Photo: Courtesy of WONDRY Wine
  /  04.12.2023

The alcohol industry contributes around 16 percent to the beverage economy in the United States. Society is starting to see more representation of Black ownership in wines and spirits like Diddy’s CÎROC, Ten to One, Michael Lavelle Wines, and Lobos 1707 Tequila, just to name a few. An inspiring married couple from North Texas decided to take a chance and start their own company called WONDRY Wine. For Chaz and Whitney Gates, WONDRY is a brand that dismantles exclusivity in the winemaking industry. With a fruit-infused wine and sangria collection featuring heightened alcohol content, WONDRY is shaking things up when it comes to how winemakers usually look and the way the spirit tastes.

In efforts to get the word out, the business owners presented their idea on season 14 of “Shark Tank.” With the clever slogan “Be Bold, Sip Different,” the Gates family was able to wow the judges with their unique wine brand — especially Mark Cuban. Ultimately, the founders won an investment from Cuban and are looking to break barriers in the industry. The partnership has allowed the couple to exhibit just how important diversity is in business.

In a Financial Literacy Month interview with REVOLT, Chaz and Whitney Gates talked through what inspired them to step into the wine industry, the money management skills they used to scale their business, navigating entrepreneurship and marriage, and more. Check out the exclusive conversation below.

What inspired you to start WONDRY Wine?

Whitney Gates: I actually grew up watching my late uncle in Nashville, Tennessee make wine out of his garage. I was a little girl and didn’t know anything about alcohol. But whenever I would visit, I would just be in awe watching him use the purest of fruits, vegetables, and even corn on the cob for what we called back then, “Happy juice.” Fast forward to me becoming an adult, I really wanted to pay homage to what he had done. So, I taught myself how to make wine about eight years ago, literally through google searching (laughs). Then I stumbled upon a recipe that consistently delivered a high ABV and high alcohol content fruit wine.

Chaz Gates: Whitney was the wine lady. She had buckets of wine around the house. Friends and family would try her wine and they loved it. Once we got married, we talked about really turning it into a business. We consulted with her professor who advocated for disrupting the wine industry. We got great advice and tips on how to get started.

You were recently on “Shark Tank.” Tell us what that experience was like.

Chaz: When we went on “Shark Tank,” we wanted to gain more capital. But also, more exposure. We closed the deal with Mark Cuban and that was helpful for building more relationships. Working hand in hand with Mark Cuban, we were able to connect with the world’s largest alcohol distributor. So, “Shark Tank” was definitely part of our strategy. Before that, we made our own relationships. Whitney went door to door and self-distributed. We really hustled to get our products sold. When we first launched, Whitney was pregnant at the time and we were losing sleep, plus working on the weekends. But we made it happen. Now that WONDRY is maturing, we are focusing on scaling across the country.

What has been eye-opening for you about the winemaking industry?

Chaz: How massive of an industry it is. When you’re a normal consumer and you’re buying a bottle of wine off the shelf, you don’t think about all that goes into it. In the industry, you will meet people that specialize in the type of soil you need and products that help with oxidization of the wine. Wine plays a huge role in our overall economy.

Whitney: For me, what I found eye-opening after shifting from a career in the soda industry to wine is the lack of diversity in the suppliers, the brands that are represented, and the product itself. Less than 1 percent of winemakers are Black. I think the actual percentage is less than 1 percent of that 1 percent. Knowing that we are such a unique community, who has needs like every other community, you would think there would be more representation. So, our goal is to remove barriers that are keeping members of our community from pursuing their passion. I don’t think the issue is the lack of interest in winemaking, but the lack of innovation, and there are obstacles placed that deter you from getting your foot in the door.

What are some unhealthy habits or mindsets about money that you had to let go of to truly prosper?

Whitney: When I worked in corporate, I remember spending millions of dollars on campaigns and managing billion-dollar brands. So, when you get into entrepreneurship, you think the sky’s the limit. But what I have learned is that it is important to start small. We started very small with our consumer business. We initially thought about starting at farmers markets. You want to make sure you have a viable product that you can sustain and that consumers want to purchase, not just once but twice.

Another thing I learned from watching “Shark Tank” is to run your numbers before you launch your product. Before you launch a business, you have to know the fundamentals of managing a business. That means you are not only clear about how much money you are going to make when selling a product, but how much is it going to cost creating the product? You have to be upfront about your finances in order to run a business in a profitable way.

Chaz: One thing to add to that. I know in our community, we have been taught to avoid debt — which is true when it comes to personal finances, but business is different. It took us a moment to change our mindset about that. When you have a business with a premium product, it is going to cost a pretty penny, so you may have to take on debt. Understanding how to use other people’s money, whether financing from a bank or fundraising through investors, makes a difference in how your company grows. It’s important to manage your money wisely because today you can borrow $2 and tomorrow you can turn those $2 into $10.

What is an important lesson you learned through marriage and love that has helped you become better business partners?

Whitney: The No. 1 thing for me — this may sound cliché — but communication is key. There are so many needs outside of our own personal needs within the relationship. We can’t read each other’s minds. When you layer on a business, you are juggling 1,000 balls at once. So, it has been critically important for us to be upfront about what we need from each other in order for us to organize priorities and practice humility.

Chaz: I think for me, it has been letting go of your ego. In a relationship, people say that the man is supposed to do this, and the woman is supposed to do that. But anyone who has kids and a lot of things going on understands that roles will change. Sometimes Whitney can give 60 percent and I can give 40 percent, or vice versa. So, you have to remove that ego and allow yourself to step in, in order to support your family. Just like how an ego can ruin your relationship, an ego can also kill a business.

What is your favorite self-care practice that has helped you become better entrepreneurs?

Chaz: Meditation for me. I meditate every day for about 15 minutes. It helps me center myself and remove my ego. Meditation allows me to be more empathetic and helps me to listen more. I show up as a better person because of this.

Whitney: As a new mom, self-care is unfortunately lower on my priority list. It shouldn’t be that way. But what I do to become a better entrepreneur is remove myself from the work environment and binge watch my favorite TV show, or go get my nails done. Something simple. You can really find inspiration in those pockets of peace, whether you are getting your nails done or taking a little bit longer going grocery shopping and walking around for a bit. You may be surprised at what kind of “aha!” moment you may have during those times.

Chaz: I also want to add that while there is individual care, there is also couple care. That is important too. For me, I try to make sure that she is taken care of and checking the temperature at home. I want to make sure Whitney is comfortable. I may not have the same stressors as Whitney. So, trying to help alleviate those stresses, that can be helpful for everyone. When we are equally in sync, it makes things work better.

What advice do you have for other Black business owners who want to step into the wine industry?

Whitney: When we started WONDRY, we went door to door to liquor stores and grocery stores. Chaz and I literally beat the pavement to try and get acceptance of our proposition. When you come in and you look different, people are scared of the unfamiliar. People are used to winemakers looking a certain way and wines looking a certain way. So, when you represent something different, there isn’t immediate acceptance. The big question becomes how do you break through? I will say it really takes tenacity, perseverance, and not giving up when people say no. We have heard a lot of noes. But we are here today to reassure other Black entrepreneurs to push through.



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