A Chat with Grape Witches

We at Bartender Atlas are big fans of people doing cool things. People who have great ideas and actually act out on them. People who fearlessly create something a little different. Put a little of themselves out in the world to see how the rest of us fair with it. Torontonians Nicole Campbell and Krysta Oben are two such people. These fearless women are carving out something really great with their creation: Grape Witches. Here is a conversation that we had with these women describing what the heck a Grape Witch is, what they are doing, where they are going and how you can be inspired to make your own wild visions a reality.

Grape Witches | Bartender Atlas

Bartender Atlas: What exactly is Grape Witches?
Nicole & Krysta: Grape Witches is a community organization championing real wine through education and events. It is run by us, real life Best Friends and secret wine professionals, Krysta Oben (sommelier) and Nicole Campbell (WSET Diploma). Wine is so delicious, but there is a high barrier of knowledge! We want to help people discover how delicious wine made in a real place by a real farmer is and take away the pretension that we see too often. We want to bring a uniquely female, inclusive gaze to our events, as hospitality has traditionally been so masculine and formal. Deliciously tearing away barriers is the name of the game.

By removing our names and working as Grape Witches it allows us to take more chances, inhabit a character and wear a whole lot of velvet. It is performative and educational and coming from the most authentic pit of our souls.

BA: How did Grape Witches come about? What inspired you to create it?
N&K: We were tired of seeing our smart, thoughtful friends drinking terrible wine!

More and more often people care about what they are putting into their body and the consumer choices they’re making. It is increasingly easy to do that with food and clothing and other consumables, but actually quite challenging when it comes to wine. There are so many regions and languages and laws, it really takes years and years of study to master. There is a reason wine is so snooty!!! It is complicated and niche. OF COURSE people drink what is accessible and easy to understand. Unfortunately and increasingly the products marketed to consumers are filled with additives and residual sugar. There are up to 60 additives allowed in wine other than grapes and most of the top selling LCBO wines do have residual sugar (red and white!). It is crazy that labelling isn’t required to empower consumers to make more informed choices. These larger production wines are not bad, in the same way that larger production anything isn’t bad. But there is something uniquely powerful about wine made carefully from a special place – in the same way that more thoughtfully prepared food and handmade clothes feel more special. There is an energy and transformative element to these wines. We wanted to share this feeling (aka why we work in wine!) with people who might not be in the wine industry.

We wanted this to be a safe, fun space, where people felt excited to be. We didn’t want to make any compromises on quality of wine (ever!) and we wanted our events to be weird in the best sense – non-judgemental and homemade (we draw all our signage and decorate the space ourselves), we wanted it to feel like the best house party ever that happened to be at a restaurant. This didn’t exist in Canada, so we made it. Having a place where we can make all of our wildest ideas come to life and also feature the work of musicians, artists, dancers and creators we love is the best ever.

Grape Witches | Bartender Atlas

BA: How did you decide to work together?
N&K: Krysta used to work on her days off at Cava with some of the best hospitality people imaginable, who loved to tease her about her love of funky, off-beat wines, even while drinking (and secretly loving) them after work at fun wine bars. One poor boy whose taste buds she ruined for conventionally made wine by introducing him to hippy witchcraft wines started calling her ‘grape witch’ when inviting her out for post-service wine & fun. The best kinds of teases are the nice funny ones!

Nicole was equally teased at her day job at a wine agency for ceaselessly championing the small nooks and crannies of the winemaking world and the native varietals that made her heart sing. She tricked her boss many times into ordering wonderfully strange wines until he told her to do it herself / she just started doing it herself. Now she helps buy wizard-brew wines for Canada and it makes her heart sing.

Nicole and Krysta plotted for many late nights about how to share their obsession with their non-industry friends. Grape Witches emerged as a term of endearment and then Nicole casually checked to find the name open on Instagram and online. One thing turned into another and we pulled a website out of our butts.

