We’ve all heard the jokes about book clubs and wine: there’s usually a lot of the latter, and sometimes the beverage overshadows the books.
That’s what happened with Kyndal Easter’s book club, but on a whole other level. The wine became so important to this group of best friends that they created their own wine label.
It all started one March evening in 2021 with a virtual wine tasting. They group was underwhelmed by the selections and thought, why couldn’t we make a great wine?
It turned out to be much more than just a flight of fancy.
Easter and her book club besties Erica Estrada, Ryann Casey, and Chelsea Walden, are now co-founders and executives of Mela, the wine brand they launched in May 2022. They received scores of 90 and 93 for their red and white blends, respectively, from The Tasting Panel magazine.
“We are grateful,” Easter said. “The response and support we have received in these first few months have been incredible. Our early release bottles sold out in 43 minutes. Our inaugural white blend sold out completely in just a month after our launch. It’s humbling and reaffirming to receive such great feedback on the two blends that we created ourselves.”
The name Mela is short for “melanin,” which the group says “honors our shades of brown.” They were delighted to discover that in other languages, including Sanskrit and Hebrew, “Mela” means “to gather” and “to be full.”
The group met freshman year at the University of Southern California. Senior year, the four of them squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment downtown.
Navigating roommate dynamics in a small space, plus the annual trips they’ve taken post-graduation, have made them experts in keeping their friendship healthy. And now that they’ve launched a business together, they prioritize their relationship, even above company profits.
They foundation of their friendship, they believe, must stay strong. If their connection fails, the business can’t thrive.
Prioritizing and balancing workloads is particularly challenging for this group since Mela is a side hustle to each team member’s successful careers. Easter is an educator, Casey is a criminal defense attorney, Estrada is a luxury event planner, and Walden is a physical therapist—in case you weren’t yet feeling like a slacker today.
Their path they’re paving in the wine industry energizes this powerhouse team.
“It’s an indescribable feeling to step back and see that we are actively filling a gap and see that it’s being widely recognized,” Easter said. “And to think we are only at the beginning of our journey.”
I connected with Easter to learn more about the founders, their favorite wines, future plans for the Mela brand and more.
What were your favorite wines to drink when you started this project, and has that changed since developing Mela?
“Before we started this venture, we each had our own go-to varietals. Kyndal loved a full bodied zinfandel, Ryann and Chelsea a smooth pinot, Erica, a bold cab. We made a point to introduce each other to our faves, and it was always interesting to see which ones we unanimously loved versus which we agreed to disagree on.
In 2020, when many things in the world were seemingly unpredictable, the need to stay connected with loved ones and treasure each day felt evermore pressing. For this reason, we started a virtual book club celebrating black women authors and thoughtfully paired different wines and dishes to go with each book. The more we tasted, the more we learned not only about the wines themselves but also about our own personal preferences.
The more experienced we became, the more our palettes expanded. This growth was extremely helpful in the actual creation of our white and red blends. During the blending process we developed a new appreciation for how blends work together. For example, prior to our blending session, we had listed off all the varietals we envisioned in our red blend—Malbec was not on that list. However, after many hours of blending and tasting, it wasn’t until we added Malbec to our blend that we achieved the fullness we were seeking.
While we all still maintain our go-to varietals, the beauty of our blends is that they capture our individual interests, highlight our shared tastes and celebrate new experiences.”
Was it difficult to agree on the name?
“We wanted to make sure to land on a name that had meaning. After floating many different possibilities around, the word Mela, short for melanin, quickly rose to the top as it honored our shades of brown and the histories and pride that comes with it. We also learned that ‘mela’ carried such beautiful and values-aligned meaning in other cultures. The Sanskrit definition of Mela resonated with us as we learned it meant, ‘to gather.’ In Hebrew, it means, ‘to fill; to be full.’ While it took us some time to come up with a name, once we landed on Mela, we all immediately fell in love with it.”
How do you find time for the wine business along with your other full time jobs? (perhaps one or two of you could provide a quote about strategies for finding the time for everything.)
“Discipline, teamwork and a lot of grace. Being that there are four of us, we are able to balance the demands of starting a new business in a way that has felt mostly manageable. We schedule time to work on Mela together and individually, and hold each other accountable to deadlines and goals.
On Tuesdays, we meet at 7:30PM PST. Although starting a meeting at that hour can at times be difficult, we recognized that we would have to work outside of our normal business hours in order to get our business off the ground. It is not uncommon to see one of our children running across the zoom screen in their PJs as they get ready for bed, while another is pulling into their driveway after leaving their day job, but we make it work. It’s also extremely helpful that there are four of us to help divide and conquer. While one of us takes a phone interview, two of us might work offline to update the website, allowing our fourth founder to be fully present at their job. When it’s all said and done, it’s the grace we give to each other and to ourselves that keeps us sane.”
Erica: “I place holds on my calendar to ensure I block off time dedicated for my event planning business and separate work time holds for Mela.”
Ryann: “I have found the most success in working through tasks one at a time—making sure to complete the task so that I can end the day with more loops closed than open.”
What do you love about wine?
“What is there to not love about wine? It can be social, it can be personal. It can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be. It can open an event or be there to close out the day. No matter where you are in the world, wine is used to bring people together. At Mela, we value connection, and with wine, you are able to do just that. There is also so much to learn and discover about wine, for every wine comes with its own unique story. Being newcomers to the wine industry, we often find ourselves feeling both humbled and inspired.”
8. I loved reading that you all decided to put your friendship first before you launched into creating a business together. Have those bonds been challenged at all during the development and launch of Mela?
To simply answer the question, no, Mela has not challenged our bond. Instead, the challenges of starting a business have strengthened and pushed us to protect our friendship even more. With any relationship, you must have clear boundaries. For example, we decided to create a Slack group message for business talk and keep the fun, life and family talk to our texts. Also, we make a point to be honest with each other. This is not to say we haven’t had our share of disagreements along the way, however, in the hardest moments, it is the depth of our friendship that keeps us grounded.
Are there sommeliers, winemakers, business owners, etc. who you admire or enjoy working with?
“We want to give two shout outs. First, to Brandon Crump, head of operations at Michael Lavelle Wines who has been encouraging and supportive. His words of wisdom and care have been beyond helpful. Another shout out to Ms. Theodora Lee, founder of Theopolis Vineyards. We’ve had the opportunity to meet with her on two separate occasions and continue to be motivated and appreciative for how she has paved a way for black women in the industry.
While the black and brown space in the wine industry is small, it is also mighty. We are excited by the opportunity to learn from, partner with and succeed alongside other black/brown owned brands. While we continue to earn our seat at the table, we will make sure to bring another chair, and wine glass, for the next black/brown owned wine brand to come.”