We Create Birmingham: Andrea Early

"There is no perfect way to taste and experience wine. I want people to feel transported by wine. And that’s what I want to bring to Birmingham. I think of wine as togetherness." Andrea Early
Interview: Meghann Bridgeman
Photos: Ambre Amari

Andrea Early is a sommelier and the founder of Bon Vivant Noir, a business focused on providing a range of educational, accessible, and delicious wine experiences. Her curated experiences aim to meet wine drinkers where they are and introduce them to wines they will love. Andrea has an impressive array of talents and professional pursuits that, like wine, have blended together beautifully into this exciting entrepreneurial endeavor!

You have an incredible range of talent ranging from military service to sommelier. You’re currently managing a full-time career as a therapist, regularly reporting to military service, and pursuing your entrepreneurial dreams through Bon Vivant Noir. What do you think is the connection between your remarkable range of professional pursuits and talents?

Honestly, I think balance. I work hard to make sure I’m stable and invest my time wisely in the multitude of things I’m involved in. I’m also a sociable person. I was the “talks a lot” kid on my report card. The military gave me structure and time management skills; being a therapist gave me insight and a deep understanding of people and connection; and of course, wine gave me adventure.

Bon Vivant Noir is my passion project, and it brings me joy to help people expand their palate and knowledge about wine. I’m a constant learner. I actually adjunct teach social work courses. I really love the educational component of wine, and I’m passionate about making learning approachable and accessible. That is my mission with Bon Vivant Noir.

My introduction to the wine industry began over a decade ago when I was working for a winery in Idaho while working on my Master’s in Social Work. I was helping with events in the tasting room. I loved the way wine brought people together. I thought having a career in the wine industry was far-fetched, especially when I saw very few people in the industry who looked like me. I focused on finishing my degree to become a therapist.

But you know, when something is your calling, it keeps calling you. And wine kept popping up. So now, I’m able to enjoy the stability of my education and career while still pursuing my passion.

Did you grow up in a wine and foodie house? If not, how’d you come to discover the world of wine?

No. I grew up in a house with no alcohol, and my mother was against us drinking. So when I went to college, I was exposed to various spirits, beverages, etc. I started out drinking Moscato, which is a pretty average starting place for most wine drinkers.

In the South, we have really sweet palates. People tend to drink what’s in their environment, so our tendency to drink sweet wine ties back to where we are and what we’ve grown. It’s cultural. It’s community. Americans love sweet things in general.

When I relocated to Boise, I discovered their robust wine country and often spent weekends wine tasting. I kind of got my start working at the winery because of my personality, not because I had the expertise. I was just in there helping out and got into tastings. I truly enjoyed connecting with people, and it stuck with me. When I drink with my friends, I always help with recommendations and try to make it an experience.

You’ve talked about shifting gears and taking your interest in wine to the next level during the pandemic. How do you think the pandemic shaped that decision?

I think it gave us all a lot of time to think. As a sociable person who is typically busy, I don’t have time to sit around and think about things. When I had time to sit with myself, I started thinking about all the things I really loved. I missed going to wine tastings and meeting new people over a glass and laughing. I missed the experience of community that was associated with wine.

And how did you elevate your wine ability?

I started reading wine books. Then I started following people in the wine industry on social media and watching wine movies/ documentaries. I wanted to use my time in a way that encouraged me, which led me to join wine organizations and enroll in certification courses. I drove to Atlanta and did my first course at a Vino Venue. There are a few different tracks to choose from.

I decided to go with a Wine and  Spirit Education Trust (WSET) certification because the focus on wine knowledge aligned with my background since I don’t currently work in the service industry. Generally, sommeliers who work in restaurants and wine bars tend to pursue the Court of Master Sommeliers. When I decided that Bon Vivant Noir would be focused on meeting people where they are in their tasting journey, I wanted to make sure my credentials gave me a solid foundation.

My goal is to educate people on how to get the most out of their tasting experience and gain a better understanding of why things smell and taste the way they do. The certification is from London, so I had to wrap my mind around the different flavor profiles and food definitions, some of which I hadn’t experienced. From there, I’ve been able to describe wines in a way that reflects my southern palate and familiar flavors making wines more approachable for my consumers.

In December, I completed my level three WSET course in Napa Valley. There are four WSET levels, and you definitely have to be intentional in tasting regularly to pass the next level. I’m not pursuing my diploma/level 4 just yet; however, I passed level two with distinction and plan to do the same with my level 3 exam in July.

When did you officially launch Bon Vivant Noir? What are the most in-demand wine experiences you provide?

I launched my business this January, but prior to this, I was hosting wine events for Black Girls Wine Society for a while. When the new year came, I wanted to do something more inclusive. People wanted my services outside of Black Girl Wine Society. I started partnering with other established entrepreneurs like my friend that’s a baker, and we hosted a dessert and wine pairing. I have a charcuterie class and wine pairing with another local woman entrepreneur where we build the board and pair wines. I’m always looking for fun ways to give Birmingham a wine event.

I think people are interested in learning about wine, but wine events are growing in popularity in the Birmingham area. I’ve been doing weekly wine tastings at Plenty of Vino in Hoover, and I talk about the difference between wines and regions,  just introductory education. We discuss things like Syrah vs. Shiraz or pinot noir from Oregon vs. Pinot Noir from France. You can sign up on Eventbrite for those events as well as Bon Vivant Noir events which are monthly.

As a wine lover who can get caught up in the wine-tasting scene, I find it so refreshing when a wine pro says something like, if you like it, then it’s good. Do you think there is truth to that, or is it just a polite way to put people at ease?

So my mentor gave me some good advice recently. She reminded me to use the word preference. There is no right or wrong way to drink wine. Even if a wine is not my preference, it must pair well with something somewhere.

So, I’m ok with that sentiment. We have to work with the palate at hand and pair well. For new wine drinkers, we can use building blocks to expand the palate, so we’re never stuck in wine. There are always new wines being produced that allow you to expand your preferences.

What price point do you think is the sweet spot for quality and economy?

$25 – $30 for a good quality wine. If you buy higher, you’re probably paying for some part of the wine-making process that’s more expensive. You’re paying for that labor, distribution, quality winemaking practices, shipping, established name, etc. But you can get good quality wine in that range of $25-$30.

And what do you say to folks intimidated by the wine scene?

Wine is for everybody. Get out there and find something you love. And when you do, expand from there. And there is nothing wrong with asking people for help. Be adventurous and curious!

What does Bon Vivant Noir mean?

A bon vivant is a person who enjoys the luxurious things in life, especially good food and drink. It’s about the experience. There is no perfect way to taste and experience wine. I want people to feel transported by wine. And that’s what I want to bring to Birmingham. I think of wine as togetherness, community, and connection.

How can we enjoy one of your wine experiences?

Follow me on Facebook, Linkedin, and Instagram so you can join events.

One weekly activity you can count on is “Sip Something Sunday,” where I post about wine bars in the area and share different introductory wine lessons.

I’ve also been focusing a lot on black-owned wine brands. One of the best cabs I’ve ever had is Longevity Wines out of California, which is black-owned.

Birmingham is growing so much, and there is room for more wine. If you’re not tuned in, it has its own following. I want people to invest in their wine journey. Come a little further with me!