In Conversation With Julia Coney
The wine writer, educator and speaker with a discerning nose is on a mission to lead the wine world into a more diverse, inclusive future.
It’s rare that someone has the heart and metal to challenge the established norms of an industry as deep-rooted as winemaking. But that’s exactly what Julia Coney has done. I met her through my family’s own connections to the business and am constantly inspired by the way she deftly breaks down the barriers that keep so many feeling left out and insecure about learning about and enjoying wine. After two successful careers, she took a leap of faith—using her love of food and wine to become a passionate, powerful force at the junction of race, wine and language. The recipient of Wine Enthusiast’s 2020 Social Visionary Award Winner and Founder of Black Wine Professionals, she is a tireless advocate for lifting new voices in a centuries-old province. While she holds a WSET Level Two Certification in Wine and Spirits and is currently pursuing her Master Level Champagne Certification, she is not afraid to wax poetic about pairing a Napa Cab with McDonald’s.
Julia is the kind of person that engages you on every level, beautifully upending what a wine insider looks like today. I am thrilled to be able to share our conversation with you.
I want to know how you went from fine lines to fine wines*?
(*I didn't make this up. somebody said it to me once.)
That’s so funny. I love that. Beauty was my second career, wine is actually my third. I was a legal assistant for 18 years before I got into beauty. I originally worked in Houston (my hometown) as a legal assistant before moving to Washington D.C in my late twenties. I worked for a lawyer there who was a huge Napa Valley fan. He invited me to a barbecue at his house and showed me what foods and wines go together. He paired Caymus and Clos du Val with Texas brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches. My mind was blown. Six months later, he helped me plan a trip to Napa by myself where I visited Clos du Val, Caymus, Stag’s Leap in Napa and Merry Edwards and Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma.
Were you buying wines and shipping them home at this point?
I was buying wines, but I wasn’t shipping them because I was young and I didn’t have that kind of money. He told me to buy two suitcases and put my towels in them and ship my cases back in the suitcase.
One of the things that I always hear about you (and love) is that you will step off a plane with a suitcase full of champagne.
So how did beauty become your second career?
I was living in D.C. and working as an intellectual property legal assistant, which means I worked on the very first iPhones and it was fascinating. I very much enjoyed it. Then in 2006, my oldest brother died in Houston. After coming back to D.C., a friend of mine said, “You’re really into beauty. Do you know this woman named Tia Williams?” (At the time, she was the beauty editor at Elle and Lucky under Jean Godfrey-June.) She was going to be in D.C. at Howard University signing her books and talking about beauty writing. And I said “Okay, I’m going to go.”
Before this, were you into makeup and skincare?
Skincare always. When I turned 16, my grandmother gave me a full kit of Estée Lauder skincare. She was like, “You've got one face, take care of it.” Later, I started going to France for facials. (I had studied abroad there.) All my friends are saving to buy a house, buy a nice car, or buy a fancy bag. And I said, “No, I’m going to France so Anne Semonin can give me a facial.” I would buy all of my beauty products and bring them back. So when I met Tia in 2006, she asked, “What do you do for your skin because it is awesome?” I said, “Oh, I fly to Paris every year to get a facial and buy my products.” And she looked at me and was like, “You need to start a blog.” And I said, “I don’t want to start a blog.” She said, “Please. People need to see you, a black woman and I need it too, because I don’t even do that, and I write about beauty.” She emailed me a week later asking again. I didn’t know what a blog was. So I thought about it and I talked to my mom and my aunts. I didn’t want to call it something about beauty. My mom said, “Call it ‘All About The Pretty,’” because that was my grandmother’s saying. She’d say “Oh, this is all about the pretty.” You know Southern grandmothers. And so that’s what I did. I started All About the Pretty in March 2006 while I was still working for the law firm.
So you were the original beauty blogger?
