Updated: Jul 7, 2020
Below is part one of my series on amplifying Black voices in the French wine industry and in French culture. I’m constantly looking for new people to chat with, so if you know someone who would be a fit for the series, let me know! I’d love to continue to amplify Black voices both now and in the future.
If you’re an American, the concept of launching a wine business in France can be daunting. And because it’s so daunting, there aren’t many Americans who have done it successfully, but there is someone who sticks out immediately, and that’s Donae Burston. For the star that he is, Donae is incredibly down to earth.
He’s the founder & CEO of a French rosé wine brand called La Fête du Rosé, which is an AOC Côtes de Provence made with Domaine Bertaud Belieu in St. Tropez. We’ve been following each other for a while on social, but I really started to get to know him when he and my friend Tahiirah from The Hue Society had an Instagram Live together a few weeks ago. I loved listening to him talk about his life and experience with French wine. I’ve never spoken to another American who loved and understood the French and French wine the same way I did. Chatting with Donae was like talking to an old friend, and it left me with a smile on my face for the rest of the day. I hope you enjoy our discussion as much as I did!
On starting in the wine biz – and starting his own wine biz:
“I wanted to create a brand that spoke to everyone, a brand that recruited everyone, Black, Brown & Asian people…with no seasonality or gender constraints.”
Katie: What’s “the wine” that got you interested in working in wine?
Donae: My interest in wine began with Dom Perignon, one of it not the most famous French champagne. When I became the Regional Marketing director managing Dom Perignon across the S.E. United States, I was introduced to a whole new world. A world of exclusive wine dinners, wine journalist, wine ratings, wine auctions,and pairings.
KM: What sparked the genesis for La Fête?
DB: I fell in love with rosé 10+ years ago when I first begin frequently traveling to the south of France. Then, when the rosé phenomenon took off in the United States, I found it to be very one dimensional, marketed primarily to a very specific general market consumer as a seasonal wine to be consumed only during the summer. I wanted to change that; I wanted to create a brand that spoke to everyone, a brand that recruited everyone, Black, Brown & Asian people, etc. with no seasonality or gender constraints.
KM: Why Côtes de Provence? Why rosé?
DB: Côtes de Provence is to rosé what Burgundy is to Pinot Noir. CDP is seen as the premier region for making the best French rosés. It was important for La Fête to have that heritage and credibility.
KM: When you first started the brand, who were the producers you met with? How did you decide which ones you wanted to work with?
DB: Ironically, I did not meet with any other producers (other than Domaine Bertaud Belieu). This whole process for me has been synchronicity at work, and I have to come to believe that the timing & events of this journey have been no accident.
Now that said, I did not operate blindly. I had previously tasted the wines from Domaine Bertaud Belieu at various venues (Cipriani, Bagatelle, Lavo) and events (AFMAR Gala, Elton John Aids Foundation) over the years. I was very confident in their ability to produce La Fête.
KM: Your wine is available to buy directly from your website – which is an absolute rarity for French wine in the U.S. How did that come about – are you a distributor working with an importer, or vice versa?
DB: We are the Brand Owner and Importer working with distributors to service the states where we are available for sale. Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) is the future of the wine business. It is becoming increasingly more difficult for small & emerging brands to secure distributors as the industry continues to consolidate. Thus, DTC is the only way most small brands/wineries can reach potential customers.
KM: 100%! Why do you think more French wines aren’t doing direct to consumer?
DB: Well, you know the French can be a little old-fashioned. We’re doing it here in the United States, we’ll have to shown them the return they can get. I think gradually we can convince them.
KM: Do you also have La Fête available in the French and European markets, or is it mostly exported to the U.S.?
DB: La Fête will be available for sale in both France & the U.K. starting July 1st. We are also considering The Netherlands and Greece as we have been getting tons of requests from consumers and distributors in those countries. That will probably not happen until Spring 2021.
On France and the French
“My first advice would be to learn French.”
KM: What has been your experience with the French government, and what advice do you have for other Americans who may want to launch a business in France?
DB: My winery partner has been fantastic and has served as our liaison and proxy when dealing with the French Government. I could not imagine taking on such a task as a lone American.
My first advice would be to learn French or find yourself a translator/confident that you can take with you to all meetings. Despite most French people in the business having a basic understanding of the English language, French is a necessity. Especially when dealing with the growers in the Provence outside of Paris. You can’t even begin exploratory conversions if you cannot communicate.
I took French for about six years between high school and college, and while I’m not fluent, it really helps. I can understand the context of what they’re saying, and that alone makes a huge difference.
KM: I love that you kept the name of the brand in French, and I love the translation! That being said, a lot of the mainstream rosé brands don’t keep the French names (here’s looking at you, Whispering Angel). What’s been the response to the name?
DB: For wine consumers in the know, there’s always confusion with Lafite Rothschild [from Bordeaux]. But for the regular consumer, I find that people actually just try to over-Frenchify the name – adding accents and syllables. I hear “La-feh-tay” a lot, which is pretty funny.
KM: What’s been your experience working with the French?
DB: Overall, I have had good experiences working with the French. Once you begin to understand the French culture and the way French society works, it becomes far more manageable. My experience working with the French during my time at Moet Hennessy USA/LVMH was very educational. I have built longstanding friendships with many of my French colleagues both in the US and in France.
And for my working relationship with my winery partner, it has been great! The only minor issue at times is that I definitely have that American hustle attitude of everything is possible and can be done now.
KM: Now let’s talk about something a bit more controversial… racism. It’s a topic that many in the French wine world have stayed silent about. Have you experienced this as a Black American in French business?
DB: Luckily, I have not experienced racism. I have experienced distrust or anti-American sentiment, especially since 45 took office. For the most part, I have found the French to be very open to Black American culture. I think music dating back to the Jazz era has played a significant role in that. Now, I am fully aware that there is an anti-African immigrant sentiment growing in France and most of Europe that I pray does not turn the country upside down the way it has here in the states. Black Americans have always looked at France as a place where we could go and live freely and be accepted. It would be a shame to see that go away.
On Future Plans and Mentorship
“Be authentic in your purpose and mission.”
KM: What are your future plans in wine? Are you hoping to launch another French wine brand, and if so what regions do you have your eye on?
DB: Up next, we are working on a sparkling version of La Fête that will also be produced in Provence.
KM: What advice would you have for someone looking to start a business like yours that is at its core bicultural?
DB: First, be authentic in your purpose and mission. I have witnessed so many other brands in the past claim that they were interested in multiculturalism, but to them, that meant “all Black.” That’s not bicultural or multiculturalism. It truly has to be a part of your brand’s DNA from A to Z. It cannot be a marketing ploy; consumers will see right thru it. Consumers are intelligent and very aware.
KM: I know your brand has been big on giving back to the community since the start. Do you have or plan to have an internship or mentorship program at La Fête to get young people interested and educated in the wine business?
DB: That’s actually something we have started to do this week. We’re going through an app that will connect us to high schools and colleges to give young people training in wine. Once the fall season hits, we’ll definitely start to do more formal internships so that we can have a pipeline of young talent for the business.
If you haven’t already tasted this wine, you can purchase La Fête du Rosé directly from the website, or ask your local wineshop if they stock it. Don’t forget to follow them on Instagram, where you can also find Donae at @thurstonburstoniii.