060: Boston Speaks Up with Urban Grape CEO TJ Douglas
Boston Speaks Up (BSU) is a podcast owned and operated by Value Creation Labs. Listen to BSU on any podcast platform you choose: SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Google Play.
TJ Douglas is the founder and CEO of The Urban Grape, a wine store in Boston’s South End neighborhood known for its proprietary Progressive Scale - a system of sorting wine by its body, instead of by varietal or region. Douglas has led The Urban Grape to becoming one of the most successful independently-owned wine stores in the country as a result.
Douglas’ list of accomplishments is nothing short of astonishing. The Urban Grape has won multiple accolades as Boston’s Best Wine store from both Boston Magazine and The Improper Bostonian, as well as a Small Business of the Year Award from the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in 2020. In 2018, Vinepair named The Urban Grape the top retail store in the North East, and Beverage Dynamics named the store a Top 100 Wine Retail Store in America in both 2019 and 2020. The store has also been nationally profiled in Food & Wine magazine, The New York Times, NPR, and Wine Enthusiast. He’s also a seven-time returning Sommelier for the Nantucket Wine Festival.
Douglas also spends time teaching classes on drinking progressively at local places such as the Boston Center for Adult Education, Boston University, the Boston Wine Expo and for companies like Converse, Google, and Wellington. He’s also the co-author of The Urban Grape’s best selling wine education book Drink Progressively, and the resident wine expert on the New England lifestyle show, “Home, Life, and Design.”
He co-founded and runs The Urban Grape with his wife Hadley Douglas. Together, they are also the co-founders of The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color, in partnership with Boston University. They are dedicated to increasing diversity in the wine industry through this program and provide mentorship to other people of color in the hospitality industry. The Douglas’ live in Boston with their two sons.
You can listen to our podcast discussion with Douglas embedded below or on any podcast platform you prefer (SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Google Play):
Enjoy an abridged version of our interview with Douglas below.
Where did you grow up and how did that shape the man you are today?
Raised in New Haven and moved to Vermont when 13. Both places forced me to fit in which has allowed me to make a space for myself in different rooms.
What is the first career you remember wanting to pursue?
What was the most challenging and rewarding job you’ve had and why?
The Urban Grape with its highs and lows with a ton of risk. Rewarding as I am able to provide for my family and use my platform to help bring diversity and equity into the wine industry.
What were some of the challenges you faced breaking into the hospitality industry?
Lack of mentorship. No one looked like me nor took a similar path.
Where did the idea for The Urban Grape come from?
I wanted to bring hospitality into retail. I also wanted to take the intimidation out of wine using my Progressive Scale.
What’s it like having your life partner (your wife!) be your business partner?
It’s great. We have the flexibility to be entrepreneurial and look at our business through the lens of our family. We have different roles within the business so it’s really wonderful to share our ideas. We’ve realized talking about work at 11:30pm while getting ready for bed is never a good idea though :)
What’s it been like raising two sons during a pandemic?
My two boys are strong. It’s been a struggle in terms of seeing friends and playing sports, but school has kept them motivated and we’ve (I’ve) been able to spend more time with them.
How’s business going and have you pivoted at all to meet the needs of consumers during the pandemic?
Business has been booming since March 2020. We’ve pivoted to the next level and have really reimagined what our business is and can be. In short, we’ve been able to meet our customers where they are.
At a recent The Urban Grape - Silicon Valley Bank virtual event, you mentioned South Africa is the most exciting wine region in the world right now. Can you explain why?
They’ve been growing grapes for 500+ years but have only been making quality wine due to education post-Apartheid. They are having a focus on helping Black South Africans in the wine business start their businesses. Also, due to the strength of the US dollar, there is great quality to value in South Africa.
What are some other wine trends people should be aware of?
Rose is not a trend! We can discuss further.
You previously told Boston Business Journal that you’re often the only non-white attendee at wine conferences and industry trips around the world. How do those experiences motivate you to spark change in the industry?
These experiences coming up were always uncomfortable and I don’t want others to feel they are not welcome. The motivation comes from wanting more people that look like me to enjoy the pleasure of wine, travel, and hospitality.
You partnered with Boston University to introduce The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color. Can you explain what this initiative means to you?
This initiative means that more BIPOC individuals can have the opportunity to see that the wine industry IS for them and can be an amazing career. This program will educate, give work experience, and ongoing mentorship which will change the wine industry landscape here in Boston.
What’s next for The Urban Grape? What’s something new you’re excited about?
What challenge facing the world would you most like to see solved and why?
How would you describe the legacy you want to leave for your two sons?
I feel the legacy I will leave behind is that when we want change, we need to make that change happen. Stand up for our beliefs and know that it’s not about you but about others.
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