Like many women, Carolyn Hebsgaard and Karen Holmes Ward enjoyed drinking wine socially, although they admit that they knew little about it. When ordering at a restaurant, their wine specifications rarely extended beyond “red” and “white.”
That changed in 1999, when Hebsgaard, Ward and 10 of their girlfriends decided to educate themselves, and other women, about the history of wine and the art of drinking it. What started as casual gatherings over snacks and Chardonnay expanded into the tour de force known as Divas Uncorked.
For nearly 13 years, the Divas have transformed the fun pastime of sipping wine with friends into a successful side business, international phenomenon and lifelong adventure. “It’s like a hobby run amok,” Hebsgaard chuckles.
Today, eight of the original 12 core members of Divas Uncorked remain committed to the organization and to each other. More than social wine drinkers and business associates, the ladies have become entrepreneurs, experts and the best of friends. “When I have a get together, the first people on my list are the Divas,” says Hebsgaard, a consultant and executive director for the Boston Lawyers Group. “We will always have the Divas in some form, regardless of the business.”
The idea for Divas Uncorked stemmed from dinner outings at Marché, a former restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay area. While working together with The National Coalition of 100 Black Women (NCBW), a nonprofit organization, Hebsgaard and Ward joined four other members after meetings for food, wine and conversation. After visiting the restaurant’s wine cellar, the women realized how little they knew about what they were drinking.
Stephanie Browne, an Information Technology expert and another co-founder of Divas Uncorked, insisted that the group learn more about wine on their own. She offered to host the first dinner party, which she modeled on her mother’s bridge club parties. The six women each invited a friend — totaling 12 professional, self-proclaimed A-type divas, now in their 50s and 60s — forming the core group of the organization. Kicking off the festivities at 2 p.m., the ladies ate, drank and merrily studied the history of wine until midnight.
“The beginning of Divas Uncorked happened innocently,” says Ward, a television host and producer at WCBV-TV. “We just wanted to learn about wine in a fun and relaxed way. Like a ‘spoonful of sugar,’ studying wine is easier with friends.”
The relatively simple fêtes morphed into themed, five-course dinners replete with gift exchanges, guest lecturers and hours of laughter. Friends of the Divas heard about their wine parties and envied the regular celebrations.
Shortly thereafter, they started planning public wine dinners with local experts, including Alicia Towns, wine director at Grill 23, and Jody Adams, chef/owner of Rialto, who appeared on the reality television program “Top Chef.” The dinners grew into larger conferences, attracting a turnout of more than 100 women per gathering.
The get-togethers underscored the importance of friendship while bonding over wine education. The Divas aim to teach women about wine in a fun, relaxed fashion while boosting self-confidence when making wine choices. Having learned the nuances of their own wine preferences while strengthening friendships, the founders of Divas Uncorked want to encourage and teach other women to do the same.
Ward can now describe to sommeliers what she wants to order or pair with appropriate dishes. “I can’t necessarily say that I want a bottle of 1978 such-and-such,” she says. “But I can now attach adjectives to my description and articulate specific preferences.” From her education with Divas Uncorked, Ward has learned that the oaky, vanilla flavors which appeal to her fit the profile of a Chardonnay. Conversely, the grassy, citrus flavors that she avoids are characteristic of a Sauvignon Blanc.
According to the Divas, women are largely neglected by the male-dominated industry and receive less attention from salespeople at wine shops and liquor stores. Ward explains that men and women shop differently for wine. While men tend to spend more money, often to impress a woman, women generally seek value or follow a recommendation. “The wine industry certainly wasn’t responsive to women or people of color,” Hebsgaard says. “So, like divas, we took it on ourselves!”
Since their inception, Divas Uncorked have caught the media’s attention, appearing in O Magazine, Edible Boston and Reuters, as well as a stint on NBC’s “Today Show.” Also, in their free time, the ladies, all of whom have full-time professions outside of Divas Uncorked, represent at food and wine festivals, including South Beach and Martha’s Vineyard; manage their own website (www.divasuncorked.com); sell their own wine, Divas Uncorked Chardonnay, which is produced by the Mendocino Wine Company; and organize wine tasting cruises called Divas at Sea.
Their progress has been conspicuous, although not always easy. Hebsgaard explains that gaining financial support and securing sponsorship for their cause has been challenging. “I still consider us a startup,” she says. “It’s really hard out there for women, especially women of color, to run a successful business.”
The obstacles have not deterred the Divas, who plan to continue growing, both personally and professionally. “The more we learn about wine, the more we want to share,” says Hebsgaard. “The best way to do that is to create audiences with groups of women. Just when we thought ‘this is good enough,’ something else would come up.”
The next thing up for the Divas is their second annual cruise in September, when they will sail around the Mediterranean Sea for 11 days. As advertised on their site, the “wine savvy, not wine snobby” ladies invite interested parties to join them and a sommelier on board to learn about wine and visit Italy, Turkey and the Greek Islands.
Although the Divas pride themselves on “first-class, five-star service” for their events, they also stress the importance of humility in their organization. Ward claims that their goal is to demystify the process of ordering and learning about wine, as well as removing the “Frasier Crane, snooty approach.”
The future of Divas Uncorked has not been determined, but the cohesion of the core group of friends is stronger than ever. “The thing I know for certain is that we’ll be together for the rest of our lives,” Hebsgaard says. “We will always have the thing we started with: wine, food, friendship.”
(This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Exhale magazine.)