Mermosa: Florida’s first (and only) Black woman-owned wine brand but not the last
Raise your hand if you look forward to drinking a lovely glass of wine after a long day or when you’re feeling fancy *raises hand*. When I drink wine, I feel like I’m GROWN grown. Per usual, the world of wine isn’t the most diverse but I think that’s slowly changing with more Black-owned wine brands and businesses being established. I remember when I came across Mermosa, I was so hype because 1) it’s Black woman-owned and 2) I knew instantly I’d enjoy everything.
Mermosa founder/”Head Mermaid” Desiree Noisette was a joy to talk to. Not only did we talk about Mermosa, we went on a bomb tangent about our family histories and Black folks in the wine industry.
You used your family’s history as a source of inspiration for Mermosa. Can you tell me about it and explain how you used Celestine’s spirit to drive you in your business?
Celestine was a Black woman who fell in love with a Frenchmen named Philippe Noisette. They got married in the late 1700s and came to Charleston, South Carolina, where Philippe claimed Celestine and their children as slaves. He petitioned South Carolina for their emancipation but was denied. He became a gardener, famous for introducing the Noisette rose. Eventually, he named an executor to his will. He told the executor to give the money from his estate to Celestine and sneak her and the kids up North to freedom. The executor agreed but Celestine said no. This is what I call her “Siren Song”: she convinces the executor to create a legal structure that allows herself and the kids to stay in Charleston as free people of color. Her kids carry on that song and petition the state again for freedom. They got full documented emancipation a couple years before the Civil War.
She had this amazing audacity and powerful voice that’s inspired me for many years. I first learned about her in the early-2000s when my cousin Peggy started doing family reunions. I’ve had this spirit within me I think is from Celestine. She’s been a huge inspiration to me. When I experience challenges, I think about what Celestine had to go through and what I face seems so much smaller.
Before you created Mermosa, what did you do and what made you decide to switch careers?
I quit my job in construction law in 2012 because I got tired of the arguing or thinking about arguing. There are some wonderful things about practicing law but having that fire burning inside of me all the time wasn’t good for my health. That stress manifests physically.
Why did you decide to start Mermosa Wines? As one of the few Black women in the wine space, what kinds of challenges did you experience to get the business off the ground?
I started serving wine in my swimwear store Cerulean Blu (2012-2017) as a way to help people have fun. It’s usually for a woman during a swimwear fitting so we’d serve wine and share stories. People would start talking about their experiences in life; everyone would come together. I loved how wine seemed to connect people and build memories. Eventually, I thought the experience needed to be continued through wine and I had a great story to tell. I was also looking for a very specific flavor profile with a sparkling wine pre-mixed like your perfect mimosa. I figured I made some good ones at home so why not bottle them…turns out you can, it’s just very expensive.
The biggest challenge has been capital. Without me having a legacy, it’s not like I can go to a bank. I didn’t have a bunch of experts as advisors on a board to get funding and that’s one of the criteria. I had to self-finance. My husband and I sold our house and fortunately he believed in me and what we’re trying to achieve. The access to capital is challenging and there are historical reasons why it is for people that look for me.
What’s the story behind your mermaid theme?
Whenever I heard the story about Celestine, to me she just always had this powerful voice and she was from the islands. I saw her as this Siren, able to convince people with her powerful voice and that’s just how I always saw her. I didn’t have mermaids or anything like all over the place growing up.
When you create new wine flavors, what does that process look like? Where do you get your inspiration from?
I listen to a lot of customer feedback. I set up a lab and did taste tests with direct-to-consumer. I’d make tweaks and ask for their opinions. It took me about 3-4 months to perfect the Mermosa wine style; I did about 300 tests since my store was high-volume. Other wine styles have taken longer because they’re not the same formula as Mermosa but I’m trying to make sure I’m hitting the right flavor profiles. Our Celestine rosé, which we released last year, took a good 8 months or so to perfect.
How does it feel to be Florida’s first and only Black woman wine owner?
It’s exciting but also it’s like ‘Hold up, I’m the first? I better not be the last’. I feel a responsibility to make sure that people recognize this is a career path that welcomes you and you’ll have an infrastructure. I’m working with some folks to create more internship and mentorship opportunities in the next year for others. There’s a Viticulure program at FAMU partly funded by the state because there is an interest in agricultural products. I would like to work with them and there’s a network of sommeliers and owners and we’re all plotting. It feels good to know I’m not going to be the last…I better not be then that means I haven’t done my job.
We’re in the last half of 2021. What else do you have coming up? Any goals you want accomplish?
We were just selected to test in Walmart in Florida including here in Tampa Bay so we’re going to be starting that. Sam’s Club is also bringing us in their store in October and we’re in Total Wines across Florida. We’re actually going to be starting tastings now.
Any plans to open your own winery in Florida?
I had one because I had my winery license at the shop. We did a lot of the last steps of the wine process but a full-fledged winery operation is not out the question. I’d really want it to be something that could be enjoyed as a full-scale experience with food and beverage, preferably on the beach so our mermaids have a place to go. We did look at some places in St. Pete Beach but couldn’t get the parking situation to work.
What is your ultimate goal for Mermosa?
I want to spread the family’s story and help build generational wealth, not just for our company but I’d like to build an infrastructure to help other folks pursue a career path in the wine world. I think that’s so important.