In 1967, heartthrob band mates John Lennon and Paul Mc Cartney wrote a ballad for their friend and drummer Ringo Starr. Over the airwaves, the lyrics poured, catchy and upbeat: I get by with a little help from my friends. How lovely, how Sixties.
How unimaginable when trying to juggle kids, a full-time job, volunteerism and, oh right, a husband.
“You know, when you have families and children, it’s very hard to keep your girlfriends close to you,” said the ever-busy Stephanie Browne this week. “If you don’t have an outlet, you get swallowed up in the day-to-day of your kids, your career and your husband, not that that isn’t important, but life is really large.”
In case there are questions, this is what ever-busy looks like: day job as the senior business leader of enrollment at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts and a volunteer position as board chair of the Boston Institute for Arts Therapy, among other community work. This past weekend, Ms. Browne took a break at her Oak Bluffs summer home, but by Monday, it was back up to Boston for work (and a quick stop for an outfit at Lord & Taylor where she took a few minutes in the ladies’ department to field questions on her cellphone from a reporter) and then back to the Vineyard to host Divas Uncorked, a four-day food and wine festival.
Twelve years ago, Ms. Browne realized that with all of this hustle and bustle, she was missing out on valuable time with her friends. It was after a meeting of the local Coalition of 100 Black Women that Ms. Browne found herself out to dinner with a group of them. “I wanted to do something with my friends that was fun and would keep us together,” Ms. Browne said. She had this feeling while looking over the restaurant wine list and something clicked. “All I knew were Chardonnay and Merlot at the time. I thought, why don’t we learn about wines and start a wine club, sort of like a book club?”
Her friends loved the idea and they came together that month for a wine tasting. At the time, there were 12 ladies and they called themselves the Divas (today there are nine and they go by Divas Uncorked). “I wanted to make sure we all had to only host once a month. We just went and bought wines at the store,” she said. “The baseline premise of all of our meetings is that you have to have education.”
After a few years of monthly sippings, some mutual friends expressed a desire to join. “Well, we didn’t want to expand the group, so we thought, why not do a dinner or something.” In 2002, the ladies held one at the Millennium Hotel in Boston and opened it to the public. Mac McDonald, one of the few African American wine makers, provided the wine and 95 people attended.
All of a sudden, the spotlight was on the Divas.
In 2004, Newsweek magazine featured a story on the group. Then the wine industry started paying attention. “There were not a lot of women or people of color in the industry, so it was kind of a perfect match. It all kind of came together,” Ms. Browne said. Different wineries began seeking advice from the Divas on how to market their wines and expand their market. All the while, the group continued to savor their small meetings together. “It was important to find time to nurture,” said Ms. Browne.
Last year, the idea of a festival was born. The Vineyard, where a few of the Divas have roots, was the perfect spot. “There was nothing going on here that really talked about diversity from the wine perspective,” Ms. Browne said. “And we felt as though the culinary aspect wasn’t really reaching everybody. This was something that could be done to give the Vineyard something else to do in the summertime.”
And so the ladies who sip partnered with the Vineyard folk who farm — the Island Grown Initiative, a nonprofit group advocating for local food and the people who grow and raise it. Together they organized a two-day food and wine festival with tastings and sippings and dinners at the Outerland nightclub by the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. The event attracted a large crowd and earned the Island Grown Initiative about $2,000 said group executive director Ali Berlow.
“The Divas are awesome. Those ladies are so classy and are so much fun. They are so vibrant and joyful,” Mrs. Berlow gushed. “The ladies get it. They get locally grown food is awesome.” The Divas gushed right back. “We started talking about what she was all about and it sounded so much like what the Divas were trying to do on the wine side,” Ms. Browne said of Mrs. Berlow.
This year, the group decided to return to the Island, expand the festival and again partner with Island Grown. The festivities kicked off last night with a book signing at Cousen Rose gallery in Oak Bluffs and a VIP dinner at a private home. Things continue today with a Table and Vine Vintners dinner at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. Tickets sold out weeks ago, though there are some still available for the chocolate and wine dessert reception which follows. On Saturday, the Divas will be back at Outerland for their grand tasting — an all-day affair under a tent with over 30 wine and food vendors, arts exhibits and cooking demonstrations. In the evening, the divas host Bubbles on the Barbie, a dinner featuring wines from sommelier Josh Wesson, live jazz from Andrew Ward and the food of renowned chefs Jody Adams, Gordon Hamersley, Robert Rainford, Cheryl Straughter and Marvin Woods. A sold out brunch at Lola’s restaurant in Oak Bluffs closes out the weekend. “Because the Island is so diverse and there’s so many people, we wanted to reach a little bit more of the Island [this year], so we have the Friday night dinner in Edgartown, we take people to Oak Bluffs and then Friday night we’re back at Outerland,” said Ms. Browne. She expects the weekend to draw a crowd of about 600, almost six times the number that attended their first public dinner.
To Ms. Browne, it is no mystery why tickets to their events are selling fast. “We try to make people feel at home and a part of our family,” she said. “And our events are really, really classy. I hate to say it myself.” Each one — and the Divas organize and host them nationwide — is unique, with food and wine hand-picked by the group. “Our whole model is wine savvy, but not wine snobby. We want you to learn while you’re with us and have a good time, have fun doing it.”
It is a model which works well on this Island. “The [Divas] have their own joie de vivre and it fits in beautifully with the Vineyard,” said Mrs. Berlow.
And, it is a model which works well for the friends. “Our goal was to stay together and be friends and we’ve been able to do that for ten years. That was our main goal, the friendship piece. And through it, we ended up with a second goal. We wanted to break down the intimidation around wine. We wanted people to enjoy wine and be enthusiastic about it and know that you don’t have to be a wine expert to buy it,” said the Diva herself.
For details or tickets to the events in the Divas Uncorked Food and Wine Festival taking place this weekend, see online divasuncorked.com.