail and be able to curate your own wine selection?
No, I mean, when I was 8 years old, I wanted to be an accountant. And I realized that it wasn’t about money, it was about words (laughs). I kind of fell into the hospitality industry. I was at another college before Johnson and Wales, and I was up there for a Busta Rhymes concert. I bumped into an old friend and he was like, ‘You used to cook all the time, I’m in culinary school now, that’s why I left here, you should come. You should go to culinary school.’ Where I went to school wasn’t very diverse, and I was in between colleges, so I started researching culinary schools. I ended up going to the one that he suggested, which was Johnson and Wales. That’s how I got into hospitality.
I didn’t see owning a wine store in my future until I worked for a specific store. When I worked at Le Dû’s Wines, I worked for the late owner Jean-Luc Le Dûfor about four years. And he gave me the opportunity to see every single aspect of the business. Every single aspect.
3. What were the biggest lessons you learned working in that job that serve you today as you run your own wine shop?
I think it’s a culmination of all the places that I’ve worked. If you don’t learn from every experience, whether it’s good or bad, then you’re not really ready for ownership, no matter what industry you’re in. You’re always borrowing. You’re trying to invent, you’re trying to come up with better ways to interact, and have people really dig on what you’re doing and vibe with you. But it’s from every single place that I’ve worked, honestly. I was able to see books, I was able to do payroll, I was able to do health insurance, I was able to buy wine. But every single place I’ve ever worked, there have been aspects of it that made that space work. And if you really think about it, every place is also very different. Even the store here that I purchased, turning it into my own, you know, means I’ve been pivoting a lot. But because you’ve seen it work in other places, you think, ‘Hey, well maybe this will work. If it doesn’t, OK, maybe this will work.’ So it’s everything that I’ve done up to this point that’s being put into this project.
4. When you bought Fermented Grapes, did you have a vision for what you wanted this store to be under your leadership?
Of course. I’m coming in on the 18th, almost 19th year. That’s lineage. Understanding that it was female owned by another female interracial couple and being able to say this is a welcoming space for all different types of people is important. My playlists vary from music of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ’80s, R&B, ska, and punk; I’m a child of the ‘90s. I’m excited for the little bit of the splintered person that I am, meaning, all the parts to make the whole, to come into this space. And I just always liked the space, the feel of it, too.
5. How does that ethos carry over into your wine buying and the curation of the bottles that you carry in your store?
I’m all about things being balanced. If it’s like, the funkiest of funk, or if the wine is super aggressive in the nose, I want it to make sense on the palate. It doesn’t mean that a wine needs to taste or smell the same, but it just means that it should feel like a whole story that works together.
6. Can you talk about the importance of highlighting female, Black, and indigenous winemakers in that selection?
I am a Black woman. We’re finally seeing a lot of people of color in wine, which I think is extremely important. Social media has played a huge role in helping us show how much and how little of us there are in this industry. So yeah, I’m going to feature people and wines and products by people of color. But it’s not the sole focus because that’s not what wine is. Wine is everyone, but I’m a person of color. I want to see people that are doing good things and are killing it in this game. Meaning that if they’re putting out a product that people will be really into because it’s good, I want it on the shelf.
7. Do you have a favorite bottle right now?
That’s hard. The only reason why it’s hard is because there’s so much out there. So every day I’m like, ‘What is this? What is that? Oh, this is yummy. Oh, yes, I have to have that for the shelf.’ You know, it’s not just one thing. I call myself a moody drinker, I’m a moody consumer. So sometimes, you know, I just want a Bud in a bottle — has to be in a bottle, not a can, not draft. Sometimes I want a cocktail. Sometimes I just want a Negroni. Sometimes I just want a Boulevardier (laughs).
There’s Koval, the gin coming out of Illinois. I just was hanging out over dinner with a couple friends, and I had a Boulevardier, with the Koval Oat. It was such a beautiful, well-made cocktail. That’s something that I was reminded of, is their oat whiskey, that I was like, ‘Oh my God. Yeah, I forgot about how phenomenal this is. I need to have that for the shelf.’
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.