Wednesday, 31 March 2021 17:38

GR Noir: Wine for the People

Written by  Jack Raymond
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GR Noir. GR Noir. Courtesy Photo

Wine and jazz — the two go together better than suit and tie. 

Both are communal, complex and command attention, yet they can intimidate the uninitiated just the same. They’re often trailed by a dark cloud of pretension, but gatekeepers be damned: Wine and jazz are for the people. So agrees GR Noir, Grand Rapids’ first dedicated wine and jazz bar that seeks to elevate the city’s wine game while welcoming newcomers into the fray. 

Owners Shatawn and Nadia Brigham arrived a little late to the wine scene but took to it fast. Shatawn was 35 when he had his first glass and Nadia was close behind. Their journey began one December night when the couple wandered into a bottle shop on a whim to find something to drink while wrapping presents. Overwhelmed by options, a helpful clerk guided them to their first bottle, Tintero Moscato D’asti, a delightfully fizzy and sweet wine — perfect for first-timers. This opened the floodgates of curiosity, and the Brighams returned to that same shop to taste through every style under the sun. 

Since those initial visits, the two have nurtured passions for viticulture — Shatawn has his level-1 sommelier certification, Nadia is equally as avid — and they hope to spread that love among their community at GR Noir. They understand that everyone has different levels of appreciation for wine, so dialing in on a spectrum of hospitality is key to GR Noir’s success. 

“It’s about giving that same feeling we had when we first started asking about wine,” Brigham said. 

The puzzle pieces interlock the moment you step foot in the lounge. From the ashes of a dilapidated building turned hole in the ground, GR Noir has transformed the space on Division Avenue into something wholly new. Accents of purple with splashes of gold cultivate an atmosphere like a wine bar in El Dorado. It’s lux without feeling snooty. Then there’s the food menu, delicious but mainly focused on small plates so the clang of cutlery doesn’t clash with the music. That said, good luck not inhaling several smoked-salmon tartines. 

Then there’s the jazz of course, booked by Kevin Jones — percussionist, band leader, producer and educator. In addition to highlighting local and national talent, GR Noir aspires to shed light on the history of the genre. Jazz was born out of Black culture and oppression, and it represents a radical form of expression that permanently changed the face of music. It may have morphed into different forms since its heyday, but jazz remains alive and well, and GR Noir offers guests an excellent venue to experience the magic. 

“I want to show people that those instruments can speak to you just like someone singing,” Brigham said. 

Still, for many, the wine will provide the main draw. While you’ll find plenty of world-renowned staples here, the Brighams curated their list with special attention paid to Black-owned, women-owned and organic vintners. For them, it’s about offering a platform for the overlooked and giving credit where it’s due. 

“Every wine that we’re tasting, it could taste great but we always want to know the backstory,” Brigham said. “If it’s not Black-owned, is it sustainable? How are they treating their employees?” 

Take the McBride Sisters wines for example: Their lauded Black Girl Magic collection propelled the company into being the largest Black-owned winery in the United States — on top of that, the sisters are leaders in the industry for inclusivity, accessibility and sustainability. 

Then there’s Mason Noir Wines, who blend wine lifestyle and street culture with their O.P.P. and Love Drunk brands. These fresh perspectives push things forward and absolutely deserve a place in your glass. GR Noir intends to make sure of it.

“We’re all about equity,” Brigham said. “How do we look at systems through the lens of people of color and the injustices we often find ourselves dealing with? When we look at the wine space in its totality, there are not a lot of Black people. Wine should look the way America looks.”

At GR Noir, Grand Rapids takes one step closer to representing the mosaic of our country and becomes all the better for it.

Five jazz albums to pair with five wines off GR Noir’s menu — tasting notes included!

Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, 2016 Heritance (Cabernet Sauvignon)
Brooding, Volatile, Builds in Intensity 

Billie Holiday - Stay With Me, 2019 Remy Pannier “Rose d’Anjou” (Rose)
Sultry, Vivacious, Sweet

Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters, 2017 Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc)
Funky, Freewheeling, Refreshing

Alice Coltrane - Journey in Satchidananda, 2018 Cuvee Sauvage (Pinot Noir)
Robust, Organic, Divine 

Thelonius Monk - Straight No Chaser, 2018 Longevity Wines (Chardonnay)
Sophisticated, Elegant, Classic 

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