The Urban Grape launches new wine studies award for students of color


Photo courtesy Greta Rybus

TJ and Hadley Douglas pictured in front of a wine rack at The Urban Grape

Matt Yan, news staff

At The Urban Grape, a wine, beer and spirits store in the South End, wine instills a sense of community. In co-owners TJ and Hadley Douglas’ latest endeavor, The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color, they seek to diversify their community and amplify the voices of people of color both at their store and in the wine industry.

As a Black business owner and member of the wine industry, TJ Douglas’ intention of creating an award like this arose from his experience with the lack of representation within the wine industry. 

“I felt that for years and even until now, I’m pretty much one of the only people of color in my industry in Boston,” said TJ Douglas, who opened The Urban Grape with his wife in 2010. “I wanted to get more people of color into the industry.” 

However, in his experience, getting people of color into the wine industry has been difficult. When hiring, he said there are no Black applicants, but not because they don’t drink wine. “It’s just that they might not feel that there’s an opportunity to have a career in the wine industry,” Douglas said. 

With their business taking off due to COVID-19, deliveries and the Black Lives Matter movement, the Douglases had $10,000 to put towards an endowment fund at Boston University where the program is held. The award covers the cost of the program for one student starting in September. 

“Since I’ve worked on all three sides of the business here in Massachusetts — the wholesale, retail and restaurant sides — we wanted to start a mentorship program specifically for people of color,” Douglas said.

The mentorship program is a partnership with an existing wine studies program at The Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center at Boston University — a program that Douglas himself went through. The four-level program teaches students how to taste wine and understand geographic regions and different grape varietals.

The program at BU is different than most, Douglas added, because unlike other programs, such as The Court of Master Sommeliers or Wine & Spirit Education Trust, it is more for the consumer. 

The student begins classes with the basics at Level One, to give someone who may be completely unfamiliar with wine and the industry a clear introduction. It begins with understanding winemaking, wine bottles and the origins of wine. While taking classes, the student will also hold different four-month internships within the industry.

“You can start with zero wine knowledge and start your wine career through [the classes]. The second part is the three-prong paid internship and mentorship program,” Douglas said. “They’ll work at The Urban Grape, taste wines with me, learn how to run a brick-and-mortar, and they’ll also work at a restaurant group called Big Heart Hospitality.”

Working at The Urban Grape, the student will learn Douglas’ “progressive shelving” method at his store. The setup is akin to a restaurant’s wine list, Douglas described, but categorized by the wine’s consistency, ranging from lighter body wines with a skim milk viscosity to more full-body wines reminiscent of heavy cream. Therefore, while the wines might be from different vintages, grape varietals or geographic regions, their mouthfeel, he said, is what categorizes them together within this progressive method. 

Afterwards, Big Heart Hospitality will teach the student how to write a wine program, rain staff and even pair wine with food. Next, they move on to the distributor MS Walker, where they learn the logistics of sales and the warehouse side: a part of the wine industry “where most Black and brown people work,” Douglas said.

“They’ll come out of this program and paid internship with this ridiculous amount of knowledge and [a] crazy network,” he said. “Then, they can choose their own path in the industry.” 

Though The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color only started this year, the Douglases have big plans for the future. Building off of their initial $10,000, they are now aiming to raise a total of $100,000 to create an endowment, where the endowment’s interest will pay for one student every year. Increasing the endowment, Douglas said, will fund more students to go through the program. 

Ultimately, the goal for this award is to make it national, subsequently turning it into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. 

“This is going to give access and let people understand that they can have a place in this world [of wine] that I love,” he said. “Hopefully, this will mean generational change for these people.” 

With the Black Lives Matter movement, Black-owned businesses like The Urban Grape have seen more support. As protests in Boston began in early June, an intruder broke into The Urban Grape. However, according to both Douglas and a statement after the incident, the event was seemingly unrelated. Despite this incident, Douglas said, The Urban Grape’s stance on the Black Lives Matter movement remained the same. 

“As a black-owned business it is important that we say this to you: we support the important social justice movement that is happening in our city and others across the country,” Hadley Douglas wrote in a statement on June 1.

The amplification that has come from the Black Lives Matter movement, TJ Douglas said, is what has increased their business. 

If people want to feel that they’re helping the Black community and if we’re their outlet for that, then they’re going to take advantage of the opportunity to openly support someone,” he said. “Because we’ve gotten so much press, other people have found out about us and also want to support [us].”

For the Douglases and The Urban Grape, having diverse voices and visual representation within the wine industry is of paramount importance and is the underlying purpose of the award. Wine, TJ Douglas said, facilitates and creates a sense of community, not only within the wine industry but also among other Black-owned businesses in general. 

“For me, wine is all about community. When we wrote our business plan 11 plus years ago, our mission statement is to help build community through beverage – wine brings people together,” he said. “If wine can bring people together, then other Black businesses can bring people together.”


The Urban Grape is located in the South End at 303 Columbus Ave. Applications for The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color are due August 15, and more information on the award can be found here

This story is a part of a series within the city section, which explores the stories of Black-owned small businesses surrounding Northeastern and throughout the Boston area. 

Matt Yan can be reached at [email protected] and @yanmatt0 on Twitter.