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Breaking Glass Ceilings in the Wine Industry

Metro Detroit woman launches a luxury label in a field dominated by white men

A woman sits on a kitchen granite counter holding up a wine glass
LaToya Thompson’s luxury label consists of a cabernet and a pinot grigio
Opulence Wine courtesy photo

Starting a wine or spirits label is no easy task, especially for a Black woman with no prior experience or connections in the beverage industry. But Dr. LaToya Thompson tapped into her passion for science to launch Opulence.

Her luxury label consists of a cabernet and a pinot grigio, made from products Thompson handpicked during a journey through Napa Valley for the perfect grape pairings. The new label makes the Rochester sports physical therapist a bit of an anomaly: Although women are 57 percent of wine buyers, they make up just 28 percent of winemakers in the country. Black wineries and brands have scant representation, comprising an estimated one-tenth of 1 percent. Despite those figures, Thompson found the process of concept to completion more difficult than she expected.

“I didn’t realize how much of a process it would be,” says Thompson, a mother of three. Getting a winemaker license from the state took two years. “And it was difficult to secure a distributor, as a new brand. I noticed that when I put my husband’s name on the email, even if I put ‘Dr. Thompson’ on it, I’d get a response. I thought: ‘Is it because I’m female, or a Black female, that I’m having difficulty?’ I think it was.” She found success with Great Lakes Wine and Spirits.

Like many, Thompson got into wine by sipping it at social events. But her background in science always had her curious about the grape-to-glass journey. “The more I looked, the more time I spent looking at stuff.” She read widely, took viniculture classes, and studied wine and food pairings until her husband, a businessman, pointed out that they should be making money, not spending so much of it, on wine. “You really know this stuff,” he told her.

When it came to naming her brand, Thompson wanted drinkers to feel as if they’re experiencing a luxurious experience, something that she says it’s hard for African Americans to comfortably embrace.

“Wine is sometimes associated with wealth. Some people don’t feel like we should be in that space,” she says. “We often shy away from nice things. I think we deserve and should have nice things.”

As the first Black woman in metro Detroit to own a luxury wine brand, she also wants to inspire others. That’s why it was fitting that she launched her brand at House of Pure Vin in Detroit on Thursday evening. Regina Gaines, owner of the downtown Detroit wine shop, helped connect Thompson to the right people. The 3,100-square-foot space was packed Thursday evening with a fashionable set — most of them Black, and many of them women — as Opulence Wine sold out.

The Opulence wines

2018 Napa Valley cabernet
Persistent flavors of plum, cassis, currant with a hint of herb and finishes with a firm tannins

2019 Lodi pinot grigio
Primary fruit flavors of white nectarine, pear, green apple, and lime. It takes on faint honeyed notes; floral aromas of honeysuckle with a refreshing twinkle of acidity.

Both are sold at House of Pure Vin in downtown Detroit, ML Spirits in Birmingham, A-Star Convenience in Rochester Hills, and on the Opulence wine website.