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A Journey In the (Wine) Making: Pur Noire Urban Wineries

by Amber Ambrose    March 9, 2022

Every sip of wine is the culmination of a long journey, and each glass has a story to tell. Thanks to Carissa and Kenneth Stephens, more people are taking that journey by visiting their tasting room Downtown. But the Stephens have their own journey to sha

THE START

"Babe, if we're always going to be working, we need to do something that we're working on together," Carissa told Kenneth one evening as the two entrepreneurs were working side-by-side on their own projects on their couch at home.

“We thought, ‘What is something that we could build together and be able to share with others?’ We can't scale ourselves. So we knew that a tangible product would be the answer,” Carissa says.

Fast forward to a splurge purchase of a bottle of pinotage at the recommendation of a sommelier, their interest piqued after learning the wine was vinted and imported by companies owned by people of color. From this point forward, their palates and interests expanded as the couple tasted and enjoyed wine as a mutual passion.

And then in 2016, the couple took a trip to Italy and there was no turning back.

“I'd always had an interest in wine, but we fell in love with it to the point where when we got back to the States, we completely geeked out,” says Carissa. “Like in our spare time we were watching wine documentaries, we were reading, we were asking each other questions, we were making wine runs and tasting wines from all over the world.”

THE HISTORY

In 2019, the couple made it official, creating their own e-commerce brand, crafting, bottling and selling their wines online, shipping a limited selection to customers across 37 states.

“Originally, we were licensed in California, but we only did direct to consumers,” says Kenneth. “We would do events throughout the city [of Houston], and people would drink the wine and they loved it, and we noticed a spike in sales every time. And so I turned to her and was like, ‘We need to build a tasting room in Houston.’”

"Because we're the first Black-owned winery in Houston...it was really nice that they took a bet on us." 

So the couple licensed the winery in Texas and started looking for spaces, intent on bringing the experience to an urban location.

Originally planning to open in the Meyerland area, Kenneth spotted their now-location at 802 Milam St., Suite 103, called his real estate agent excitedly, and the deal was done, though the building was not.

“We had to have a huge imagination and a very clear vision, because nothing was here,” says Carissa. “There were no walls, there was no color, the ceiling was awful. There were wires hanging everywhere. It was a rough blank slate.”

“If you can even call it that,” says Kenneth.

After noticing the paint on the century-old building’s exterior matched the Pur Noire logo’s colors of white, black and gold, Carissa knew it was “divine alignment.” Their vision and faith kept the couple focused on moving forward, despite the challenges and unknowns of financing the project.

While Carissa honed in on operations, Kenneth went into fundraising mode, which  paid off in the form of an SBA loan from Unity Bank, along with other sources of support and investments from their personal finances as well as reinvesting revenue from online sales.

“Because we're the first Black-owned winery in Houston, and it was a Black-owned bank funding it, it was really nice that they took a bet on us,” says Kenneth. “We were like, ‘OK, this is really going to happen.’”

“There's a lot of history being made around here,” says Carissa.

“Being the first Black owners of a winery in Houston is a surreal and proud feeling. We believe representation matters, so a big driver for us early on when we established the brand was to be that representation of African American vintners in the wine industry where we've been historically underrepresented on even a global scale. Our main hope for the future of the wine industry and the Black community is a better understanding of quality wine and a deeper appreciation for artisanal winemaking through accessible wine education. This, in turn, will attract more industry professionals of color, broadening representation of Blacks across all areas of the industry. This would also empower wine buyers of color to make more informed decisions when deciding what wines to buy.” —Carissa Stephens

THE WINE

There’s also plenty of wine being made by Pur Noire. What began as a selection of three wines in 2019 has tripled to nine as of 2022. To what do the Stephens attribute the growth of their product line over such a short time?

“I thought, ‘Well, we're building a tasting room, but then people were just going to come and taste three wines?’" says Kenneth. “And so I think the long and short of it was from necessity.”

“It's like what comes first, the chicken or the egg?” says Carrisa.

Expanding the Pur Noire collection was, and still is, a labor of love, but labor nonetheless. While maintaining the customer-facing operations and building a tasting room, the Stephens were bouncing back and forth from Texas to California, where all their wine is currently produced.

“On the front end of it, it's identifying vineyard partners, because everything is coming from California. And so after we've done that, it's about figuring out where the wine is going to be made,” says Kenneth. “Normally we're using one of two facilities. One's in Lodi, one is in Napa, both are in California.”

When the production facility is procured, then it’s time to schedule harvest. From there, the process of aging begins, with variable timing depending on the harvest as well as the type of grapes used in the wine. The Stephens prefer to age their product in French oak barrels, a signature of the Pur Noire brand.

“And then after we've gone into barrel, my favorite part is the blending sessions,” says Kenneth. “A lot of people don't know most of the wines that they drink are in fact blends even though they’re labeled as a single varietal.”

“Wine is the intersection between science and art,” says Carissa. “And so much can change your product and your wine in the winemaking process; a lot of it is subjective.”

Next comes the bottling, corking, labeling and shipping of the wine from California to Texas. Because their current footprint in Downtown is just enough space to house a tasting room and member lounge, they also lease a refrigerated space for offsite storage. As Kenneth says, “it’s an operation of a lot of moving parts.”

