Deniece Bourne at her bubbly best
Need to know what wine to pair with fish, beef, chicken, or cheese? Unsure about a Cabernet sauvignon or a pinot noir? Well, ask Deniece Bourne, who knows all about wines.
“I couldn’t imagine a life without wine . . . . I really love what I do, and it keeps me motivated to get up and go every morning!”
What exactly does Deniece do? She is a wine specialist, moving to more certification in the speciality, and is the face of Palate Selections, a wine distribution company which will celebrate ten years next year.
“I love to meet new people, and share my knowledge on wine, providing them with a different perspective on this magical wonder in a bottle, because there is always a great story within every bottle. I really enjoy introducing my wine selection to new clients, telling them about its origins, the vineyards in which the grapes were grown, the wine-making technique, and the history of the winery. It is always fascinating, and I know that it changes their overall experience, the way that they enjoy the wine.”
Those vineyards Deniece talks about she has already visited, watching centuries old traditions of wine making . . . which wine grape varieties are best and best soil practices.
And while her journey to Italy to visit those wineries was a long flight, getting to where she is now was even longer.
Deniece, 35, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to two “very Bajan parents”. Moving back home, she attended The St Michael Secondary School and the Barbados Community College, doing an associate degree in French, Spanish and Italian for business and tourism.
Then it was the University of the West Indies to do a bachelor’s in biology.
“I wanted to be a paediatrician, and while I was good at biology and languages, I sucked at chemistry and physics.
“My parents allowed me to do what I wanted to as I was well behaved so when it came to a career and school they allowed me to follow my heart. I was intelligent and could pass subjects with little studying.
“So I picked biology because I liked the idea of marine biology. I wanted to understand why things happen the way they did. But then I said how many marine biologists could work comfortably in Barbados? So I looked at forensic science . . . . Again I wondered how many forensic scientists could compete in this small island.”
Deniece said she wanted time to think of her next move in how to utilise her degree, so she joined the firm Marcus Evans, producing conferences and writing proposals. She would meet people from different backgrounds and this was her first foray into sales.
“I love pressure. I feed off of it. This job was high paced and many hours. But then it no longer was fun to do. After 17 months there I resigned.”
Deniece said the reason was that she couldn’t sit in a space where she was “not happy.”
“I can’t stay if it no longer serves me and makes me miserable.”
Unemployed for about two months, Deniece would soon get another job, at Warrens Motors as supervisor of front desk. That job she got fired from.
“I was too truthful. I was asked about the shortcomings of the department. Then I was told my probation was not extended and I was no longer required at the organisation.”
Deniece left the building. Sat in her car. And sobbed.
Well, sobbed isn’t exactly true.
“I cried and cried and I didn’t think I was going to stop crying,’ she said at the vivid memory. “I didn’t like the idea of being fired.”
At that time Deniece was doing her master’s in management, long distance learning at University of Surrey. And she had just bought a new car and moved into a new apartment.
“I called my mum and she told me to come home. But what was astonishing was a lot of customers called me to inquire about my well-being . . . . if I need a job or anything.”
One of those customers referred her to a sales representative position at a wine distribution company. Deniece knew nothing about wine except she liked to drink white Zinfandel. But she loves a challenge.
She got the job and underwent intense training. But she loved it.
She was getting to do what she liked – socialising with people and sales. She learnt more about wine and also learnt more about rejection.
“There were people who no matter the sales pitch didn’t buy anything. And I learnt that that was OK. Move on to the next sale.”
Deniece picked up a frozen beverage drink in her portfolio, Island Oasis, that wasn’t doing as well as expected. Along came mixologist David Barker who helped her to come up with new ideas and different ways for the drink so she could sell it to bars and hotels. The regional distributor for the product liked her innovativeness and asked if she could consider being the sole agent for the beverage.
That would mean leaving the company she was in and striking out on her own.
After some consultation with a colleague she took the plunge. That’s same colleague was now her business partner, and at age 25 Deniece was looking at doing up a business plan, going to financial institutions to get capital and becoming an entrepreneur.
“It wasn’t easy. I got turned down plenty times. Nobody wanted to invest in it. But I knew it could work and so I get pushing. Then someone eventually said yes and found others to pitch in with capital and suddenly a group of people wanted to finance a wine business,” she said, beaming.
Deniece was deteremined not to fail. She knew it was a risk but one she was willing to take.
She had no car so she was on the bus daily from St Philip to take meetings and meet with suppliers and brand ambassadors. She found a small space in Warrens to set up an office and in November 2008 the business Palate Selections was incorporated.
“The board was set up with some great minds and my partner was well versed in the wine business. I was learning from him. I was also doing my dissertation for my master’s degree while doing deliveries, administration work, taking no off days as I was focused on building the brand.”
And competition was stiff. So Deniece had to find ways to keep the business growing. She took on different brands. Worked with prices. And was still learning all she could about the wine business so as to sell the brands.
The learning entailed selling not only the product but a story: “Wine is not just about making money. The wines have a history that helps when you taste them . . . . The fermentation process, picking and crushing of the grapes and so on.”
Deniece and her partner parted ways in 2015 and the board asked her to stay on and continue the business.
Deniece is financially and physically invested in Palate Selections.
“Being a business owner takes a lot of sacrifices. Don’t let people let you think entrepreneurship is a pretty picture. I don’t want to be negative but it isn’t glossy. I have bad days and good days.”
Deniece said she wants Palate Selections to be of a certain quality and sophistication.
She calls the business a “boutique wine supplier focused on quality and service”.
Her catalogue has about 12 brands and she is looking to add at least three more before the year ends.
“I never thought that I would start a business at 25 years old. Each degree that I undertook, and each job that I had, prepared me for entrepreneurship, and for Palate Selections . . . . but this company has also been instrumental in helping me to become the person that I am, to grow and become stronger. I must say that I am really enjoying my 30s, especially 35. I really feel happy with myself, who I am, and the direction that my business is going in. There is still so much to learn, and so much more that I want to achieve, and I know that I will.”
To balance work and life, Deniece likes to travel, and music keeps her sane.
“Right now I am married to my work, but who knows what the future holds?” she said, laughing. (NS)