Mermosa makes history and makes waves in the wine industry • St Pete Catalyst
A small St. Petersburg business with a big history rooted in fighting slavery with love will continue to thrive thanks to a national grant.
Mermosa – Florida’s first black-owned wine brand – became one of 30 small businesses out of 12,500 applicants across the United States to receive a $10,000 grant from the FedEx Entrepreneur Fund last week. Founder Desiree Noisette qualified to apply because her parents both served in Vietnam.
Fredrick W. Smith, founder and executive chairman of FedEx Corporation, is also a Vietnam War veteran. However, it was Noisette’s family-inspired business history and plans for a diverse ambassador program that led grantmakers to include Mermosa among the 2.4% of winning applications.
Noisette called the win “pretty wild,” a term that could objectively describe how her business got to this point in the first place.
“So many people had great stories, products and companies,” she said. “The fact that we have been selected is a vote of confidence for the program we have proposed. That means we have something that experts say clicks.
Everything Mermosa does is rooted in family history, painstakingly curated by “Cousin Peggy,” its matriarch and historian. Noisette said FedEx’s entrepreneurial grant would help build the growing brand and share a story that emerged from one of the country’s darkest times.
Despite the cultural challenges evident at the time, Philipe Noisette, a white French gardener, and Celestine, a black Haitian, fell in love and married in the late 1700s. They “traced a love trail” that drove them to Charleston, South Carolina, before the war, where Desiree’s parents would one day meet in the Navy.
Philippe had no choice but to claim ownership of his wife and children to protect them from the horrors of the pervasive slave trade of the time.
When he died in 1835, Désirée explained, Philippe ensured that Celestine and their children received the money he had accumulated as a prolific gardener. While she could have used the savings to flee the South in search of freedom, Celestine’s bold spirit led her to bargain for her family’s freedom instead.
Throughout the story, Philippe’s horticultural expertise led him to introduce the Rose Noisette, a “bold and perennial” flower, like his wife. Celestine ensuring the freedom of the family allowed her children to pass on the botanical feat, which now inspires the sparkling Celestine Rosé de Mermosa – recently awarded 90 points by Passionate about wine.
Desiree Noisette said her family history fuels her entrepreneurial spirit.
“It’s a really tough industry,” she said. “And when I think about what Célestine and Philippe had to go through, especially Célestine, I say to myself ‘it’s nothing. I can do it.’ I make wine – I’m not trying to break the chains of slavery.
Mermosa was born
Noisette started Mermosa in 2018 while operating a swimwear and resort wear store in St. Petersburg. Dissatisfied with the mimosas she served to enhance the social vibe of the shop, she decided to make her own unique blend of Pinot Gris with natural fruit juices.
After testing over 300 variations of the recipe in the store, Noisette introduced Mermosa Bubbles to the town. The sparkling wine became a hit, and she quickly focused on growing Florida’s first black-owned wine brand.
Noisette conceded that directing “is a big deal”.
“You know, I don’t look like the traditional winemaker,” she added. “Less than 1% of the 1% of American winemakers are African American. So when I started Mermosa, people told me I was crazy.
Besides learning the wine business as they went, Noisette realized there were few opportunities to raise capital. Embodying the bold spirit of her fifth great-grandmother, she convinces her husband to sell their house.
While Noisette noted that her lack of wine experience – and her distinctly different appearance from most winemakers – created an uphill battle. However, with proceeds from the house funding the start of the business, Mermosa planted his flag in St. Pete.
“And now we have legitimate credibility in the wine world,” Noisette said. “Merseco, which I developed on Beach Drive, was just named one of America’s Top 10 Sparkling Wines by Passionate about wine.”
A thriving business
Unlike traditional ambassadors, Noisette is working with St. Pete-based wine expert and educator Stephanie Miller Love to create a certification program for attendees with no wine experience. Additionally, a partnership with a national distributor will allow brand ambassadors to work alongside its salespeople.
She called this aspect an unusual opportunity for people to learn many facets of the industry, and the ultimate goal is to propel diversity.
A partnership with an Oregon winery, Noisette explained, is a key aspect of Mermosa’s flavor profile. The company’s products are all made in the Willamette Valley from grapes grown in the Pacific Northwest.
“But, we did research and development with agricultural products in Florida,” she added. “We’re just waiting for the right real estate opportunities so we can really grow that side of the brand.”
Retailers nationwide now carry Mermosa’s products, although the vast majority, 394, operate from Florida and the Southeast. Sam’s local clubs offer Mermosa, as does the base exchange at MacDill Air Force Base, which matches the family’s rich military history.
According to its website, 10 businesses around Charleston — where Noisette’s ancestors once dominated slavery — also offer the family brand.
The Cousin Peggy Project provided $13,000 in matching membership revenue for the International African American Museum of Charleston. According to the website, the museum’s Family History Center uses expert genealogical research to connect relatives and uncover untold stories.
Noisette said the fate of her ancestry, her parents meeting by chance in Charleston and becoming the state’s first black-owned wine brand, put life in perspective.
“I also feel like I’m doing the right thing with my time, my energy and my family,” she added. “I have two small children who know our family history – they have bonded with family members around the world through Mermosa. It’s just like a call.
For more information about Mermosa, visit the website here.