George Walker III, 25, didn’t pay much attention to wine until he attended the Culinary Institute of Michigan in Muskegon to get a degree in food and beverage management. A volunteer gig pouring wines at the International Wine, Beer & Food Festival in Grand Rapids led to a conversation with someone about the intriguing history behind a Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine from France and it prompted his entrée into the world of wine.
“It was right there that I found my passion for wine,” he says.
An outing to Leelanau County during culinary school sealed the deal.
“We hit nine or 10 different wineries,” he says. “I wasn’t 21 at the time and couldn’t try anything. But just to see the progress of what Michigan was doing at the time, it kind of ignited my fire — just to see all the different producers and the passion they have and the capabilities of what we can do and are doing right now, especially nationally.”
Q: So what came next?
I was working at a restaurant in Grand Rapids, and my GM persuaded me to go get a sommelier exam. At 21, I went to Traverse City and took the first-level sommelier course and passed it. Then I worked for a smaller wine distributor that focused on small producers from throughout the world. From there, I went to work for Spartan Nash, where I am currently.
Q: What’s Graped Out?
Graped Out is really intentional about bridging the gap between people of color both on the consumer side as well as the professional. I want to be an example for young people of color that there are other career options other than your traditional career paths.
Essentially what I’m doing is taking the “bougie” out of wine. It’s wine for the people by the people. Especially when I was just starting out, I had no idea what wine was; it was so off-putting because wine has this connotation as being only for elites. I wanted to get away from that.
So I’m doing Graped Out in two phases. The first is pop-up tastings at different restaurants that intersect live music, live art, food and, of course, wine — hitting all the senses. They’re really experience-based events that can educate through all these different channels and wrap it into one. The second phase will be actual production using Michigan grapes. That’s the phase I’m working on right now. The plan is to buy grapes initially and make it for myself. I’m going to be picking my grapes in the southwest region of Michigan — mostly Riesling. I think we do some great stuff down there. The end goal, for sure, is to become a winemaker.
Q. What wines do you offer in Graped Out events?
I definitely rotate it based off the season. I’m always trying to include a Michigan wine — I’m really a big fan of Michigan wines and believe Michigan is up and coming nationally. We produce absolutely amazing juice, and there are awesome producers — James Lester at Wyncroft/Marland; Shady Lane is also one of my favorite producers; M. Lawrence and Larry Mawby are also favorites. I could go on and on.
Q. Do you have advice for people who are novices, as you were in the beginning?
Open up a bottle with friends. Make sure you have a lot of food. And just try it. Don’t be afraid to get a bottle you don’t necessarily recognize because you don’t know what it is. Just have fun with it. Wine should be for the people and by the people. It shouldn’t be pretentious.