"So much can change your product and your wine in the winemaking process; a lot of it is subjective." 

THE WORK

Despite the complex logistics and timing, personal involvement is a must for the Stephens, because creating a brand they love means putting a lot of love into the brand.

“You see a lot of celebrity brands popping up where it's just an endorsement or somebody just puts a label on a bottle. This is completely different from that,” says Kenneth. “We're heavily investing our own time and our own energy and our own resources and our own money and ourselves.”

“Our own blood, sweat and tears,” adds Carissa. “It looks very glamorous, but people don't see the behind-the-scenes daily grind that is required to start, grow, maintain a business like ours.”

Working hard—together—adds yet another layer to Pur Noire’s dynamism. Carissa and Kenneth’s passion for good wine is at the center of their Venn diagram, but when it comes to the business, they balance one another with complementary strengths.

From Kenneth’s point of view, Carissa brings charisma, personality, charm and a contagious level of enthusiasm about the brand. Her natural energy and passion for the company makes her a “phenomenal” salesperson, marketer and brand ambassador.

“I could never sell a product I didn’t believe in,” says Carissa.

From Carissa’s perspective, Kenneth brings equilibrium to their partnership through big-picture planning and real-world strategy execution. His ability to anticipate next steps and find ways to get them done (or tweak them if necessary) helps keep the company running and expanding efficiently.

“I'm kind of the practical person,” says Kenneth. “I'm looking for the big picture and I'm always like, 'OK, what's next? How do we grow this thing?'"

THE FUTURE

As the wine club and community grows, the Stephens are ready to maximize their Downtown Houston tasting room, where they feel they’ve yet to scratch the surface.

“We're right next to the Theater District, and so there's a lot of opportunity and a lot of channels for people to one; realize we're here and two; make a choice to include us in their plans for the day,” says Carissa.

Busy times for the winery are—not surprisingly—evenings and weekends, but Pur Noire is hoping word of mouth will help bring in more Downtown residents as well as Houston tourists to schedule tastings for daytimes (they open at 1 p.m.) and weekdays.

“I really would like to see the folks in the city plan on their Wednesday or Thursday when they're leaving work to stop in and do a tasting with us and get that experience because we're right here,” adds Kenneth.

The couple understands the urban location is a twist on tradition, since most tasting rooms are associated with tourist-frequented areas located on estate wineries, but that’s the point.

“We wanted to bring a traditional tasting room experience, but in a nontraditional setting,” adds Carissa. “This is a very deserving market, a very deserving community.”

Even though Houston is the focus for the immediate future, the Stephens are eyeing expansion within Texas once things are humming along at their flagship in Downtown.

“Our logo says ‘Pur Noire Urban Wineries,’ plural,” says Carissa. “As far as we've come, this is still just the beginning of our story.”

1. How does THE WINE CLUB work?

You sign up for a specific level of membership, commit to spending a specific amount of money on each wine shipment (quarterly or monthly), receive built-in discounts for your loyalty, invitations to special events and gain access to the members lounge inside the Pur Noire tasting room.

Levels and benefits:

Pur Indulgence—A commitment to buy 12 wines per year in $125 quarterly shipments. This membership includes a 15% discount on wine orders, discounted or complimentary event admission and access to limited and new releases.

Pur Lifestyle—A commitment to buy at least one bottle ($40 minimum) per month. At this level, members can customize their orders before shipment and receive a 25% discount on orders, taste new vintages and pre-order before they go on sale to the general public and get VIP access to Pur Noire events, which includes complimentary wine and food.

Pur Lifestyle+—A commitment to buy at least 24 bottles per year, shipped monthly for a minimum of $60 per shipment, plus a monthly experience fee of $85. The highest level, this includes free shipping, 25% off orders, VIP event access with complimentary wine and food, access to premium and exclusive wines and access to specially curated luxury experiences like travel, local restaurant, hotel and spa packages and more.

2. Fun Winemaking Facts

Winemakers buy grapes by the half-ton, a ton, or even a “tote.” They can also purchase juice or ready-made wine for blending.

Harvest time differs depending on the varietal (type of grape), the growing region, the desired sugar content of the grapes and the weather.

The wooden barrels used for aging wines are “toasted” meaning they’re charred on the inside at various levels to produce different flavor characteristics in each wine. They range from light to medium to medium plus to heavy. The age of the barrel is also a consideration in winemaking; the older the barrel, the softer the impression it will leave on the final product.

While Pur Noire wines are aged in French oak, wines can be aged in all kinds of materials including stainless steel, clay and concrete.

What’s the difference between French oak and American oak? The former is lighter in density and adds more tannins (a naturally occurring chemical compound adding bitterness, astringency and complexity of flavor) as well as a subtler impression on the wine. The latter produces sweeter, bolder wines and is denser in composition, weighing up to twice as much. The price difference is also notable. A French oak barrel is double the price of its American equivalent.

“Old-world” style wines tend to have lower alcohol, increased minerality, more subtlety in fruit and a lighter body. Pur Noire’s signature style is considered “new world,” meaning it’s higher in alcohol, heavier bodied and fruit forward.



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