Velvet Dreams, Crazy Ideas, & Real Wine

Meet the Grape Witches, a duo who are always casting spells.

I first learned about the Grape Witches after pilates at Misfit one fateful night in February. Helloooo, a monthly Wine Rave Seance?? Oh what magic! Indisputably fun and feminine in spirit, Grape Witches is the invention of Nicole Campbell, a Portfolio Ambassador at Lifford Wine and Spirits, and Krysta Oben, the somm and AGM at Byblos on Duncan. These two women live and breathe wine. They’re masters at eliminating the snob factor, and introducing the female gaze to what’s otherwise a pretty intimidating, sometimes boring, masculine industry. It was clear they’d teach me a lot of stuff about delicious wines, given they’re experts, putting these grape potions in the context of everyday life and talking about them in an approachable way. They’d answer questions like, what outfit should I wear while drinking a “dreamy Macedonian rosé” like Pata Trava Rosé? Where was this pink wonder made and by whom? Where might I drink it, what’s the weather like, how would I feel? These aren’t frivolous questions. I knew I had to go to Superpoint on the first Monday of the month. Sign me up to this coven please! The Grape Witches join a growing collective of women making things, building businesses, and shaping communities, here and in lots of other cities, and it’s 100p inspiring. 

A few of us at Little Rocket met up with Nicole and Krysta at Capital Espresso on Queen almost a month ago to chat about their experience scrappily hustling to demystify real wine for those of us not in the industry, while hosting fun parties. Read on to find out about their velvety dreams and crazy ideas, and how they’re bringing them to life. Come check out Nicole and Krysta IRL on May 8 at Shopify for our next PK Night, along with five other duos.

On the name Grape Witches.

K: I used to work at Cava, a little Spanish spot that’s been around for more than 10 years, in the same place where Nicole’s dad had his wine bar. I worked with awesome boys and I love them very much. They took note of my love of the weird, unconventional, naturally made wines. So we’d be tasting the wines, and I’d be talking about biodynamics and the moon cycles.

LR: That’s one way to lose a man. Just say moon cycle.

N: I love that there’s been so many articles on periods and talk about moon cycles lately. We like it.

Wine is magical. We drink a lot of biodynamic wine, which involves following the moon cycle, and things that growers have been doing for a long time. In terms of tastes and flavours there is an element of magic to it. This is also part of the seance element to our events -- evoking that.

K: But at Cava, one of the boys, he started calling me Grape Witch. We’d go to Archive and he’d call me Grape Witch. It just seemed like a natural name for what we were trying to do.

N: Then we just started to call each other that as a term of affection. So if I’m at a restaurant with my parents, and the sommelier comes up, and says, “Greetings Grape Witch.” It’s perfect. It makes us feel nice inside.

On how these babes got into wine.

K: I started working in restaurants when I was 17. I was fortunate to be mentored by some really lovely people who would give me sips of their wine and leave bottles at their table, which really taught me what people were drinking. It was stuff I couldn’t afford or understand on my own. So that really set me down the path of becoming a wine and hospitality person.

N: When I was growing up my Dad had a wine bar where Cava is now called Delisle. Which is funny because Krysta has spent some time working at the same space, now called Cava and we love the guys who run that spot. Delisle was one of Toronto’s first wine bars. This is maybe hard to imagine, but in the seventies and eighties there was nothing. If I wanted to see my dad I had to go there. A lot of winemakers went through Delisle, and all of our family trips were wine trips. In retrospect it was awesome. I kind of got indoctrinated quite young. I studied other things in university, you know never wanting to do what my parent did, or my dad does, so I studied psychology and history, but i always loved the stories of wine. And I was basically working in a lab preparing to start my PhD in clinical psychology, looking around at the other people in my lab and how unhappy they were, and I thought wine could be cool! So I quit my job and I moved to Bordeaux, just to try it. I came back and i started selling wine, and met lots of great people like Krysta.

There’s an energy to really well made good wine that you don’t have in large production branded wine. You just have to taste it, but when you do taste it, you don’t want anything else. Because there’s a vibrancy.

On making a new vocabulary for wine.

