Wine for the people

Popping bottles of history with George Walker.
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George Walker pours the Wade Cellars chenin blanc at GRNoir Wine & Jazz. Photo by Bryan Esler

Here is something important to remember about George W.C. Walker III: Before he was 21 years old, he was in West Michigan, already studying for his sommelier exam.

Years have passed, but Walker always has had the same precocious talent. It’s taken him from culinary school in Muskegon to personal projects — like a WGVU series on food and a community cooking class — to working in the Michigan wine industry. Now in his late 20s, he’s joined Wade Cellars, the Napa Valley winery helmed by NBA superstar Dwayne Wade.

Wine is perhaps the central focus of Walker’s life, taking him all over the world. In late October, he’d just returned from a trip to France, and he was electric with enthusiasm — for not only the drink itself, but the little histories in every bottle.

“Wine, to me, it’s able to tell a story,” he said. “(It has) a connection to people in so many different ways — whether that be the person or the people who are harvesting it in the field, down to the people in the cellar who are making the wines, or down to the family who may own it.”

Walker grew up in northwest Indiana, jumping into a high school culinary trade program. He wasn’t the type to sit still and learn by explanation — he was much more at home working with his hands. That steered him toward culinary school at Baker College’s Michigan Culinary Institute, which plugged him into the West Michigan food scene and beyond.

“Culinary (study) was a way for me to be able to see the world through the lens of food and be able to see different cultures through food,” Walker said.

He couldn’t travel to France, but he could learn how to make the “mother sauces” that continental cuisine is built on. He couldn’t go to Italy, but he could study pasta-making. He might have been in Indiana, but cooking was his passport, as he calls it, to the rest of the globe. “Through the food, I could understand a little bit more about these cultures and a little bit more about the world.”

One of Walker’s favorite stories about wine — a moment he remembers falling in love with it — came when he learned about the Chateauneuf du Pape, a wine that traces its history back to 14th century France. The politics of the era had put the Pope in Avignon, where successive church fathers with a taste for wine helped further a tradition that still exists in the area today.

That story is key to understanding Walker’s enthusiasm. Listening to him talk about food and drink, there’s the classic culinary belief that mealtime brings people together. But he’s clearly also excited about the depth of the history a bottle can put in your hands. Wine is the drink of ancient kings and of the popes of the Middle Ages — and it’s right here on the table!

That’s not to say Walker’s vision is stuffy — far from it. Part of Walker’s mission is to take the world of wine and make it more accessible.

When he’s asked about his favorite wine, yes, he does point out a specific region of France. It’s Loire, which he said is “diverse in what it can offer,” and produces an “amazing cabernet franc,” plus some other wines with some names that are hard to recognize. What do you want from him? He’s a professional.

But when he’s asked how he rates good wine — and how other people ought to do it — he’s as accessible as a friend walking down the beverage aisle.

“The first and foremost thing is does it taste good, do I actually like it? That’s the most important thing, right?” he said. “Find something that you actually like and gravitate toward, and then go from there.”

That down-to-earth approach is different from what most people have probably heard about wine, which sometimes has to fight against that drink-of-kings reputation to win more every day, mainstream attention. It has its most famous cultural moments alongside an expensive anniversary dinner, or maybe in the upturned claw of a Bond villain. Traditionally, wine is chic and expensive and maybe even a bit stuffy. It’s the kind of perception Walker is working against.

“Wine is for the people, by the people,” he said. “And we need to take the ‘bougie’ out of it.”

And the world of wine is — both in pop culture and at the vineyard — a very white place. The Association of African American Vintners in 2020 estimated that only about 0.1% of U.S. winemakers and wine brand owners are Black.

Given that wine is widely understood as a high-class luxury good and rated with its own language of taste (oaky, vegetal), it’s not surprising that its producers make up something of an exclusive club. Walker mentions in particular the work of the Roots Fund, a group that helps support people of color as they enter the wine industry — through scholarships, mentorship and more — as one example of the ongoing work to make the industry more diverse.

Walker with co-owner of GRNoir, Shatawn Brigham. Walker hosted a Wade Cellars tasting at GRNoir in November 2021. Photo by Bryan Esler

Eddie Tadlock is the assistant general manager at DeVos Place, and helps organize the Grand Rapids Wine, Beer and Food Festival. He recalls watching Walker work his way up through the wine world, organizing local wine events with dinner and music — a series called “Graped Out” — and eventually working with the festival to host a famous Oregon vintner.

Tadlock recalls being impressed with Walker, a young Black man who had an impressive interest in the drink and a talent for making it accessible. He’s an early member of a likely wave of change in the industry, Tadlock said, that’s bringing wine to entirely new demographics and expanding what the world of wine can do.

“I think wine along with food is the magic that brings people together,” Tadlock said. “When you go around the world — you go to Italy or France, wine is part of the culture. You start drinking wine at the dinner table when you’re frickin’ 9 years old. It’s not like it’s anything foreign — it’s very accessible. Here in the U.S., there’s this stigma that if you drink wine, you’re hoity-toity.”

Walker already is making a name for himself. He’s been featured in Imbibe Magazine among its “75 People to Watch.” He’s also been named to a 40-under-40 list by Wine Enthusiast magazine. It’s an auspicious start to Walker’s wine career — though he doesn’t know where it will take him yet. Right now, he sounds happy enough traveling the world for a basketball star’s winery.

“I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years,” Walker said. “I definitely want to be an inspiration for anyone else.”

This story can be found in the January/February 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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