How this little wine shop has grown by offering connections and education

Crystal Cameron-Schaad says she’s grateful that her small business has not only survived but thrived over the past few years. As the owner of Crystal Palate Wine & Gourmet, a boutique and educational center in Norfolk, Virginia, Cameron-Schaad is an inspiration to people interested in working or expanding in the wine retail and learning industry.

“Connection was the common thread that will also prevail in 2023,” says Cameron-Schaad. “After COVID isolation and a world of automation and tech gadgets, I truly believe people are craving meaningful ways to connect and foster community.” She shares that Crystal Palate was founded in 2017, based on their “vision to create a regional destination for wine lovers and professionals alike”. This diverse offering is thanks to a series of classes and events that integrate art, food and other interactive elements into the wine experience.

Prior to launching Crystal Palate, Cameron-Schaad worked in the broadcast industry, serving as press secretary on a gubernatorial campaign, communications director on Capitol Hill, and national public relations director for a Fortune 500 company. She says starting a career in the wine industry wasn’t in her original plans. “It was a medical scare in my mid-30s that completely changed my journey,” says Cameron-Schaad. “I think heart surgery, my love of wine, and seven little words from my husband, ‘I don’t want to bury my wife,’ might just have saved my life.”

For those looking to get into wine industry work, Cameron-Schaad says the disruption caused by the pandemic has prompted many people to seek an additional career, much like she has experienced herself. A look at the HR side of the company sheds light on the requirements. “At Crystal Palate we are looking for enthusiastic individuals with a zest for life, a love of people and a curiosity to learn all about wine,” she says.

According to the 2022 Economic Impact Study of America’s Wine Industry, 1,007,459 people are employed in some aspects of the industry, from farming to production to sales. This amounts to $40.11 billion in wages and $111.55 billion generated for national economic activity.

The small workforce includes some professionals with decades of history: Store Manager Allyson has over 20 years of retail wine experience and a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales; Tina is a certified sommelier and qualified confectioner; Krysta worked in a tasting room in California; Yvonne is experienced in retail and wine events; Lauren and Catherine have retail and customer service experience. “As a wine educator, I’m confident that I can teach my team about the ins and outs of the wine industry,” says Cameron-Schaad. “However, teaching customer service skills can be much more difficult. Either you have it or you don’t.”

This commitment to customers, even in difficult times, has earned Crystal Palate enough loyalty to support an expansion in 2023, which will be celebrated with a grand opening next month. “We are in the process of more than doubling our size to create our own classroom and event space,” says Cameron Schaad. “In addition to additional tasting opportunities, classes and WSET courses, we will also be collaborating with local artists for seasonal exhibitions and receptions to bring more cultural experiences to our region.”

Crystal Palate also serves as a venue for Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) professional courses and as a satellite provider for the Capital Wine School in Washington DC. According to the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB
) State of the Wine Industry Report 2023, “Finding labor at any cost is sometimes a bigger problem than it used to be.” Cameron-Schaad says the hospitality training provided at Crystal Palas has benefited local restaurants and wine shops. “I see this as a unique opportunity to build a new generation of wine professionals in our community and beyond,” she says. “It’s a great privilege and responsibility to pass on.”

She says wine brings people together, and while most customers have struggled with inflation and other economic woes, they have shown an enduring support that changes with the times. “They are again focused on value and quality,” says Cameron-Schaad. “Some are drinking less but buying better bottles.” This buying behavior is echoed by the SVB report, which shows premium categories continue to offer growth in the US.

A thriving wine industry encourages community, connection and conversation,” says Cameron-Schaad. “It helps create a regional destination with bustling restaurants, unique wine shops, robust tourism, a vibrant arts scene, and incredible opportunities to discuss and learn about different cultures and regions around the world.”

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