Yes. I was the OG beauty blogger. So much so that in 2008, Women’s Wear Daily had the top 10 beauty blogs and mine was on there. I loved it. And eventually, I was making as much money on the blog as the law firm. So I quit my job in 2010 to do beauty full-time.
So how did having one of the top beauty blogs turn into a career in wine?
When I would go to France, I would return with a suitcase of beauty and a suitcase of wine. In 2013 or 2014, I interviewed Olivier Polge, a famed perfumer who created Flowerbomb. We went to lunch and he asked, “Do you drink champagne?” I was like, “Oh, yeah. I love Ruinart.” We started talking about wine and fragrance at lunch. He discussed how wine and fragrance were very similar. And as a person who loves luxury fragrances, I went kind of nuts. He asked me, “What do you think this Ruinart champagne smells like fragrance-wise?.” And I said, “Lubin's Nuit de Longchamp fragrance.” And he said,“Exactly! But most Americans don’t know about Lubin.” But I knew. From that moment on, he helped me study fragrances and flowers in Grasse. I realized wine and fragrance are so similar. I never thought about being a wine journalist. I read Dorothy Gaiter (the beloved wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal). I knew who she was. I watched the film SOMM that year. I thought “Well, I don’t want to work at a restaurant, but if they're smelling all that, I’m smelling that in fragrance.” But that’s not a career I thought.
So how did it finally happen?
In January 2015, my second brother died, and I’m down in Louisiana with my mom. And I said something about the blog and my mom said,“You don’t want to do that anymore. Then she asked me, “What do you want to write about?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Yeah, you do. You're just scared to start another career.” She asked again, “What do you want to write about?” And I said, “Food and wine.” And she said, “Okay. Figure it out.” At that time, beauty and travel writing were my full-time job. So I was like, “Oh my God, starting a new career at 42? What?”
So now you are thinking, “I want a job in this”
Yes. And when I realized it, I started praying about it. I'm a big believer in prayer. I said, “I want to be the next Dorothy Gaiter.” Because that's who I looked up to. Dorothy Gaiter with Jancis Robinson's humor. I knew about Dorothy because I had been reading her for so long. I read everything she wrote. And then I thought, “Holy sh*t. How am I going to make money?” I have to support the habit. When my mom left after visiting me in January 2016, she said, “You're going to receive an email from that wine school in D.C. I prepaid for your certifications, whenever you're ready.” I'm standing in an airport crying. And I said, “Okay.” And she said, “Just like you made the beauty thing work, I believe in you. You can make this work.” My husband said, “I know it's going to be tough. But you can do this.” I started reading all the wine blogs I could find. I found out there was this wine blogger conference. I found out some girls in D.C. had a podcast. I just cold-emailed everybody. And then I thought, “Well, I've got to do a website because I don't want it on All About The Pretty.” The beauty blog was 10 years old in March 2016. I decided to do one last post, keep it up for a week, and take the entire blog offline. I literally started over. I coded the website myself. I had $40,000 of my own savings and thought, “That'll take me for a year. That's a salary. If I don't shop for anything but wine.”
What was your first big break?
People are shocked when I say this: From 2016 to 2018, I did no paid writing work. I wrote completely for my own blog. I would take a legal contract assignment here and there so I could write my blog. Every single pitch got denied for two years. Every magazine. Because editors go for their friends and the people that have written for them before. So to read a new pitch from a new writer, they're not open. Then every editor that I had pitched earlier reached out to me when I wrote that open letter to Karen MacNeil on my blog.
Here’s the thing. There's only 2 percent of black people in the wine business. I think it’s more women than men. That's a very low percentage.
Tell us what preceded that open letter which called out the lack of diversity in the wine business.
When I decided to write the open letter, I did so because a lot of women that I eventually met in wine—really nice women who were white—tagged me about the glass ceiling in this article that had came out in The SOMM Journal. And it made me mad. I said, “Well, where are the black people?” Because I knew all the black people in wine.
To give some context, what percentage of wine professionals are black?