N: Most people have no idea about wine. We’re so immersed in the hospitality industry that we just assume everyone around us has this huge base of knowledge and is drinking all the best stuff, but they’re not. Wine can be really confusing. We have found it’s empowering for people to start talking about it in a way that’s accessible. That’s why this is important.

K: When you learn to taste wine and how it’s made, all of these steps are very scientific and it’s very boring. It kind of takes the magic out of the bottle. It’s an intimidating culture of knowledge.

N: Wine got really scientific, and it was all about scores and perfection. There’s been a reaction against that. I was in New Zealand at a Pinot Noir festival a few years ago, it’s a big festival and lots of winemakers come from around the world, and one of the keynote speeches was about being less scientific about embracing uncertainty to a certain extent. There’s part of wine that has a magical element. There’s something powerful to let people experience wine in a way that isn’t bro-y or corporate or business-y or about scores. None of that matters  all that matters is how something tastes and feels.

LR: I love that you’re taking out the intimidation factor so that it’s safe for people to learn. It’s a huge world that most of us don’t know a ton about, but it should be part of day to day life.

N: If you’re in wine, we have a shared vocabulary that we can use. Blueberries, leather, I know what that means in terms of wine, but if you don’t know wine talk, those adjectives don’t mean anything to you. You have to learn that vocabulary.

K: What we’re trying to teach people is that it’s not a world where you have to know a lot. That’s the fun thing. It’s a world where you can learn more and more all the time, but you can approach it with joy and jokes.

N: In terms of wine we’re choosing, we’re looking for wine that’s joyous - a pleasure to drink. It’s hard to describe in words, but when you taste it you just know. There’s something about it that’s exciting and it has a certain energy. Last week we were with a great winemaker from Roussillon, the mountains of France, close to Spain, and he was talking about that, how there’s an energy to really well made good wine that you don’t have in large production branded wine. You just have to taste it, but when you do taste it, you don’t want anything else. Because there’s a vibrancy. It’s the same when you have food that’s made in a good place. You can tell. It tastes better. So right now, big wine brands making coolers with grape bases are doing a ton of marketing to younger people. And that sucks because it isn’t consumer's fault that they’re buying those products and that that is what they think wine should taste like - bland and sweet. They don’t know because wine is hard. We’re trying to make it easier.

Most of the wine teachers around the world are men. We want more female voices teaching wine in a different way. The female gaze is a big part of what we wanted to bring to wine. The choices we’re making, the vibe we want to create. This brings a new perspective. That’s a pillar for us.

N: When you are confident in your wine knowledge, which we both are, then you can come at wine from a more honest place. I think that when people are pretentious about wine they are self-conscious that they don’t know things or don’t know enough. Once you have that knowledge it enables you to be more real. That’s a nice place to be.

On the Wine Rave Seance.

LR: How frequent are you two hosting events?  

N: Once a month, plus when we do one on the road. We’re in New York in April. In Toronto we do the first Monday of every month. Right now it’s at Superpoint, and we’re taking over new spaces as we expand. It gets really busy. As the weather is nicer we want to do something outdoors.

K: We know the owners, they’re some of our best friends. They love great wine.

N: The space looks like it should be illegal. We love that. It looks bad, but that’s the beauty of it, it’s crappy. It’s like you’re hanging out in your friend’s garage, having great wine with great music. It’s pretty random in the best way. Like happening upon something that should not be there, but is amazing.

We don’t really give a shit about making money, which has been a real gift. We can just be like, if it pays for the trip and we don’t lose money, plus spread joy and be silly, that’s a win. People are excited about it.

We both love teaching and teach a lot in our jobs. I just finished a big wine program, and found a lot of the teachers were boring and uninspired. Most of the wine teachers around the world are men. We want more female voices teaching wine in a different way. The female gaze is a big part of what we wanted to bring to wine. The choices we’re making, the vibe we want to create. This brings a new perspective. That’s a pillar for us.

LR: And you’re assembling a community and featuring different women.

N: Ya, that’s really important to us. We have a friend, Ruby, who’s a UK sommelier and was at the last one. Amber [Joliat at Misfit] did a dance for us, and she’s coming back to do one at the April event. [Sorry if you missed it everyone, but there’s another one on May 1].

