By Norah Machia
Have you ever looked over an extensive wine list and felt like you were desperately trying to understand a foreign language?
The experience of selecting and tasting wines should be a pleasurable one, and Cha McCoy is determined to help make the experience less intimidating and far more enjoyable for Central New Yorkers.
McCoy is a world-renowned sommelier and businesswoman who opened her first retail shop this fall, The Communion Wine + Spirits, at the State Tower Building in downtown Syracuse. It’s not only a shop, but it’s a place for wine-tasting classes, collaborations with nearby restaurants, and planning tours of regional wineries. McCoy will also be slowly introducing a selection of spirits into the store.
The Communion Wine + Spirits carries more than 100 varieties of organic, natural and sustainable wines, McCoy said. They are from near and far – closer to home are wines from the Finger Lakes region, and further away are the European wines – including many from Portugal and Italy.
McCoy was able to expand her knowledge of Italian wines while she was studying for her MBA in Italy. “I seek out the often lesser-known indigenous grapes of Italy” rather than the popular French ones, but they are just as delectable, she said.
“I want to offer people the best wines at a comfortable price,” McCoy added. “My store represents an accessible and affordable luxury lifestyle of wine and spirits.”
She focuses on “low-intervention wines” which typically contain fewer additives (such as sulfites and unnatural sugar) because they’re produced through minimal intervention from the winemaker. “I really wanted to carry wines that reflect the places and people who craft them,” she said. For example, McCoy carries wines from lesser-known wineries such as House of Brown, from California’s Napa Valley, a Black-owned winery, Brown Family Estate.
McCoy credits her family – particularly her father – for her love and appreciation of dining out and trying new foods and drinks. McCoy’s father would explore New York City by way of food, dining at restaurants that represented the diverse cultures that make NYC unique. That was her introduction to the world of cuisine (fast food and microwave meals were never on their menu).
Those dining experiences at a young age in New York City gave her the confidence to later travel and learn more about cuisine and fine wines in other countries. When she moved to Italy, though she did not visibly fit in as a Black woman (“more people looked like me in New York City than in that country,” she noted), it didn’t stop her from educating herself. She asked questions, later sharing her appreciation of Italian culture, including the diversity of wine and foods among the country’s 20 regions, with others when she returned stateside.
McCoy works in an industry that has traditionally been a very white, male-dominated field. She is hoping by sharing her story of success, it will encourage women, Black people and other people of color to consider professional careers in the wine industry.
McCoy, who has a stellar list of credentials, also works as an industry beverage marketing and experience consultant and an educator. She was named one of the “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers” in Wine Enthusiast Magazine and featured in “Rising Black Voices in Wine” for Wine & Spirits Magazine.
Her career journey started along a different path. McCoy graduated from Syracuse University with an engineering degree in 2007. After working in the construction industry as a civil engineer on numerous projects, including the iconic Hudson Bay department stores in North America, she decided to leave the field and pursue an MBA degree in international finance through St. John’s University in Rome, Italy.
“I had to ask myself if my job was bringing me joy, and if I wanted to do it for the rest of my life,” said McCoy. “That’s when I quit my engineering job and moved to Italy.”
But McCoy was still conflicted about her career direction, even after completing her master’s degree. She packed up and moved to Portugal, where she started to turn her passion for wine into a full-time career. McCoy became a certified sommelier and earned an executive certificate in wine management from the Universidade Catolica Portuguesa in Lisbon.
She launched an initiative based on her philosophy of making wine “more accessible” through a wine series called “The Communion” which included wine-tasting events held in five different countries. The experience made her realize the significance of wine beyond the drink itself. Sometimes “it just took one bottle of wine” to bridge the gap in a room full of strangers, she noted.
Never one to slow down, McCoy founded Cha Squared Hospitality & Consulting LLC, a wine experience company that focuses on education, tourism and events connected to the industry. Other honors under her belt include serving as the Charleston (S.C.) Wine and Food Festival Beverage Director, the Brand Ambassador for New York Wine & Grape Foundation, and the first Beverage Director and Editor for Cherry Bombe Magazine.
Although she has spent years working with chefs, winemakers, distillers and hoteliers throughout the world, McCoy decided that Syracuse was the perfect place to open her first brick-and-mortar store.
The city’s proximity to the many award-winning wineries in the Finger Lakes region was a big draw, she said. McCoy was encouraged to consider the location by her former Syracuse University classmate, Caeresa Richardson, who also received an engineering degree. Richardson is the owner of Ecodessa, a sustainable fashion store in downtown Syracuse.
McCoy worked closely with the Downtown Committee of Syracuse in selecting the location for her retail store at 109 South Warren Street. The initial space needed major renovation work to create the shop of her dreams, but her vision was supported by many people, including the building owners.
“I worked really hard to get to this point,” said McCoy. “I had to make a lot of life decisions, and I had to really believe in myself.”
McCoy has provided sommelier services for the James Beard Foundation, and corporate clients, Facebook and NBC. She has also worked as adjunct professor, teaching wine history and appreciation at her alma mater, Syracuse University.
She’s been able to fulfill her dream of earning a place at the head of the table, so to speak, by gaining the respect of others in the sommelier industry. “This field is still male-dominated,” said McCoy. “But I’ve been able to put myself in a position of being in charge of my own business.”
Her message as a Black woman is “just because I don’t look like you, it doesn’t mean I don’t drink the same wine as you.” She continues to fight again palate discrimination based on race, sex or age.
In the next few weeks, McCoy expects to have many customers coming to the store seeking champagne and sparkling wines to celebrate the holiday season. It’s always been a traditional to have champagne on New Year’s Eve, a great holiday that signals new beginnings, she said.
“It’s my favorite holiday,” McCoy said. “New Year’s Eve gets people excited about the future, and what it may bring. People usually feel very hopeful that night.”
Sparkling wines and champagnes, however, do not have to be limited to the holidays, McCoy said. “Every day could be a celebration,” she added. In recent years, sparkling wines have become more popular throughout the year served with brunches, she noted. The store will be carrying special brands of sparkling wines and champagnes this season.
If you’re ready to explore the world of wine, The Communion Wine + Spirits is open 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, check out www.chamccoy.com, www.thecommunion.life, or her Instagram @thecommunion.