Here's the thing. There’s only 2 percent of black people in the wine business. I think it's more women than men. That's a very low percentage. But yet, the writer didn’t interview any of these black women for The Somm Journal story. I know black women in the business in California wine country. How did they not get asked? That’s when I decided to write something. I called my mother. She told me I was angry and nobody was going to listen. Instead, she told me to write from my heart and how it made me feel and send it to her. She was an English teacher. She said “I’ll edit it. So I started writing, and got the angry version out first. Then I went back to the other one. I sent it to her. I decided to tag every woman that tagged me about that glass ceiling. She said, “OK, it still sounds a little bit angry. Change this part, change this part.” And I did. She called me to see when it was posting. I told her I was scared. That’s when she said this. “People died for the chance for you to sit here and write about wine. You're not getting hosed down. It's grapes. Press publish.” She told me to turn my computer off and go to lunch. I didn’t turn my computer on until the next day. I came home, had some champagne, and cooked dinner. When I opened my email, I had all of these messages from black people writing things like, “Sis, thank you.” And Dorothy Gaiter, my idol. When I spoke with her on the phone she said, “The way you said that and the way you defended not having me and all these other women, the wine industry needed to hear that.” Now she is my mentor. It is all such a crazy full circle. I don't know. God really likes me right now in this lifetime for that.
What was the response to the piece?
It was overwhelming. The next day I was on Lewis Perdue’s email list. For two years I subscribed to Lewis Purdue of Wine Industry Expert. And to see my name on a Google alert about wine, I thought, “This is really big.” Then came work from the “Wine Enthusiast“ and everybody started coming after that. And I kept going from there. Thursday marks three years since my mother passed away. I feel like through everything that has happened, she has been there. So everything I do is dedicated to her and her work and service as a teacher.
How do you recharge yourself?
I'm very good at shutting my phone off and losing myself in a book. I read every night.
What was the last book you read that you loved?
The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. I like murders and thrillers. You should read her book Eight Hundred Grapes first because it's about wine. She is one my favorite writers. All her books are so different. She had a book, Hello, Sunshine. It is about a young Martha Stewart-type who lies about her past.
Can we get into some wine recommendations? First, what is your favorite comfort food wine? The wine you’re going to have with pizza or pasta or your go-to comfort food.
Honestly, my favorite comfort food is anything Southern, like a po’ boy or crawfish. And I'm always having that with bubbles. Always.
What’s your favorite affordable sparkling wine and favorite splurge sparkling wine?
For an affordable price, the J Vineyards Cuvée. I buy J Cuvée by the case to keep at my house. That’s my house sparkling. For a splurge, anything by Benoît Marguet or Cédric Moussé. Those are my two top champagne producers.
Where do you stand in the world of natural wine?
I drink a lot of natural wine from people who don't call themselves natural winemakers. They take care of the land. They take care of the people that work for them. So when we get into the whole natural debate, I don't debate. I don't get into it. I think there are so many people who make natural wine who also make great wines and they don't put all that stuff in it. They just don't follow that label, and that's okay.
And tell us your favorite splurge red?
I get why people like Burgundy. But if I'm going to splurge and I need to feel comfort, I tell people this all the time, my comfort wine is always a Napa Valley Cabernet. It's comforting to me. That's what I want. If I'm going to splurge, I'm going to go to Bordeaux.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
That I'm a serious sports fanatic. NFL, NBA, MLB. I like sports. You know how some people watch the news in the morning? I watch ESPN.
What's your dream holiday destination?
Anywhere there's water. I love water. That's the only way I can relax. I want to be in the water.
Do you ever drink cocktails?
I'm a Margarita person. I grew up with frozen margaritas in Texas but when I make it at home, I have my Cointreau, Casa Dragones and my limes. I make a clean, classic Margarita. My dream is to make a tequila.
Favorite charity or non-profit organization?
American Heart Association.
Lastly, if you could have anyone's singing voice, who would it be?
Whitney Houston. Her voice just had a purity to me that was very emotional.
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