A SCHOLARSHIP RECIPIENT REFLECTS ON HER PATH TO THE WINE INDUSTRY – BY JESSICA LEIGH JOLLY
The summer of 2016 is one I will never forget. The year had been a trying one, with a divorce and a major surgery, and I’d almost forgotten who I was. I’d always been adventurous, happy, and optimistic, but my experiences had made me a new person: someone who needed to get back to living life, do things they’d been afraid to do, and celebrate the beauty that surrounded them. Above all, I felt the need to be closer to home. I was living in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates at the time, but after four years in the Middle East, I knew my time there was up. I wanted a new life.
But before I moved back to the U.S., I wanted to make a memory that would always remind me of my inner magic, strength, and resilience as well as of the great things that God had destined for my future. After making a short list of destinations, I settled on Cyprus. The next thing I knew, I was stepping off the plane. I pulled my braids up into a bun and threw my passport into my backpack, ready to explore.
An avid traveler since childhood, I’d visited many places both domestic and international but had never traveled solo. I had a weeklong itinerary packed with pottery making, beautiful Airbnb stays, agricultural tours, and a stop at the Baths of Aphrodite, but one of the most memorable parts of my trip was my visit to Sterna Winery in Kathikas.
It’s a small establishment, but the level of knowledge and care its team provides to their guests is remarkable. I’ve always loved learning and cultural exploration, whether it’s related to cuisine or art, but I never saw myself becoming a sommelier. At the time, I didn’t even know what a sommelier was—I just knew that I loved having new experiences. And these were particularly vivid: I got to see the caves beneath the winery, chat with locals, and taste a plethora of different Cypriot wines as I learned about the country’s millennia-long history of winemaking.
Fast-forward to 2018: Feeling unfulfilled professionally, I thought back on my trip to Cyprus. My mom, who’s a member of a popular wine club, suggested I apply for a job as a tasting room attendant. The experience I had in this role confirmed that becoming a sommelier would be a part of my journey: The trainings were fun and no day felt like work (except for those nights I spent as a closer!). Wine knowledge surrounded me, from my Level 3 co-workers providing book recommendations to the training staff showing us the purpose of aerating and perfecting the pour to the patrons themselves, offering alternative pairing. My fate in the industry was sealed—and it was then that I heard about the SommFoundation Scholarship for Black American Wine Professionals, sponsored by Cooper’s Hawk.
I never thought I’d never be selected; there were so many qualified people, and I had just gotten my feet wet in the wine world. But here I am two years later as a scholarship recipient. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, accessing online courses has been nearly impossible. But if the Court of Master Sommeliers resumes classes this summer, I am hopeful that I will be enrolled in my Level 1 Introductory Course—and I cannot wait to see where my story will unfold from there. It’s a humbling feeling when your dreams are supported; essentially, this is what SommFoundation is doing for me.
For SommFoundation to acknowledge that there are so few African Americans in the wine industry and to offer individuals like myself a shot in a world that many of us have not been exposed to says a lot about the organization’s commitment to diversity. Seeing so many phenomenal Black wine professionals currently killing it in the industry is equally encouraging. I’m so happy that they are being acknowledged and celebrated, and I’m even happier that I am being propelled to maybe follow in their footsteps.
While my five-year plan had a turbulent start, 2021 is proving to be my moment. I will continue to flourish and conquer my fears—and I am very thankful for the role that SommFoundation is playing in that destiny.