Lauren, one of the GM’s of Superpoint here in Toronto, is a long-time friend and a killer wine babe herself. We love Jonny, the owner of Superpoint and the space – there is the weirdest little shipping garage in the back of the restaurant that feels like it should be illegal (in the best sense!). Magic happened and through Lauren we convinced Jonny to give the events a go. Lauren has been an incredible resource and we are so lucky to work with her. More future collaborations for sure!

It is the best when you really like the people you are working with as it feels even more make believe.

BA: Did you feel that there was a void in Toronto that you wanted to fill or was it something else?
N&K: Totally. We saw some consumer wine events but they were either stuffy and expensive or marketed to a younger crowd (kind of offensively!) and serving corporate wines that would make us order beer on a wine list. There is a beautiful culture of authentic wines of place bubbling around the world – things like RAW Wine Fair, which we have been lucky enough to attend. The culture in Toronto among sommeliers is amazing, but really wicked wine culture exists around Canada and the world; one of the best parts about our job is all the travel we get to do and the people we get to meet. It is a small, lovely industry. We wanted to bring the joyousness and authenticity of this insider niche world to regular people as it is the most special thing. Wine is food and great wine has brought people together since the Georgians left grape juice in clay pots over 8000 years ago.

BA: How did you get into wine and what is your background or history with it?
K: I’ve been working in restaurants for almost 20 years! I started out as a hostess in a nice restaurant, and the owners, servers, and sometimes guests would give me sips of their wines and teach my why they were special. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some wine regions and see how vines are cared for and wine is made… I’d like to learn more! Now a million years and lots of study and experience later, I’m the buyer/sommelier for a big restaurant with an incredible kitchen and a big adventurous wine list. It’s amazing to be able to share some of the most delicious wines in the world with strangers and friends.

N: I have been in wine forever! Growing up, my dad had a winebar and I was exposed to some incredible wines and winemaking places from a young age. After university, I moved to France to make wine in Bordeaux and do an internship with a top property. I then flipped to Australia where I did a harvest in Clare Valley. I moved back home to Toronto and started working for a wine importing agency, starting at the orders desk and eventually becoming a sales agent. I sold wine not in the LCBO to great restaurants in Toronto (including places where Krysta worked!) for a few years while completing my WSET Diploma (very hard wine certification!). I then moved to Vancouver to open our West Coast branches and become a buyer of our European wines where I really got to learn a lot. I moved back to Toronto about a year ago. I now manage our low-intervention wines of place and also call on some of the best restaurants in the city, like Krysta’s! In my spare time I write a bunch of jokes for our website and do some freelance writing because I’m a maniac!

BA: With that, when did you feel that it was time to up your game and take your wine knowledge further?
K: Every day! As a studying somm, I am constantly learning from the wine professionals around me. Educating staff is one of my favourite parts of my job, because it requires me to be on top of my knowledge and tasting game to answer questions and share info in an engaging way, and even though I’m super shy, I LOVE talking about wine to my staff! I would like the next steps in my wine education to be more business oriented (booorrrring I know, but maybe useful too!) and also would like to work a full vintage somewhere amazing, which is a bit of a challenge to do when working every day in a restaurant. But I think I’ll find a way to make it work eventually!

N: I took a break with my wine education before jumping into my Diploma. I was afraid! The Diploma is a huge time commitment and a lot of people fail, from advanced to Diploma takes 2 brutal years of study. After a year procrastinating (by taking my French Wine Scholar certification! I am bad at procrastinating?), I did it. It was harder than any university class I have ever taken by a lot and was a huge test of memory and dedication. The final wine exam consists of 5 essays and 2 flights of 6 wines served blind that you must identify and correctly explain (where the wine is from, what it tastes like, what grapes, quality level, price brand). This was an incredible challenge and I’m so happy I did it. When I found out I passed I actually cried aloud in public, it was a huge deal for me. Having a very classical education in wine enables me to take this breadth of information and bend and break the rules knowing why they are there in the first place and being irreverent about the right stuff. It also gives me the confidence to take NO BULLSHIT when mansplaining begins and be super sure of myself and my palate. Like Krysta, I would love to know more about business! This might be related to our Grape Witch dreams of having a sunny Parkdale office with a dog and a nice coffee maker where we plan plans and take a lot of flattering Instagram pictures.

