Q&A: The co-founders of Grape Witches on the power of natural wine
Nicole Campbell and Krysta Oben are on a mission to make their favourite wines more accessible. The industry veterans launched their business back in 2016 with the shared goal of bringing the complexity and diversity of natural wine to the masses by way of tastings and education sessions that felt more like parties. Faced with the pandemic, the Grape Witches event space turned into a stylish bottle shop, Grape Glass, which now serves over 50 organic, natural and biodynamic wines available for pickup and Ontario-wide delivery.
Catching up with Nicole and Krysta, this month’s TL Insider sommeliers-in-residence, we had the chance to dig into some of their favourite wine regions, community initiatives, and what members can expect from their upcoming masterclass on February 27.
How did the two of you come to be business partners?
Nicole: I was working in wine importing at the time, around eight years ago, and Krysta has always worked in really great restaurants around Toronto. I probably met Krysta while cold-calling her, selling malbec. She’s always written really great wine lists, and we connected over our shared interest in natural wine. We started Grape Witches as a passion project with the intention of sharing different wine stories. It started with us throwing parties in the back of our friends’ restaurants, where people would often ask us a lot of questions about the wines we were pouring. We ran with that idea and started hosting educational events to talk about the wines we loved. It all happened really organically, almost by accident—and now these educational sessions are a core part of our business.
What is it about natural wine that inspired you to start Grape Witches?
Krysta: We’ve always felt that the environment is really important—I mean, we’re in a climate crisis. So, to see wine that is farmed with more respect for the environment is really inspiring. Since there are no labelling requirements for wine, we try to dive into that really transparently with our customers. We love to share who is farming the grapes, how they’re farming and what type of initiatives they’re taking to make their wineries sustainable. At first glance, natural wine can seem like such a hot trend, but it really has such deep, historical roots that we believe are worth exploring.
In what regions are some of your most popular wines produced?
Krysta: Some of our most popular bottles are also the most unusual. It’s hard to keep anything from the Loire Valley on our shelves. We also just released our first wine from Georgia—a country that has an 8,000-year history of winemaking, yet we see so little of that represented in the market. We love telling different stories that prove you don’t have to grow cabernet in Napa to command money for your wine. We love wines from Slovakia and Georgia and grapes that people have never heard of. Those wines have an equally important story to tell. I think that’s a part of natural wine that really draws our customers in.
Are there barriers in the wine industry you hope to see removed?
Nicole: There are so many! Traditionally, wine is very much advertised for white, rich men. Our intention is to disrupt that exclusivity and make safe spaces for people to learn more and experience wine in a judgment-free environment.
Part of every wine subscription at Grape Witches is donated to local organizations. Can you share a bit about the importance of community in your approach to business?
Nicole: We want to use our business to raise money for important causes, so we give a portion of our subscription sales every month to organizations around the city. We’ve been doing that for just over a year now. We also offered a scholarship back in December of 2019, and we’re working with our graduate from that program to develop a larger one that will run annually and offer advanced wine knowledge. Community and social justice are so important and have always been something we’ve tried to keep top of mind.
Where have you had to make some of the biggest pivots in response to the pandemic?
Nicole: Not long before the pandemic hit, we had just signed the lease on what was intended to be an event space. That was pretty scary, of course, as lockdowns came into effect, but with wine stores allowed to operate, we made that pivot and built our store, Grape Glass. Partnering with Company Company, the one-woman show who designed so much of our new space, we’ve been able to continue doing what we love in different ways: shipping wine across Ontario, curating wine packs and hosting bi-weekly Zoom tastings.
Congratulations on being named TL Insider’s sommeliers in residence—if there’s one wine lesson you want our members to walk away with, what would it be?
Krysta: We want them to walk away with a feeling of comfort to explore new things in wine, and with an insatiable curiosity to do it.
What can TL Insiders expect from your Natural Wine Masterclass on February 27?
Nicole: We’re going to be taking members through a Natural Wine 101. They’ll taste four delicious wines and use each sample as a touchpoint to explore some of the most exciting trends and movements in natural wine. In our tastings, we avoid using traditional terminology around the tasting notes of wine, which can feel a bit inaccessible and somewhat pretentious. Instead, we choose to focus on what’s most interesting for us—which includes the story of the winery, the people making the wine, their connection to the land and what it feels like to drink it. We’ve found this approach enables other people to really understand their palate.
Krysta: We’ll talk about the technical terms if it’ll help people understand something, but only as an afterthought. A big part of the tasting for us is to empower people to talk about the wine using a vocabulary that feels real to them and leaves them feeling confident. Regardless of how new or not-new you might be to natural wine, this session will offer something for everyone!
Register for TL Insider’s Natural Wine Masterclass on February 27 here.