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Mantra Wine Distributors hopes to diversify Charleston's wine lists

Fighting for Change

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Jonella Orozco and Brooke Lago want to expand local wine selections beyond red, white and rose by making the lists more representative of the people producing such wines.

But first, they need capital.

With more than 30 years of combined hospitality experience, Orozco and Lago have long known that minority representation is lacking on many local wine lists. That's why they launched Mantra Wine Distributors, among the first American distributors that will work solely with black, Latinx, female and LGBTQ+ producers.

Orozco and Lago said consumers are willing to try wine from minority-owned producers, but those wines aren't as easy to find.

The idea began when Orozco, the certified sommelier at Peninsula Grill prior to the pandemic, wanted to add some wines that represented her Mexican American heritage.

"Despite several months of effort, we ultimately were unable to get the wine into our program through our local distributors. From that research, I found that Latinx-owned wineries had very little representation in our food and beverage scene," she said.

When the George Floyd protests began in May, Orozco said she looked into black-owned wineries and also noticed their lack of representation in the local market.

"I compiled a list of about 60 known black-owned wineries in the U.S. and found that only three of them were available in the area, two of which were bought by superstars and millionaires, and not by working class citizens," she said.

Those experiences led Orozco and Lago to create a business plan for Mantra Wine Distributors while both were furloughed from Peninsula Grill, which closed temporarily due to the pandemic. The business partners are confident they can make a difference for small, family-owned wineries.

"That's the thing. We're not saying, 'Try this wine because it's a Mexican-owned winery,'" Lago said. "It's more that it's a really great wine and you should try it. They're not getting the opportunity to try it and they're not realizing that they're not getting the opportunity."

Orozco and Lago said representing these producers is important, especially since the wine distribution industry has high barriers to entry.

"We are still in the fundraising stage," said Lago. "The funds that we've raised so far, we're putting towards getting the programs processed, getting licensing and setting up things that we need to do. Right now, we haven't raised enough capital to start purchasing product."

According to Lago, they are still waiting on permits to be approved — a process that can take up to eight weeks.

"South Carolina and the federal government are really picky with distributors as far as legalities go," Orozco said. "There's a lot of compliance stuff that we need to look into."

"The permits are expensive," said Lago. "And when we do receive them, it's $2,500 bi-annually just to keep running. There are a lot of breaks in prices the bigger you go, but unfortunately that's the antithesis of what we're trying to do. We are the only employees, so our whole business model is going to rely on getting cases in and turning them back out because we don't have the money like a giant distributor would to just sit on giant cases of wine."

Despite the obstacles ahead, Orozco and Lago said they have producers to represent once the permits are in. So far, the women have made connections in California, Oregon and Texas with wine producers they hope to bring to Charleston. As of July 6, Mantra Wine Distributors made some official contract offers, they said.

"A lot of the smaller producers are family-owned, and we kind of shine dealing with them one-one-one," said Lago. "We really look into each producer that we want to carry and we go in with the hope that they want us to carry them because we already know that we want to carry them. We've had a lot of positive responses from producers and most of them have said they really resonate with what we're doing and have found that representation has been a huge issue for them."

For more about Mantra Wine Distributors and to donate to their Gofundme, visit mantrawinedistributors.com.

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