A mantra is a motivating chant, a sound, word, or statement repeated frequently to aid in meditation or concentration. Like whispering over and over to yourself, “I can do it,” “I am fearless,” or “It will be” before a final exam or a huge life event. Jonella Orozco and Brooke Lago chose the name “Mantra” for their new wine distribution company. They have set out on an epic mission to charter a new course in the southern hospitality mecca of Charleston, SC. Their goal is to create meaningful and everlasting change in their local wine industry with a laser-like focus on discovering and representing quality wines from minority, women, and LGBTQ+ winemakers worldwide. Why? Because no one else is doing it.
The pair met three years ago in a Wine 101 class at Trident Technical College. Jonella was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from the College of Charleston, but found her true passion in the restaurant where she had been working. She became a certified sommelier after being introduced to the complexity and breadth of the world of wine. Brooke left the Army and began pursuing a degree in Hospitality & Tourism Management from the Culinary Institute of Charleston. She has since gone on to manage and cook at Charleston’s most prestigious hotels and restaurants. They randomly sat next to each other on the first day of wine class and partnered on assignments all semester. They became fast friends and later colleagues. They first worked together at the Carolina Yacht Club and then the Peninsula Grill, where Jonella was an Assistant Sommelier and Brooke an AM Manager. Thirteen days after Brooke came on board at the Peninsula Grill, the restaurant was forced to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The women were now at a crossroads.
Like much of America, Charleston was hit earlier this year with the onset of two pandemics–one a major health crisis, the other an uprising for racial justice and equality. COVID-19 caused the abrupt shuttering of restaurants, bars, and retail stores across the country. Voted “America’s #1 Small City” by Condé Nast Traveler for the last nine years straight, the Charleston tourism industry reported roughly a $1 billion tumble in the first two months of the health crisis alone. Local businesses are hemorrhaging in what is typically one of the busiest times of year for the port city. Fewer visitors are meandering the cobble-stoned streets, touring the pastel antebellum homes, and enjoying the myriad of water sports and activities on the Charleston Harbor. Add to that, Charleston has been affected by the nation-wide protests fueled by the police shooting of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
The shooting sparked a national interest in supporting Black-owned businesses, and Jonella began looking for Black-owned wines to purchase, but found none in the Charleston area. Both ladies identify with the LGBTQ+ community, and Jonella’s Mexican-American heritage was a catalyst for them to take a hard look at the representation of all underserved communities within the Charleston hospitality market. Like so many people, Jonella and Brooke sought a new way of life that would not just take their beloved city back to pre-pandemic times but make it better than before.
Over coffee at a local Waffle House, the same place where Jonella spent many late nights after her restaurant dinner shifts studying for the certified sommelier exam, Mantra Wine Distributors was conceived. Mantra was officially established in June 2020 and recently received approval from the TTB as a wholesaler and importer. The first producer they signed was Indigenous-owned Twisted Cedar Wines from the Cedar Band of Paiute Indians in Utah. The production of these wines provides employment opportunities and support to the community on the reservation. They also represent Bodega de Edgar from Paso Robles winemaker Edgar Torres who specializes in Spanish varieties and hails from the same Mexican state of Michoacán as Jonella’s father. The newest addition to their portfolio is Shiba Wichern Cellars, founded by Kiko Shiba, a Japanese-American female winemaker in Oregon who studied viniculture and oenology at Geisenheim University in Germany. Kiko bottles a single-varietal Auxerrois (a lesser-known white wine grape important in Alsace and also grown in Luxembourg and Germany), a white blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir, along with a cuvée and single-vineyard bottlings of Pinot Noir. Mantra’s growing portfolio also includes Kita Wines (Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians), Camins 2 Dreams (wife-and-wife owned), and Ktima Brintziki (Greece’s first green winery), among others.
Jonella and Brooke are hard at work broadening their portfolio and building relationships with suppliers, outlets, and their local community. The team has a “divide and conquer” approach, so while Jonella is scouring the globe (virtually right now) for hidden wine gems, Brooke is seeking capital from investors, loans, and grants. They are equally comfortable wearing either hat. Waiting for their town to fully recover, still, they persist.