Krysta comes from the world of music, we love featuring great DJs and are hoping to have a live music element to future events. My mom was a modern dancer when she was younger and a choreographer, so I really want to incorporate older women and dancing and movement and in general women who do cool stuff. The result is a really warm space. The next one we had two women from Midfield help us select the wines. We feature eight wines. They’ll also help us write the notes for the wines and be there for education hour, more voices, perspectives and teachers is a good thing.

LR: What’s one of the crazier ideas you’ve had for the events?

K: I feel like one of the craziest ones that we just started doing is travelling for our parties. It’s such a confusing thing to do a party in a place where you don’t know anyone. We know a lot of people in Vancouver because Nicole used to live there, but to work out of an unfamiliar city or restaurant, even like from a legal perspective in terms of what you can buy and get is a learning process.

N: So we have another event coming up in Vancouver in May at a restaurant that really makes sense. And then we really want to do two events in New York in April.

K: We’re taking it seriously, but in a very playful way.

N: We don’t really give a shit about making money, which has been a real gift. We can just be like, if it pays for the trip and we don’t lose money, plus spread joy and be silly, that’s a win. People are excited about it. We want to do events in London and Copenhagen this year. We love those cities. And we have friends there. And half friends. We’ve met them a few times. But when you pitch something like this, the response is, of course we want to have a weird wine party! Also the idea of transforming space is part of it -- taking a space people know or is shitty and making it warm and lovely, and how when you walk into that space it makes you feel really good. Being on the road and making space Grape Witch spaces is fun.

We love hanging out together, which makes working together a gift. With Grape Witches  we love how silly the name is. It’s playful on purpose. We want that to be empowering, it’s not fancy. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

On wine, culture, and community.

N: We love the same kind of wines, but we both also love art and culture. We really connected on this. It’s easy for people who work in wine to become really inwardly focused on only wine. Which is cool and amazing, but hard for other people to relate to. Talking about other art forms is refreshing. We have a holistic approach to our events. Good wine is a part of life, it’s a food.

LR: It’s a social thing too.

N: It’s community. It’s something that’s been part of human culture forever. It makes the world smaller. When you’re travelling there’s a lot of connections you make as soon as you start talking about wine and food. I had a moment a few years ago when I was in Vancouver, working in wine, and I thought, is this a worthwhile use of my life, will it make an impact? I want my career to mean something. Then i had this realization that it does mean something when you’re working with a product that’s really authentic and championing wines you believe in -- it’s cultural and artistic and really transformative. You can talk about culture and geography and place.

A: It’s also such a small and social industry. I'm sure you all know each other.

N: It’s also small in the world. Krysta and i are going to Loire [in France!] in a few short weeks with one of our friends in the UK who’s coming to meet us. You go to these shows where you meet people from around the world and you wind up getting to know people quite well. The world community is small and the internet makes it even smaller. So we have lots of winemaking friends.

On side hustling as a duo and a scrappy process.

LR: So how do you two work together to build Grape Witches? What’s your dynamic like?

K: Constant communication. We drink some glasses of wine together, make some plans, talk to our collaborators; it’s a pretty scrappy process in the sweetest sense. What do you want to do, let’s do this, let’s have some crazy ideas. We just do our best to make as many of them happen.

N: Ya i think whenever we leave each other, we’re always like, when will i see you again?? Oh ya I’ll see you tomorrow and talk to you tonight. We love hanging out together, which makes working together a gift. With Grape Witches  we love how silly the name is. It’s playful on purpose. We want that to be empowering, it’s not fancy. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously. We think of crazy ideas. We want to have an event here, we want to do this, let’s just do it. We’ll go somewhere and make it happen. We think of it as a community organization; it’s a lot of power to not have it be a business that we need to pay our bills. Because of that we can be really authentic and only do things that we really want to do, say no to things that don’t fit, and only serve the best wines. I’m an importer, so we serve some of my wines, but only the wines that make sense. We wanted it to be free of any business. Everyday is a new adventure.

I probably own more velvet. But Nicole has been spotted by me in stores, petting the velvet.

K: It’s so great to be a duo. It’s hard to do stuff alone. It’s hard to pull off big things alone.

N: It feels better to work together. It’s so good to share something. To have different voices and encourage each other.