Grape Witches | Bartender Atlas

BA: How did your first Grape Witches event go over?
N&K: SO WELL. We were overwhelmed with the love for GW from the first day. We couldn’t believe all the people we didn’t know following along and getting excited about what we were creating. It is always amazing to get support from the industry, but to have strangers fall in love with what we are in love with is the most exciting thing. It is a huge responsibility we do not take lightly. We are so grateful to teach people about wine and are always plotting ways to keep growing and getting better.

The first party was in January right after New Year’s (we always throw a party the first Monday of every month in Toronto!). It was a crazy time and the event was SCRAPPY as we were all exhausted after an insane holiday season. We had no idea if anyone would come and were working right up to the event! We were floored with how many people came to dance with us and try a bunch of wines on Monday January 2nd (!). It was only possible with the incredible help of the Superpoint crew and Lauren’s wicked friend Dane who is a killer DJ.

Grape Witches | Bartender Atlas

BA: How has it grown since it’s inception?
N&K: One of the goals of GW was to teach people about wine. We quickly realized that it was impossible to teach people during the party itself – it was too loud and busy! We decided to add Education Hour, an hour long seminar going through each wine, its region and why we love it so much. The Education Hour was a huge hit! We both teach wine for our jobs and to get to teach an interested audience was the sweetest thing. It also gave us great feedback on what people liked the most and wanted to know more about.

The Education Hour sold out so fast that we added a second hour! Now both hours sell out quickly and we couldn’t be more humbled. We will keep finding ways to include more people, while keeping these intimate! We are shifting everything an hour earlier for next month to include more people with earlier jobs who don’t like to stay out too late on a Monday. The other addition is a GUEST WITCH. The last two events we’ve added a special guest (or two!), which has been amazing. This is another female wine professional who we invite to choose a few wines for the night and talk about them to our group. We wanted to create an inclusive space and feature all of the smart women we knew. We love and respect our male colleagues as well, but food and wine have been dominated by male voices for so long that it was important that we only have female speakers for Education Hour.

BA: Are you planning on growing the Grape Witches monthly events into something larger? Visiting other cities?
N&K: Yes! We have pretty big Grape Witches dreams! We have already hosted a very wild party at Burdock & Co. Restaurant in Vancouver earlier this year. It was amazing! We will be back throwing another Vancouver party in May we are super excited for – more details soon on our Insta and site. We have dreams to hold events in Calgary, Winnipeg, NYC, London, Copenhagen etc! We are also open to other events focusing on one category of wine (skin contact wines, rosé only party – things like that!). We have been blown away by everyone’s curiosity and open mindedness. We are constantly texting each other ideas past our bed times.

BA: If someone wanted to start a regular occurring event in their own city, what recommendations would you have for them?
N&K: Share your world. Take your expertise and make it accessible and fun. Don’t worry about making money or what other people think of your crazy plans, surround yourself with people just as crazy as you and make each other’s dreams happen! Not focusing on financials (but not losing money!) allowed us to keep investing in the business. Also, don’t be afraid to call on your friends to help! Also, know that not everyone will like (OR UNDERSTAND LOL) what you are doing and that is okay! You don’t need to be everything to everyone. By staying authentic to your specific vision you will win the fans who will get you.

You can find more about Grape Witches on the web and Instagram. The next Grape Witches event is on Monday, May 1st at Superpoint in Toronto!

Grape Witches | Bartender Atlas

Thank you, ladies for taking the time to chat with us!

Jessica Blaine Smith
Co-creator at Bartender Atlas
Jessica co-created Bartender Atlas with her bartender husband Josh Lindley. She is a full-time photographer based in Toronto, Canada. In her professional life, she documents the lives of others. Her camera has taken her all over this beautiful world from Cuba to Trinidad to France to New Zealand and Australia. While not a bartender herself, she definitely loves a strong cocktail, preferably one that is brown and/or smokey. She also loves poutine, pilates, other peoples' children and, of course, sitting at all of your bars.
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