In a city with an entire parade dedicated to the Roman god of wine (Bacchus, for those not up on our Roman or Mardi Gras knowledge) it’s surprising that functioning wineries aren’t popping up all over New Orleans. When Kim Lewis was looking for a pivot from working in the healthcare industry, wine was a natural next step for her. In 2018, Lewis opened the first functioning winery in the Big Easy, a tribute to New Orleans and its history nestled in the middle of Central City. Ole’ New Orleans Wines now produces a total of 18 wines, ships to 35 states around the country, and offers a wine club, wine tastings (both outside in the tasting room and virtually) and event rental options. In this Q&A, Lewis shares her interesting background and road to the wine industry, as well as what continues her passion for her business.
Q: What is your background? I am from New Orleans, primarily, the West Bank in Algiers. I like to call it the Forgotten City because most people will say, “that’s not even New Orleans.” Yes, it is! I went to what is now Harriet Tubman Charter School and Landry High School and then Jackson State University for a little while before becoming pregnant with my first child and coming back home. I went to school for medical billing and coding but then decided to go back to school and get my degree because it was important to set a tone and example for my children – which by that time I had two girls in addition to my son. I went to University of Phoenix and finished with a bachelor of science [in] psychology. I always wanted to be a psychiatrist, so you know that wasn’t far-fetched, but I had to be a little more realistic because I had kids and decided what I was willing to sacrifice and what I wasn’t. I wanted to make sure that I played a huge role in my children’s lives as far as activities and being present, not missing certain holidays and field trips. So, that’s where I landed. Having a degree in psychology led me to having a job, or career, in the healthcare field, where I spent the last 12 years. I owned two mental health clinics and a personal car agency.
Q: Why did you want to make a career change from healthcare to wine? The healthcare industry can be very tiresome, so I knew I wouldn’t do that for a long period of time. Matter of fact, I even started teaching, only because I wanted to have an exit plan. I was just trying to figure out what else I wanted to do. I just kind of sat down and narrowed things out for myself and figured, okay, if I can do some things, what would they be? For me that was teaching and this vision to own a wine company. Which brings us to where we are.
The wine company started as a joking conversation. I needed something else to do because the healthcare industry was driving me nuts. So, it was a laugh, a joke that turned into reality I took my time and followed the specific steps I’ve set for myself. And, before I knew it, here I am. I never intended on owning a full-blown winery, it was just supposed to be an online company.
Q: How did it snowball from an online retail to a full winery? The support! The support from people in the city and even those out of town. It was amazing – the feedback, the support from people wanting to help, extending their kind gestures and thoughts and just the purchases. And I realized, man, I’m shipping all over the world.
Q: Tell us about your wines. I started out with two wines. I networked with a vineyard here in Louisiana and made my first two wines with Louisiana-made grapes of blanc du bois – a semi-sweet and a dry, which are Ole Carrollton and Tchoupitoulas. They did so well, but I didn’t know I’d end up with 18 wines later. The reason I ended up with 18 and why it’s in so many different wine varietals is because customers were drinking the two and would ask, “When are you doing a merlot? When are you making a Zinfandel?” And I wanted to accommodate, but I wanted to make sure when I created these wines that it was with my vision to create history and culture in a bottle. And creating conversations allowed me to keep going and keep telling the different stories. It’s like creating stories that never end or different chapters in a book. So, I managed to capture every part of New Orleans and that meant something to me.
Q: Where can people find your wines? Right now, we have 10 retail wines – released to Walmart, Target, Breaux Mart, just about every store that sells wine – and then eight wines that are specifically for our wine club members and winery guests.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced when opening a winery and new wine label? It’s very challenging to get into, very challenging. But it’s interesting. It’s interesting in the fact that many people lack the knowledge of this industry, and when you lack the knowledge it can be so much and overwhelming that they decided to not go forward. I like to read and to make sure I’m knowledgeable of everything that I’m doing. I’m able to get things done and know what I need to do to further the process, so I made sure it worked out for me.
Q: What’s your favorite part about your job? Meeting the people. Meeting the people and watching the reaction of them realizing that a winery can be in the middle of New Orleans.
Where did you go to high school? Landry High School
Favorite type of wine? Sauvignon Blanc
Favorite happy hour spot besides your own? The Good Bar by the French Market
Favorite NOLA festival? French Quarter Festival
True Confession: I love riding horses.