After 20 years collecting a regular paycheck working administrative jobs, South Los Angeles native Tuanni Price, founder of L.A.-based Zuri Wine Tasting, made her longtime side hustle into a full-time bicontinental business.
Today, the 46-year-old organizes events in California including Wine Over L.A., an annual festival featuring wines made by African Americans, Latinos and women, and a wine-themed fundraiser to support single parents spearheaded by NFL star Anthony Barr. On the other side of the world, in South Africa, she offers tastings and tours that showcase the country’s small, slowly growing stable of black wine producers.
She was 28 when her manager at the now-defunct five-star St. Regis Hotel in Century City invited her “to have dinner on us” at the hotel restaurant. She took her mom and sister.
“I was presented with the wine list, which looked like it was a foreign language,” she recalled. “My mom had to tell me I was supposed to taste the wine when it was brought to the table.” Her embarrassment at not knowing anything about wine, she said, made her want to learn more.
So Price in 2000 started a wine club with friends called Distinguished Blackberries. She and her girlfriends took turns hosting, with each required to research and pair wine with food. The club ended after six years but in 2010, while helping a start-up prepare to go public, she wrote a business plan for Zuri Wine Tasting and built a website with the tagline she still uses: “Wine is complicated. We make tasting simple.”
Price said she started the business because she felt the approach to wine was all wrong.
“It was just so snobby back then. You had to talk a certain way … like, ‘This wine smells like gooseberries and black currants,’” she said. “It’s intimidating. I say, describe it like a man you dated or an experience it reminded you of.”
She partnered with Rahman’s Art Gallery in Inglewood later that year to create a monthly networking event, which became a weekly wine class, and one of the first formal wine education and social experiences in Inglewood, she said. Soon after, she listed her wine classes on Groupon; in three days, she sold 200 tasting sessions. She spent the entire summer that year hosting in-home wine tastings all over L.A. while still working full-time.
A few years later, Price took courses with the National American Sommelier Assn. and the Society of Wine Educators.
Accustomed to being a minority in the predominantly white wine scene, her world was turned upside down when a Ladera Heights client said to her, “Honey, have you been to the black-owned winery in Solvang?”
Price said her first encounter with Iris Rideau, the since-retired winemaker behind Rideau Vineyard, was formative: “It was just amazing to see someone who looks like me own a place like this.”
Keen to share the experience, Price began taking groups to Rideau and other Santa Barbara County wineries. Their presence — the groups were predominantly African American — was at times a curiosity. Once, while offloading a group of 50 black clients in Solvang from a bus, she was asked by an onlooker: “Is this a family reunion?” Her business grew and she began offering private tours to black-owned wineries in Napa and Sonoma.
Eventually, wine opened up the world to Price and gave her a map to explore another dream she’d harbored since she was a teen: living overseas. After traveling through Italy, France and Spain, Price made three trips to South Africa — one included working a harvest at De Toren Estate in Stellenbosch — before moving to Cape Town last year.
“This is the only place where so many people from the beginning to the end of the winemaking process look like me,” Price said. She finds the U.S. wine industry more formal and less inclusive than South Africa’s, saying she has more than once been mistaken for a waiter at an industry function in the States.
Still, she’d like to see more advances that level the playing field in South Africa. “Economically and financially, it needs to be more equal,” she said.
In South Africa, Price has surrounded herself with winemakers, sommeliers and sommeliers-in-the-making through the Black Cellar Club, an association of black people in the wine industry. At her tastings, she features black winemakers like Tinashe Nyamudoka of Kumusha Wines.
“What’s different about Tuanni is that she doesn’t come in and find the story, and exploit it as some other people do,” Nyamudoka said. “When my brand came out, she was so excited, and said she knew a lot of guys in the U.S. who are selling South African wine. All of a sudden I had a dozen wine importers in the States contacting me.” He’s now actively working on setting up U.S. distribution.
Price says one of her goals is to address the distribution challenges faced by South Africa’s black, small wine producers in their own country. She and winemaker and importer/exporter Natasha Boks of House of African Queens are currently working to create a South African wine company that intends to develop a marketplace for wines made by people of color, with a club and events in South Africa.
For Price, it isn’t just about business but about challenging the idea of what black professionals can do. “Little girls see Serena Williams and Michelle Obama and realize they can be that. But it doesn’t always have to be a celebrity,” she said. “They might see me and think they could be an entrepreneur who travels the world.”
Wine Over L.A. takes place July 26-28 and includes dinner catered by Discover Jewels, held at Rita House in the Fairfax district; a day wine tour of Solvang and Los Olivos; and a Sip With Soul toast to diversity on a yacht in Marina del Rey, with wine, live music and catering by chef E. Dubble of Grilled Fraiche.