Justin Trabue: making natural wine accessible

The founder of Ward Four Wines has created a business where she can share her lifelong love of wine – and a glass or two – with the black community.
Justin Trabue 16x9 hero

Justin was one of 10 winners of Courier's 2022 Fresh Fund, a $150,000 fund of cash grants for young black founders in the UK and US who have great ideas to start or grow a business.

‘Unlike in a lot of families – a lot of black families, specifically – I was really lucky to grow up with wine on the table, have discussions about wines, why they taste the way they do, why certain regions work with certain varieties. I just always had that excitement.

‘I moved from DC to California to study wine and viticulture at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I spent summers in Santa Cruz putting together irrigation systems for apple orchards and pumpkin patches, and studying in Australia where I first saw harvest season in full swing. Then I came back to California to work on a pinot noir harvest in Santa Barbara. I realized that, although I chose to study the wine business, it's so important to have that winemaking knowledge.

‘I've honed my craft on how to make low-intervention, low-pH, low-alcohol wines from sustainable vineyards. I have done 14 harvests since 2016, working with facilities as small as 500 cases or as large as 80,000 cases. Every year I do more, feel more comfortable and know that I can truly do it. And even if I make mistakes, the people around me are willing to help me figure out where I went wrong, how to fix it and how I can constantly improve.’

Costly considerations

‘Oftentimes you hear people say you need $5 million to create a million-dollar winery. There's so much money needed, from the packaging and legal fees, to contracts and licensing. I've got to be smart with the amount of wines I'm shipping and the cost I'm taking as a business, as well as the cost I'm passing on to customers. Then there's grapes and purchasing. I want to make sure the vineyards are biodynamic and organic, so each additional element means it's going to be that little bit more costly.’

Next steps

‘Right now, I'm creating my website, and starting the trademarking and licensing process, because I can't actually start sourcing grapes and working at facilities until they're in place. I'm honing in on the styles of wines that I want, and building relationships with vineyard partners so I can produce for the next few years.

‘There's only so much money, so I don't want to start with eight tons of grapes. I'll most likely start with two tons. That sounds like a lot, but it's not that much. I'll begin with a smaller amount of wine, then start doing tastings and going around the country promoting my brand, promoting wine and getting people interested. Ultimately, a wine club will come. But, you know, one step at a time.’

What's behind the name Ward Four Wines?

‘I'm from Washington DC, which is split into different wards, and my mother's maiden name is actually Ward. There are also four people in my family, so I'm planning to create four different styles of wine to each represent a different person.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 46, April/May 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

You might like these, too