Beverages and Travel & Tourism

Entrepreneur carves out a wine niche in Beer City

Kris Mathis creates unorthodox wine tours that incorporate local food establishments.

January 17, 2020
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Wine tours are about four hours long and individuals spend about 45 minutes at each location. Courtesy Sam Cooper

Greater Grand Rapids has become synonymous with beer over the past several years. 

But Kris Mathis wants people to know Grand Rapids not only for its beer but also for its wine.

So, he took matters into his own hands by creating Raise A Glass Wine Tours last January. It is an unorthodox wine tour business that incorporates local food establishments in the city rather than vineyards.

“We wanted to revamp that entire experience to make it young, cool, hip and fun,” he said. “Instead of visiting vineyards, we visit wine bars and restaurants and then we have a sommelier, chef or wine steward come out and give a presentation and share information about the wine, the pairing process, how to properly sip wine and why the wine pairs with that dish.”

Mathis said wine tour-goers are picked up in Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and are transported to three establishments: Forty Acres Soul Kitchen in Grand Rapids, St. Julian Winery in Rockford and House of Wine in Grand Rapids. The wine tour is about four hours and individuals spend about 45 minutes at each location.

Although the establishments provide some wines, Mathis said he handpicks and buys his own wines for the tour, some based on seasons.

“I don’t pick what I know everyone drinks,” he said. “We don’t let you order off the menu. Instead, you give us your dietary restrictions. That includes letting us know whether you are a vegan or a vegetarian, whether you eat dairy, pork or gluten-free food. They will then curate a menu for us that we then surprise you with when you show up.

“So, you don’t get to pick off the menu and you don’t get to pick out the wine. We do all that for you. I know that Moscato is extremely popular amongst women, so we don’t serve Moscato. One or two of our locations may serve Moscato, but our goal is to encourage you to try things that you wouldn’t order on your own.

“We take traditional soul food dishes and pair them with wines. You wouldn’t take chicken and waffles and pair it with wine, but we make that happen. You would never eat shrimp and grits with wine, but we make that happen. Same with some Italian food such as cheese bread and different pasta dishes. We take it and get creative.”

As he carves out space for wine tours to gain traction locally, Mathis is trying to encourage more people of color to try different wines. The first tour that he held was called A Taste of Culture, which was all about a cultural experience around wine and food.

Along with creating a cultural experience, Mathis also has influenced others to start their own wine business.

Married couple Shatawn and Nadia Brigham said they were inspired to start their own wine business called GRNoir Wine & Jazz because of Mathis’ Raise A Glass Wine Tours.

“We were thinking about GRNoir for about a year, but we were not sure if wine had a market in Grand Rapids,” Nadia said. “We ended up going on one of Kris’ wine tours with other couples and saw the excitement, we saw Kris’ excitement and we saw the excitement of other couples and we thought, ‘OK, Grand Rapids seems like the place where we should move forward with our idea because there is an excitement about wine and there is a group of people who want different alternatives.’

“It was really inspirational for us to see it being displayed and seeing what the energy was like.”

The couple won $20,000 from the Start Garden 100 Ideas competition, and they also were awarded a grant last year from Downtown Development Authority to help invest in their business.

Mathis said he will be establishing Raise A Glass Wine Tours in Detroit this summer, and he also is exploring a third location, all based on the initial success in West Michigan.

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