Connoisseurs Establish Wine Business
Stacy M. Brown | 5/7/2014, 3 p.m.
Sean Bani Yisrael and Greg Markell Lawrence attended various events throughout the country to develop their palates and their noses to help them understand the complexities of an industry that isn’t for the faint of heart.
An unexpected wine tasting experience during a dinner outing turned the interest of the lifelong friends who hail from Ohio into a passion.
“We didn’t have any formal training or experience in winemaking, but we wanted to start something that wouldn’t be a norm for African-American entrepreneurs, so we decided on wine,” said Yisrael, 40.
“One night we were out to dinner with our wives and my partner Greg and I were talking … we’re always thinking about business,” he said.
“We are always looking for something to do and, what’s interesting is that we never [indulged] until we got into the wine business.”
Their entrée into the world of winemaking occurred in 2007.
While in Ohio, the two men launched their business, the Markell-Bani Fine Wines and Sparkling Beverage Company, before Yisrael moved to the nation’s capital in 2008.
Five year later, Yisrael successfully applied for a liquor license in Maryland and the partners said they plan to expand their still fledgling wine business.
“We have two new wine flavors and each is named after our daughters. We have Demera Blanc and Aniyah Rouge,” Yisrael said.
“Demera Blanc is a unique blend of sweet tropical and citrus fruits that has flavor and body that can be appreciated by everyone. Then, there is Aniyah Rogue, which is made from luscious Concord grapes and it has a sweet and smooth taste that makes it perfect to enjoy with a nice meal or alone.”
Now, in their first official year of sales for their products, Yisrael and Lawrence are seeking to grow their brand, particularly in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.
Already, their label has prominent placement in the Cincinnati, Ohio market and Markell-Bani is the featured house wine at the historic Blue Wisp Jazz Club in the Riverfront City.
“My expectations are for Markell-Bani to be one of the premier wine brands in the country,” said Lawrence, 42, an Ohio police officer.
“I am ecstatic to be a part of something that has so much potential and class. I feel that our company defines who we are, so with that being said, we must continue to strive for perfection. The only way to predict the future is to create the future and Markell-Bani Fine Wines represents the future.”
The journey hasn’t been easy, the men said.
The friends have recently traveled to vineyards and they’ve participated in wine showcases around the world. They said they’ve also continued to educate themselves about the art of winemaking.
“We felt like Tiger Woods early on in this,” Yisrael said.
“It seemed that we were the only African Americans doing this or showing an interest in doing this, but we wanted to be successful.”
The duo eventually produced their first case of wine in 2007 while at a micro-winery in Cincinnati, where Lawrence had been invited to learn the process of winemaking. Family and friends immediately snapped up the first two or three cases the men produced and they said they haven’t looked back.
Together, they conceived the idea of a golden crest for the design that adorns their bottles of wine. Before long, their wines, which also include Blackberry Merlot, Kiwi Pear Sauvignon Blanc, and Rose’, hit store shelves in the D.C. metropolitan area.
“It’s important to us that we build a brand that’s not based on trends, but the quality of the product itself,” Lawrence said.
To help distinguish their brand, which starts at $10 per bottle, Lawrence and Yisrael also decided to package their wine in recyclable bottles, earning them the distinction as the first African-American winemakers to place their products in sustainable containers.
“That’s the only way to predict and have some control over the future,” Yisrael said. “That is, to create it yourself.”
For more information about Yisrael and Lawrence’s products, visit www.markellbani.com.