Black History 365: Kim Lewis

How Louisiana’s only Black-owned winery was created by Kim Lewis

Kim Lewis isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. In fact, the 37-year-old single mother of three teenagers leans into the unknown, always one to ask “why not?” instead of “why?” when facing a challenge.

That’s exactly how she ended up starting Ole’ Orleans Wines in 2018. Lewis, a New Orleans native, describes herself as a serial entrepreneur. Her background in psychology landed her in healthcare, managing behavioral health clinics and working in high school special education. She’s also had a trucking company that specialized in demolition.

“I’m always up for a challenge, for learning something new,” said Lewis, who lives in Algiers on the west bank of the Mississippi, minutes from downtown New Orleans.

Wine wasn’t on her radar until she spent some time traveling to the islands and around the U.S. in 2016. “That’s when my eyes opened to the power of wine,” she explained. “I started tasting and trying everything. It became a hobby for me, a passion.”

Feeling restless in her work life, Lewis remembers one day joking with a friend, putting out the idea to start her own wine company. “I was already running my own business, so why not?” Lewis recalled.

As a Black woman, this put her in an infinitesimal market share. According to Wine and Spirits Magazine, winemaking is one area where African Americans are significantly underrepresented compared to their white counterparts. In fact, less than one percent of U.S. wineries are Black-owned or have Black winemakers – a statistic that parallels the number of Black U.S. farmers.

“I really didn’t think too much about that,” she said. “I don’t ignore my skin color but it’s not a huge selling point. The product has to sell itself,” she says.

Lewis has a dedicated team of employees, including Steve Wade from day one, her Director of Operations, and Joe Donnow, a winemaker with 30 years of experience who joined the company in 2020. She started slowly, buying other makers’ wine to fill her private label that she planned to sell only online.

That quickly grew into actually making her own wine in five 3,200-gallon stainless steel tanks in the warehouse space she leased on Oretha Castle Haley, a boulevard in Central City named for the notable civil rights pioneer. A tasting room has been shuttered since the pandemic, but she has plans to open again in the spring as business continues to boom.

“In 2019, when our first wine was ready to bottle, we sold about 200 cases,” she said. In 2019, that grew to 500 cases. In 2020, with the pandemic raging and drinking at home one of America’s favorite pastimes, she sold 4,000 cases. As of October 2021, that number is 7,500.

“Being a native of New Orleans, it is important to me that I highlight my heritage, my family and where I grew up,” she said. “A lot of locals love remembering old New Orleans, places like Pontchartrain Beach and the things that are special about our city, like St. Charles Avenue and Carnival.”

Her portfolio of 750 ml. bottles, priced between $18.99 and $28.99, have distinctive labels with local ties, including Saint Charles Ave. Chardonnay, Vieux Carre Rose and Tchoupitoulas Blanc de Bois. BKK is a rich cabernet sauvignon with the initials of her three children: Brandon Jr., Kailynn and Khari.

“I wanted people to remember good times while they were creating new memories drinking my wine,” she explained.

Working with national distributors, Lewis’s Ole’ Orleans Wines are carried in locations including Whole Foods, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Target and Total Wine. Her wine is already being sold – or about to be – in most Southern states, along with New York, Colorado and Florida. Always forward-thinking, Lewis and Donnow are working with Living Wine to create the kind of AR (augmented reality) wine labels that appear on the 19 Crimes brand.

By the end of this year, she’ll be in the distilling business too, expanding her brand with Blueprint vodka.

“We’re still growing and have a long way to go,” she said. “But I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be the only winery in New Orleans.”