Minorities and underrepresented groups are having a monumental moment of recognition and engagement in the wine industry right now. What do you think brought on this change? Do you think it will last?
J: I think it came down to companies and businesses looking within themselves to see how they were promoting diversity and equality within their organizations, and that’s what the wine industry is doing as a whole. But it’s easier to talk about change than to do it. I think this is why we decided to jump on the idea of starting Mantra. We want it to be more about just a one-time buy for consumers because that’s not actual change. The only way the awareness will last is to be a constant in the food and beverage community, and this is what we’re hoping Mantra will be.
B: Exactly. I want to also give a shout-out to people like Lia Jones (Diversity in Wine and Spirits) for putting on webinars like “Unheard Voices”, Marcia Jones of Urban Connoisseur, Julia Coney of Black Wine Professionals, DLynn Proctor (Wine Unify), and more who are doing a lot to step up for their communities and have been working for a long time to help support minorities within the wine industry. We are far from the first or only people to care about this topic; we seem to be one of the few distributorships that want to help do something about it.
What’s been the toughest challenge of launching a new distributorship? Sweetest reward thus far?
J: South Carolina is also a tough state to deal with as far as compliance, both for distributors and suppliers. Finding the right information and all the logistics to get started are challenging due to the outdated sources on the web.
B: It has felt like chasing our tails just trying to get straight answers on some things. For me, the most challenging part has been struggling to get financed. We were hoping that our GoFundMe campaign would strike a note with more people across social media and that we would be able to raise a fair amount of capital that way. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t taken off as we had hoped despite a lot of support for what we are doing in general. It’s been hard finding private investors, and banks aren’t offering loans right now due to COVID. So it’s been difficult to make plans for getting fully operational without the funding in place to support that yet. The best part is the excitement we are getting from the wineries that we have talked to about partnerships. Many of them are thrilled about the opportunity to be represented here in Charleston by a company that genuinely cares about their product. That means a lot to us.
Are you in talks with any other producers?
J: I think the one I’m most excited about is a company that hires amazing winemakers to make private labels, and the proceeds go to various LGBTQ+ organizations in the US. They also have a new bottling that hits close to home for me, so I’m hoping everything goes well with them.
B: I know we can’t say too much about wineries that haven’t officially signed with us yet, but we have some potentials that I’m very excited about for placements. We are interested in offering wines that pair with the message of the restaurant or establishment. We aren’t just trying to sell the wine everywhere, but rather, we want to have our wines placed where they are the best fit and see the mutually beneficial result for both that business, the producer and of course, for us.
The Charleston culinary scene has been on fire for years now! Has the community embraced you yet? Do you think the local restaurant and retail gatekeepers (buyers) will step up and purchase your brands?
J: We’ve got a lot of great feedback from local shops and restaurants! Right before we hit a few compliance hiccups, we started canvassing the area to introduce ourselves to the community. Most people told us they would love to see our portfolio the minute we have it completed and were very excited to hear about what we’re doing. We did get a few stoic individuals who wouldn’t even hear us out and just told us to leave our information with them. Even in this modern-day and age, there is still a resistance to change, but I think we somewhat expected a few of those responses.
I love that you not only recognized that a change in the wine industry is needed, but you are enacting change. Where do you see Mantra this time next year? In 5 years?
J: We know breaking into this market is tough, but I’m hopeful that the community will embrace us and show their support for these communities by purchasing these wines. Something I’m interested in is partnering with events like the Charleston Wine and Food Festival, as well as charity events and galas focused around wine. These types of events are usually run by donations from companies like us, so I hope to see Mantra at a point where we can do that. Unfortunately, having these events also depends on the state of the nation concerning the coronavirus.
B: Jonella has also been in talks with another local distributor to start a series of classes to help educate food and beverage employees about wine and help them move up within their industry to find greater personal success. I have been talking to another local community outreach program about crafting wine education classes geared at educating the community in general about wine. We are both passionate about helping people understand what is often seen as a complex and intimidating topic, so I see Mantra being involved in a lot of educational programs.
J: Education is important for people of color in the industry. Learning about wine is incredibly hard for the average beginner in the first place, but research has shown that younger generations and people of color are drinking more and more wine in recent years. Education is an essential aspect of that.