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DC Entrepreneur: Justin Harrison-CEO of Vinolovers

Justin Harrison, CEO of Vinolovers
Justin Harrison, CEO of Vinolovers
Armando Gallardo

Sitting down and talking with CEO of Vinolovers, Justin Harrison was like being introduced to wine all over again. The fervor in his eyes was palpable and the manner in which he spoke about wine culture was as if he was reminiscing about an old friend.

Examiner: Tell us a bit more of what Vinolovers is.

JH: Vinolovers is a monthly wine subscription catered to the customers’ palette that is developed through a palette assessment. The assessment asks questions like what are your favorite scents; because at a tasting it is all about what you smell and what you taste. Then there are more indirect questions like how do you take your coffee or tea to figure out tannins and how much astringency your palette can take.

Examiner: How did Vinolovers get started?

JH: Vinolovers is actually a family business, started by our matriarch, my mother; Brenda. We come from a family of great cooks, my grandmother, my mother and my aunt. My mother developed a love for wine pretty late. She found it interesting that amongst her contemporaries and friends that they would drink a lot but nobody knew anything about it, so she started doing these dinners; Vinolovers Dinners where we would bring in wine makers or sommeliers to present wine to our friends and families.

At that time I was working in finance and I thought it was pretty fun as a 22 year old selling people on mortgages to show them there are more dimensions to me and began bringing clients to our events. By that time, I started to get the bug and I was learning some things; I’m naturally curious and love to eat, so it was a good thing. That’s when Vinolovers as a brand and entity started.

So my passion for wine took off from there and I went to the Culinary Institute in St. Helena, California and took classes for a summer, full wine immersion. Then I went to Babson in Boston to get my MBA and I had an opportunity to look at the industry from every angle. I consulted for a large distributor in New England, managed a wine store, and in between my first and second year of business school I went back out to Sonoma to do business development consulting for wineries.

I began to see really how the industry works and I got to see that small wineries have a tough time getting sufficient distribution in the way that the system currently works. If you don’t make the volume, it’s tough to get big distributors to push your product; and I always thought that was wrong. Working in the retail end, I got to be face to face with the customers and I found that people would always say what they like and that would be all they wanted to drink. The fun part was when you get to convince somebody to try something new and they come back and tell you they like it, the trust is built and their mind and palette opens up to try new things. So I came back to DC and became a sommelier and saw that there was a gap of the small wineries needing distribution and customers wanting education and that’s where the foundation for Vinolovers came.

Examiner: Why wine? Most people wouldn’t pair Millennials with wine.

JH: One thing that fascinated me most about wine was its ability to connect people, much like food, there’s always a story behind it that people can enjoy. There’s something about wine that just brings people together, I think it is the nature of something that came from grapes as well as the nurturing process that someone had to put the time in to create with the history behind it. Statistics are showing that Millennials are drinking more wine now, so wine is not just for our parents anymore.

Examiner: What wine(s) would you suggest to a newer palette?

JH: Lambruscos are awesome because they are sweet, red and have bubbles in it. It’s a fizzy red wine that is a great pair with food or on its own because of its versatility. Pinot Noir is also a great choice to introduce someone to, they are light bodied wines with a lot of fruit characteristics and not a lot of tannins which is the stripping sensation you get with fuller bodied wines.

Examiner: Since we’re on the subject, do you have a favorite wine or wine region?

JH: The way that I usually drink is by narrowing it down by region, so I will drink a region for a couple of weeks. As far as my favorite wines, there are two that first got me interested in wine, and the third is like my “Ah-ha moment”.

So what got me into wine was Pinots and Burgundies, those were the first times that I thought, “Hey, this is pretty good.” And I decided to look into them some more. My “Ah-ha moment” came when I was in California at the Culinary Institute and we had a tasting at Shafer Winery and Mr. Shafer opened up his private cellar for us and he opened up a ‘07 bottle of Cabernet Reserve and it was like, “Ohhhh, Ah-ha! I got it!” All you need is that one, so when people say they don’t like wine, it’s because they’ve never had that one.

Examiner: What are some up and coming projects for Vinolovers?

JH: We have VinoFest coming up on June 28th at Union Market at Dock 5. There will be a wine tasting from 2pm-6pm where people will get to taste 10 different wines; we will have wines from across the globe. Food vendors from Union Market eateries will have food for purchase. Nine live music performances including; Jessie Boykins III who is blowing up right now, Eric Hilton from Thievery Corporation, Clairy Browne and The Bangin’ Rackettes who has an Amy Winehouse type of sound; a really eclectic group of musicians. There will be an art exhibit paying homage to the DC culinary scenes and various neighborhoods that makeup the city. It will be very visual with a lot of historical relevance. The goal is to bridge the old school DC with the new school DC.

Examiner: What is your favorite quote?

JH: “You cannot have bad wine with good company.”

Examiner: Do you have advice for any young entrepreneur?

JH: Build a coalition around what you are doing. Nobody can build a dream or vison in a silo or alone.

Examiner: When you are not working, what else do you like to do?

JH: I like to play ball, I played college basketball so I try to get it in a few times a week. I recently started getting into yoga and meditation more. I also do triathlons as well.

It is safe to say that Vinolovers has a great head on its shoulders. Justin does an amazing job of carefully preserving the principles of wine while introducing and presenting it in a more modern avenue. Remember the name, it is Vinolovers, and at the rate they are going, they will be changing the world one bottle of wine at a time!