When everything else failed, Jo-Rena started talking wine
Jo-Rena Davis calls herself the Wine Diva.
It’s a role she fell into with the arrival of Covid-19 a year-and-a-half ago.
Newly single and with a newborn in her arms, she lost her job and had to move in with family.
Wine, she decided, was the way to go.
The 32-year-old began hosting virtual wine tastings for friends. Before she knew it, strangers were calling.
“I’d been with [Hamilton Princess & Beach Club] for over seven years. I started as the sales and marketing coordinator and when I left I was managing their corporate travel. Of course with corporate travel, that all ceased when Covid hit. And so I was coming off mat leave, recently single, new baby in hand and going into this pandemic.
“So I locked up with my baby. And my friends, of course, are at home more often and they’re like: Jo-Rena likes wine … this wine club is going on, this person is delivering wine. Wine was being delivered but no one really knew what to purchase so they just started messaging me.”
Ms Davis is one of a small handful of Bermudian wine experts. She is now working towards her Level 4 qualification with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a global organisation based in the UK that is considered one of the world’s leading educators.
As her friends pestered her to start a wine club, she offered to do “a bit of blogging and tastings” instead.
“I started doing online tastings for my friends and that turned into in-person tastings for their friends and in-person tastings for their friends’ employers. It just kind of snowballed a little,” she said.
At that point she launched a company, Wine Diva Select, and set up a meeting with Emilio Barbieri, head of the Little Venice Group. It led to a partnership with the restaurateur; Ms Davis held her first tasting at the Little Venice Wine Bar last month. The next takes place on Saturday.
“When I first started I had a lot of requests – for venues, for catering, for me showing up at a location and doing some tastings. So that’s when I approached Emilio. He just plugged right into it.
“I’m going to be doing monthly tastings with him at the Little Venice wine bar and then expanding to the different restaurants.”
Ms Davis’s interest in wine “began a bit too early” when a waiter accidentally presented her and a friend with a glass of champagne after church. Both were underage.
“I was like, ‘Oh this is pretty …’ I’d never seen wine. My parents didn’t drink in front of me; my mom doesn’t drink at all.
“I still remember the brioche notes, I remember the almond. I remember it was this beautiful amber colour; it was a nice glass of champagne. And then my dad caught us and we were in big trouble. So that’s where it started.”
She didn’t have wine again until she was 18. At 19, she started to enjoy it.
While working for Marriott International, Inc in England, a chef friend told her: “Your taste is so good but you don’t have any knowledge so no one would ever take you seriously if you’re talking about wine.”
Ms Davis took the advice on board and signed up with WSET. She also contacted the Michelin-starred Olive Tree restaurant at The Bath Priory, a five-star hotel in the UK, and was hired, initially as an intern.
“They actually offered me a paid position when I was leaving but I was coming back here to work at Fairmont so the timing didn’t work out,” she said. “But I started doing evenings and weekends, just helping their sommelier team and there I was able to taste several wines. I don’t know how it worked out, but it just did.”
Her WSET studies have kept her busy – one of her textbooks has more than 200 pages on wine. Aside from the course work she boosts her knowledge by doing virtual tastings with other WSET Level 4 hopefuls in the UK.
She sat Levels 1 and 2 of the programme in London. By the time she was ready for Level 3 she was in Bermuda, so she flew to New York.
Her plan is to complete Level 4 in 2023.
“There’s two styles. One is service industry-based, which is the Court of Master Sommeliers, and there is the one that I am doing with [WSET], which is the leading governing body for the wines and spirits industry,” she said.
“Most people who want to become a buyer, or even people like myself who are just interested, will go that route because it’s a lot more of the theory and geography. We learn a lot more about where the wine comes from and how it’s sourced and how overall production works to get to the consumer.”
Depending on the level, the exams can involve tastings, multiple choice or short answer questions.
“My ultimate goal is to make wine less exclusive in Bermuda,” Ms Davis said. “There are so many other young professionals who like wine but they often are so misled going into stores; I’ve [had the same experience] with people who don’t know that I have this credential or about my Michelin star background and experience in hospitality.”
She remembers being directed to a dry, red amarone having asked a storekeeper for a dessert wine.
“I looked around a little and I could see bottles of port and sauternes on different shelves and I said, ‘Ok I’ll just help myself.’ I think this is why I ended up getting so many calls during lockdown and after lockdown, because you can imagine asking for one thing and being guided to something completely different,” said Ms Davis, who intends to offer wine courses.
“Maybe you wanted to take it to a friend’s house or maybe it’s a gift for a boss or somebody you’re trying to get closer to – it’s a bit of a letdown if the wine isn’t quite right.”
With the level of interest in fine dining here, her hope is that Bermuda restaurants improve their offerings.
“When I approached Emilio I had literally no one else in my mind. I knew the level of service that he does and I know the wines that he has access to and the passion that goes behind it so that kind of made me take that risk in approaching them,” she said. “But I think it is getting a lot better here. In the last ten years what I’ve noticed is that if you ask for a sancerre you’re not always going to get a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. They may say to you we don’t have sancerre but I recommend this and I think that is where the industry is changing for the better. They’re recognising people in Bermuda do love food and we want the good wine and the good experience that goes with it. So I think if restaurants continue to focus on that we’ll continue to get better.”
Join Jo-Rena Davis’s next guided tasting at the Little Venice Wine Bar on Saturday from 6.30pm until 8pm. Tickets are $75 per person. To pre-book: 295-3503. Follow @winedivaselect on Instagram. For more information: winedivaselect.com; email@example.com
In Bermuda, drinkers “tend to lean sweet and they tend to lean fruity”.
It’s what Jo-Rena Davis has learnt in the year-and-a-half she’s been offering tastings through her company, Wine Diva Select.
And while many people steer clear from wine, afraid that it’s too “sophisticated”, the sommelier insists that her tastings are far from snooty.
Her advice to anyone stuck in a routine – branch out a little, wine lists aren’t that difficult to navigate especially if you follow her suggestions below:
1. Wine can be reasonably priced but it should never be cheap. If it’s really cheap, it’s probably not safe.
2. On a hot day, or if the wine list is limited, try a spritzer.
3. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Most restaurants will be happy to provide a “thimble pour” to taste.