A Black woman winemaker pursuing authenticity and inspiration through The Roots Fund, Naked Wines, and visual art.
By Gerrard Roberts
Kyle Burke is an artist with fantastic style and undoubted grace. Supported by a village of family and mentors, she has continued to challenge herself to pursue avenues that are authentic and
inspired by joy. Her passion for creating and education has been a driving force in strengthening her voice and landing her the opportunity to produce commercial wine with Naked Wines. Starting as a novice at-home winemaker, in less than 3 years Kyle has released her first vintage of California bulk wine through mentorship with The Roots Fund.
When did art first capture your attention, and what were your early influences?
“As a child, I’ve always found myself drawing and doodling, I didn’t realize I had strength in this area. My friends in school would ask me to draw pictures for them on regular notebook paper, and they would stick them in the insert on the outside of their binder so they would have their own artwork. It was the funniest thing to me because I was just doing what was natural. I didn’t get into formalizing [my art] until I got into middle school and high school. I took classes to learn different perspectives, historical referencing with artists, and technique development. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia during the hip-hop era in the 80s, this was pre-braces and full jerry curl, total disclosure, I wasn’t out in the hallways doing things your typical high school kid would do. Art was an escape for me – I was very introverted and I was very shy. Growing up, I was told you have to get a government job and get a pension, that’s how my parents grew up. When I asked them, ‘hey can I major in art?’ – they said ‘no.’ So that went out the window.
How have you balanced not allowing the technical learning of art to restrict your personal expression?
“That whole process of learning the technicality of art was a bit restricting, but as I got older and gained more experience, I began to understand the benefits and why it’s so important to know these techniques. I knew that art had perspective and I learned this in high school. If you are really serious about art and want to produce a quality body of work, education can be helpful. There are a lot of people out there that are self-taught and I give kudos to those that can do that.
I find myself being a bit of a hybrid; I had enough schooling in high school to make a difference. However, if I would have had the confidence to attend courses in college, I know that my technique and skill level would be even greater. Now I’m in a space where I can enjoy art. I’m learning the joy of messing up and starting all over again. I’m embracing the process of not feeling that everything that I draw or paint has to be perfected. It’s a process of sketching, and as an artist, I’m learning to embrace the full experience.
Now that you’ve built your confidence and you’re in a space where you can do what you want, how much freedom and joy did you have developing your wine label?
“Here’s the funny part – I was so ingrained in the winemaking process; learning about the viticultural process, the science behind the grapes, and how they respond to certain yeast and cultures. The creative part of me was on a lock. I knew what I wanted, and [I] told the designer that I wanted a peacock. I gave her some sketches that detailed the styles and colors that I envisioned. She [the designer] gave me four or five different mockups, and I selected two for my different wine labels.”
How has The Roots Fund supported your professional development?
“The Roots Fund came to me during the pandemic. I was at home like everyone else figuring out things. I knew that I loved wine for years, and became that ‘wine lady’ in my circle of friends. I started incorporating wine with my art classes, hosting paint and sips. I eventually received the 2019 She Can scholarship through the McBride Sisters and Women of the Vine and Spirits partnership and that gave me a boost in confidence to find more scholarships. In my research, I learned about Tahiirah Habibi, she’s a superstar and wine goddess. I discovered that she was one of the founders of The Roots Fund, and I immediately applied for their scholarship. Prior to this, my husband encouraged me to start making small batches of wine at home. I included this information on my application, showing them my winemaking process and end product. My original intent in applying for the scholarship was to receive my WSET level 2 certification. I was notified that I won that scholarship, and I was encouraged to participate in the winemaker’s scholarship with Naked Wines. I was very humbled that they even considered me for this, and I eventually received the blessing of winning that opportunity.”
As a small batch producer who makes wine at home, how have you grown through the journey of making bulk wine with Naked Wines?
“It is the same process of grape juice fermented with yeast, you allow it to age and decide whether you want to clarify it or add adjustments. Personally, I enjoy the process of making small-batch wine, because I get to conduct experiments. It ebbs and flows, sometimes you’ll have success, and other times you will have failures. When producing bulk wine, you have more technology and tools that the company provides to ensure the product will be successful. The grapes on the vine, and the grape juice produced, go through analysis multiple times to verify ph and acidity levels. You can review this data in real-time and allow it to guide your decision-making process.
Living in Maryland and producing your bulk wine in California, what geographical challenges did you face during the wine-making process?
“I met my mentor from Naked Wines in May 2021. He’s a winemaker of over 30 years, I call him my uncle now. I also have two mentors from The Roots Fund that have helped me from a business standpoint. During my first trip to California, I had to figure out what profile I wanted to focus on and I decided on Chardonnay because I want to be a Chardonnay specialist. I tasted about 30 different styles of Chardonnay, and by the end of this trip, I was sick of Chardonnay. I came back for harvest in September 2021 and we picked the grapes. Due to the pandemic, we did not have enough pickers so I worked with the team we had to pick grapes. I was told that if I hear something that sounds like a sprinkler, stay away because it’s a rattlesnake. Thankfully, I only saw rabbits and spiders – I was very lucky. Producing bulk wine is hard work, and I have a newfound appreciation for the laborers in this field. The picked grapes were eventually crushed and fermented, and I came back to California in April 2022 for bottling. The Naked Wine team has signed me on for another round, so I’ll be back for harvest next year.
What’s next for you, how do you see your new wine label developing?
“I put my small batches on hold while producing my bulk wine. I have two five-gallon containers; they are in the resting stage. I plan on getting back to my small batches because I’d like to give my wine away as a personal token of appreciation. I’ll also be releasing my second bulk Chardonnay with Naked Wines, this will be an Oaked Chardonnay. We aged it in French, Hungarian, and American barrel oak; only twenty percent, I didn’t want it to be too buttery. I wanted it to have its own little thing to it and not be too ‘California.’ My goal is to share my wine-making experience with others so that someone else can come behind me and do the same thing. I want people to know that no matter what stage you are in your life, you can reach your goals. Everything is a process and I’m still processing it. I would like to establish a brand as a really talented Chardonnay winemaker. I also plan to continue my art; I’m venturing into the graphic arts area. I aspire to partner with others in the industry to produce label designs for other winemakers.”
Visit Naked Wines to purchase bottles of Kyle Burke’s Chardonnay retail price of $22.99, angel price of $17.99.
Visit Etsy to purchase pieces of Kyle Burke’s artwork.