How Mela Wine Was Born Out Of This Best Friend Group’s Book Club
We’ve all heard the jokes about book clubs and wine: the latter usually abounds and sometimes the drink overshadows the books.
That’s exactly what happened with the Kyndal Easter Book Club, but on a whole different level. Wine became so important to this group of best friends that they created their own wine label.
It all started on a March evening in 2021 with a virtual wine tasting. The group was blown away by the choices 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 friends Erica Estrada, Ryann Casey and Chelsea Walden are now co-founders and CEOs of Mela, the wine brand they launched in May 2022. They received 90 and 93 points for their red and white mixes, respectively The tasting panel Magazine.
“We are grateful,” Easter said. “The response and support we have received in these first few months has been incredible. Our early release bottles sold out in 43 minutes. Our first white mix sold out completely in just a month of our launch. It is humbling and empowering to receive such great feedback on the two blends we created ourselves.”
The name Mela is short for “melanin,” which the group says “honours our shades of brown.” They were pleased to discover that “mela” means “to gather” and “to satiate” in other languages, including Sanskrit and Hebrew.
The group met as a freshman year at the University of Southern California. For the past year, the four have squeezed into a two-bedroom downtown apartment.
Navigating the dynamics of small-space roommates and the annual trips they take after graduation have made them experts at keeping their friendship healthy. And now that they’ve started a business together, they’re prioritizing their relationship, even over corporate profits.
They believe that the foundation of their friendship must remain strong. If their connection goes down, business cannot thrive.
Prioritizing and balancing workloads is a particular challenge for this group, as mela is a sideline to each team member’s successful career. Easter is an educator, Casey is a criminal defense attorney, Estrada is a luxury events planner, and Walden is a physical therapist—in case you haven’t been feeling like a slacker today.
Their path they pave in the wine industry energizes this powerhouse team.
“It’s an indescribable feeling to take a step back and see that we’re actively filling a void and see that being universally recognized,” Easter said. “And to think that 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 when you started this project and has that changed since Mela was developed?
“Before we started this company, each of us had our own favorite strains. Kyndal loved a full-bodied Zinfandel, Ryann and Chelsea loved a smooth Pinot, Erica a bold Taxi. We made it a point to introduce each other to our favorites, and it was always interesting to see which ones we unanimously liked and which we disagreed with.
In 2020, when many things in the world were seemingly unpredictable, the need to stay connected to loved ones and treasured ones every day felt more and more urgent. That’s why we created a virtual book club that celebrates black women authors, carefully pairing different wines and dishes with each book. The more we tasted, the more we learned not only about the wines themselves, but also about our personal preferences.
The more experienced we became, the more our range expanded. This growth was extremely helpful in the actual creation of our white and red blends. During the mixing process, we developed a new appreciation for how blends work together. For example, before our blending session, we had listed all the grape varieties we had in mind for our red blend – Malbec wasn’t on that list. However, after many hours of mixing and tasting, we only achieved the fullness we were looking for when we added Malbec to our blend.
While we all still maintain our favorite strains, 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 we came up with a name with meaning. With many different possibilities floating around, the word mela, short for melanin, quickly rose to the top as it honored our shades of brown and the history and pride that went with it. We also learned that “mela” has such a beautiful and value-based meaning in other cultures. The Sanskrit definition of mela resonated with us when we learned that it meant “to gather.” In Hebrew it means “to fill; being full.’ It took us a while to come up with a name, but when we landed on Mela we all fell in love with it straight away.”
How do you find time for the wine business alongside your other full-time jobs? (Perhaps one or two of you could provide a quote on strategies for making time for everything.)
“Discipline, teamwork and lots of grace. Being the four of us allows us to balance the demands of starting a new business in a way that has felt manageable most of the time. We schedule time to work on Mela together and individually, holding each other accountable for deadlines and goals.
On Tuesdays we meet at 7:30pm PST. Although it can sometimes be difficult to start a meeting at this time, we recognized that we would need to work outside of our normal business hours to get our business off the ground. It’s not uncommon for one of our kids to run across the Zoom screen in their pajamas while getting ready for bed while another pulls into the driveway after leaving their job, but we make it work. It’s also extremely helpful that there are four of us to help with the divide and conquer. While one of us is conducting a phone interview, two of us may be working offline to update the website, allowing our fourth founder to be fully present at work. When all is said and done, it is the grace we give to each other and to ourselves that keeps us sane.”
Erika: “I use reservations on my calendar to ensure I block the time I spend on my event planning business and separate time reservations for Mela.”
Ryann: “I’ve had the most success doing tasks one at a time – making sure to get the task done so I can end the day with more closed loops than open loops.”
What do you love about wine?
“What’s not to 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 end 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 can do just that. There is also so much to learn and discover about wine as each wine has its own unique story. As newcomers to the wine industry, we often feel both humbled and inspired.”
8. I loved reading that you all decided to put your friendship first before starting a business together. Were those ties even questioned during the development and launch of Mela?
To answer the question simply, no, Mela has not questioned our bond. Instead, the challenges of starting a business have strengthened us and pushed us to protect our friendship even more. In any relationship, you need to have clear boundaries. For example, we chose to create a Slack group message for business conversations and keep the fun, life, and family conversations in our texts. We also value being honest with each other. That’s not to say we didn’t have our share of disagreements along the way, but in the most difficult moments, it’s the depth of our friendship that keeps us grounded.
Are there any sommeliers, winemakers, entrepreneurs, etc. that you admire or enjoy working with?
“We would like to extend two greetings. Firstly, to Brandon Crump, Operations Manager at Michael Lavelle Wines, for his encouragement and support. His words of wisdom and caring were more than helpful. Another shout out to Ms. Theodora Lee, Founder of Theopolis Vineyards. We had the chance to meet her on two separate occasions and remain motivated and grateful for how she paved the way for black women in the industry.
The black and brown space in the wine industry may be small, but it is also powerful. We welcome the opportunity to learn from, collaborate with and succeed together with other black/brown brands. As we continue to earn our place at the table, we’ll make sure to bring another chair and wine glass for the next black and brown wine brand.”