K: We have a lot of similarities, but different angles on how we come at it -- as a wine importer and as buyer for a restaurant. Nicole can probably better talk about the history of the wines and the person who made it, and I can talk about who would buy it and when they’d drink it. So it’s symbiosis.

N: We complement each other really well personality wise. I’m really loud and outgoing. I just yell. And Krysta whispers the most profound things. So that’s our divide. Me yelling about dumb stuff and making jokes, and Kyrsta dropping mad knowledge in a whisper.

A few more questions.

LR: Ok, who enjoys velvet more?

K: I probably own more velvet. But Nicole has been spotted by me in stores, petting the velvet.

N: A lot of our Instagram stories are me just touching things and saying mmmmm. We really like to go to the art store and buy a bunch of stuff that we make things with. There was this nice brush that i just started brushing Krysta with. The brushes are so soft. I have less velvet, but when she wears it, I touch it. It’s basically pleasure for everyone.

And that’s what we’re trying to tell people. Good wine doesn’t have to be so expensive. If it’s under $15 it’s not going to be made by a person and a specific place. It’s going to be basically a grape drink that has been stabilized to be consistent and pleasurable to a lot of people in a way that fast food or frozen pizza is pleasurable to a lot of people.

LR: Are wines in the Vintage section any good?

N: Well the vintage section is definitely the way to go. If it’s on the LCBO general shelf and meeting the volume requirements plus marketing dollars to be there, the wine is not made by a small producer. Which isn’t to say all of them are bad, but small artisanal producers who speak more to place and interesting varietals, those are more likely to be  in Vintages and in specialty stores that now exist.

The LCBO has opened a few country-specific stores in very annoying places that take wine from the consignment program. Basically, when I go to restaurants, I bring them wine that’s not available in the LCBO, but sell by the case from a system called consignment. You get a wider selection. The specialty stores are pulling those wines not usually in stores  and selling them by the bottle only at specific  stores that are unfortunately hard to get to! There’s a Spain store at Bloor and Royal York. It has a big Spain section with wines that you won’t find at any other LCBO. There’s a greek one on the Danforth. There’s an Italian one in Woodbridge. They’re not downtown. But we go there and we want to buy all this wine. It’s worth seeking out.

LR: What’s a good price point for a good bottle?

K: Obviously the sky’s the limit. But honestly if you spend between $20 and $40 you’ll find something really extraordinary if you’re careful. There’s stuff that’s sub $15. There’s not a lot of good value with the LCBO markup. They know your price point. But if you go a little higher you’ll find some really interesting stuff.

N: And that’s what we’re trying to tell people. Good wine doesn’t have to be so expensive. If it’s under $15 it’s not going to be made by a person and a specific place. It’s going to be basically a grape drink that has been stabilized to be consistent and pleasurable to a lot of people in a way that fast food or frozen pizza is pleasurable to a lot of people. For $20 to $40, which is what a lot of people are comfy spending, you can get a really interesting wine in a cool place that speaks to something. And that’s not that much money. Real anything costs money. Real food, real wine. So $20-40 is good. Very expensive wine over $100 can become a  luxury product. It becomes not about taste, but esteem and collection -- that’s less interesting to us. It just becomes a different thing. It’s not really for consuming. But that’s boring. That’s not what we care about.

We want something that reflects the season and what we’re using for monthly parties or what we’re drinking, what our sommelier friends are drinking. We’d want to have the same kinds of notes that we make for the parties — focused on mood, weather, outfit, emotion, personality.

LR: When are you starting a Wine Club?

N: We’ve had lots of people ask us. There’s nothing cool in Canada, but that’s also because of our confusing liquor laws!

K: I had to quit a not-to-be-named wine subscription I used to have. It’s a little wine club. They kept sending me weird wines I didn’t want. Malbecs from Argentina in the middle of summer. It just didn’t make sense.

We want something that reflects the season and what we’re using for monthly parties or what we’re drinking, what our sommelier friends are drinking. We’d want to have the same kinds of notes that we make for the parties -- focused on mood, weather, outfit, emotion, personality. Legally it’s complicated. There’s some weird laws in Canada and that’s what’s stopped us. It’s a bit illegal. It’s a law they’re changing soon. We don’t want to get arrested.

Photo credits: Jenalle Los