Derrick Westbrook was bitten by the business bug at a young age. He remembers being fascinated in childhood by a friend of his parents who owned several businesses, but he never thought he’d follow the same path.
“My parents went to Tennessee State University, and they’d go to all these college festivals, and one of the guys that they knew from our church would always be there selling things and helping people,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know what an entrepreneur was, but I knew he had a cleaning business, and he sold it. Then he had a clothing business, and he sold it. One weekend, I worked with him selling shoes and suits on the side of the street at a TSU festival, and I loved it. He saw the entrepreneur spirit in me, and that’s always stuck with me.”
A graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Westbrook, the sommelier behind the popular Samples & Samples wine tasting event, never actually went to business school. However, along with hospitality veterans Tim Williams and Danielle Lewis, Westbrook is now co-owner of Juice @ 1340, a craft beer and wine bar/retail shop hybrid. In addition to buying bottles and drinking them at the bar, customers can also participate in events, from Slovenian wine tastings and interactive mixology courses to yoga classes on the shop’s outdoor patio.
“I knew how to be an entrepreneur, unbeknownst to me, and how to hustle before I knew anything about wine. But essentially, wine was the segue to me becoming the entrepreneur I was meant to be. Wine was the vehicle for me to do the thing I wanted to do,” says Westbrook, who was named a Wine Enthusiast 40 under 40 Tastemaker in 2018.
Westbrook’s introduction to wine came during his college years, as a server at an Italian restaurant. After graduation, he left Alabama for Chicago, where he held a position with Red Bull and even worked as a bouncer at a club before he landed a gig as a server at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. From there, it was on to the Michelin-starred restaurant Next.
“I caught the wine bug then, and it’s never left me,” he says.
“When I drink wine, I think of weight and texture just like how I think of the tone and weight of a song, or the depth of a song. My understanding of drinking has always been around celebratory moments and music and records. We bring that together through Samples & Samples and help people gain a deeper understanding of the artistic value of the wine and that moment through music.”
The wine road
While working at the Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago, the path for Westbrook to use wine as a guide to entrepreneurship became clear.
“We changed the menu about every quarter at Elizabeth, and before releasing the new menu, I’d have to create new pairings. I’d sit and talk with distributors, and they’d leave bottles for me to taste with certain dishes, and I’d have all this extra wine leftover. So I’d invite friends over, and we’d drink wine, talk, and play music. And it just evolved to us playing a game of ‘play this, drink that’ with music and wine,” he explains. “That’s how Samples & Samples was born.”
Whereas most traditional tastings pair wine and food together, Westbrook connects people to wine through music. At a Samples & Samples event, Westbrook will pair wine with hip-hop and R&B songs of the past and present, creating a more relaxed, party-like atmosphere where he educates people on the cadence of a wine and how it relates to a song.
“When I drink wine, I think of weight and texture just like how I think of the tone and weight of a song, or the depth of a song,” he says. “My understanding of drinking has always been around celebratory moments and music and records. We bring that together through Samples & Samples and help people gain a deeper understanding of the artistic value of the wine and that moment through music.”
Over the years, Samples & Samples has expanded beyond Chicago. It’s now an event Westbrook takes on the road to urban areas across America. Although the pandemic halted travel, Westbrook will take his Samples & Samples on tour again in spring 2022.
When he’s in planning mode, Westbrook turns to wines from places with conditions that aren’t easy for grape growing — places like the mountainous Priorat and Montsant regions in Spain, where the vines have to work hard in infertile soils on extreme slopes. He appreciates wines that can serve as a personal reminder of the hard work and challenges he himself overcame.
“One of the things I’ve fallen in love with is what it takes to make wine in those areas. For me, wine has to have a sense of place, a message,” Westbrook says.
3 Spanish wines to try:
Named after the pinyolet pebbles that form from erosion of limestone boulders in the upper hills of Montsant, this Garnacha hails from an estate that has remained dedicated to farming sustainable, organic vineyards and olive groves on stony terraces for more than a century. It is packed with strawberry and raspberry nuances, while a bit of acidity on the back adds to the spicy finish. “This is a rich and elegant red wine,” says Westbrook, adding, “It is super pretty and clean.”
“When I think of producers who’ve impacted the way I approach wine, Albert Jané is at the top of the list,” Westbrook says of the winemaker behind Ritme Celler. Jané first set out to produce wines near the Riuet d’Escaladei River valley, which is surrounded by the cliffs of the Serra del Montsant, in 2010. “Having visited this vineyard and seeing the work done to produce sustainable wines that embody the essence of Priorat was life-changing, and after that, I fell in love with the wines.” This particular bottle of Garnacha and Carignan displays earthy aromas of leather and meat, while a silky palate expresses notes of dark berries. Acidity provides the structure for its lengthy finish.
Produced by Alvaro Palacios, one of the first to revive winemaking in Priorat in the 1990s, this is an elegant and complex Garnacha-based wine that exudes as much finesse as it does structure. “Sometimes tough conditions make great wines, and the Dofi is no different. Vines are planted on a rough terrain that makes the wine bold, sturdy, and perfect for aging,” says Westbrook.