A small St. Petersburg business with a big story rooted in overcoming slavery through love will continue blossoming with the help of a national grant.
Mermosa – Florida’s first Black-owned wine brand – became one of only 30 small businesses out of 12,500 applicants across the U.S. to receive a $10,000 grant from the FedEx Entrepreneur Fund last week. Founder Desiree Noisette qualified to apply as her parents both served in Vietnam.
Fredrick W. Smith, founder and executive chairman of FedEx Corporation, is also a Vietnam War vet. However, it was Noisette’s family-inspired company story and plans for a diverse ambassadorship program that led grant officials to include Mermosa among the 2.4% of winning applications.
Noisette called the win “pretty wild,” a term that could objectively describe how her company got to this point in the first place.
“So many people had great stories and products and businesses,” she said. “That we were selected is a vote of confidence for the program that we pitched. It means that we have something that experts are saying is clicking.”
Everything Mermosa does is steeped in family history, painstakingly curated by “cousin Peggy,” its matriarch and historian. Noisette said the FedEx entrepreneurial grant would help build the burgeoning brand and share a story that emerged from one of the nation’s darkest periods.
Despite the obvious cultural challenges at the time, Philipe Noisette, a white French gardener, and Celestine, a Black Haitian woman, fell in love and married in the late 1700s. They “blazed a trail of love” that led them to antebellum Charleston, South Carolina – where Desiree’s parents would one day meet in the Navy.
Philippe had no choice but to claim ownership over his wife and children to keep them safe from the horrors of the era’s ubiquitous slave trade.
Upon his death in 1835, explained Desiree, Philippe ensured Celestine and their children received the money he accrued as a prolific gardener. While she could have used the savings to flee the South in search of freedom, Celestine’s audacious spirit led her to negotiate for her family’s freedom instead.
As the story goes, Philippe’s horticulture expertise led him to introduce the Noisette Rose, a “bold and enduring” flower, like his wife. Celestine securing the family’s freedom allowed her children to pass on the botanical achievement, which now inspires Mermosa’s sparkling Celestine Rosé – recently awarded 90 points by Wine Enthusiast.
Desiree Noisette said her family’s history fuels her entrepreneurial spirit.
“This is a really tough industry,” she said. “And when I think about what Celestine and Philippe had to go through, especially Celestine, I’m like, ‘this is nothing. I can do this.’ I’m making wine – I’m not trying to break the chains of slavery.”
Mermosa is born
Noisette launched Mermosa in 2018 while operating a St. Petersburg swim and resort wear store. Not satisfied with the mimosas she served to enhance the shop’s social vibe, she decided to make her own unique Pinot Gris blend with natural fruit juices.
After testing over 300 variations of the recipe in the store, Noisette introduced the city to Mermosa Bubbles. The sparkling wine became a hit, and she soon turned her focus to growing Florida’s first Black-owned wine brand.
Noisette conceded that achievement “is a pretty big deal.”
“You know, I don’t look like the traditional winemaker,” she added. “Less than 1% of 1% of winemakers in America are African Americans. So, when I started Mermosa, people told me I was crazy.”
In addition to learning the wine industry as she went, Noisette realized there were few opportunities to raise capital. Embodying the audacious spirit of her fifth-great-grandmother, she convinced her husband to sell their house.
While Noisette noted that her lack of a wine background – and appearing decidedly different from most vintners – created an uphill battle. However, with proceeds from the house financing the company’s start, Mermosa planted its flag in St. Pete.
“And now we have legitimate street cred in the wine world,” said Noisette. “Merseco, which I developed on Beach Drive, was just named one of the Top 10 American Sparkling Wines by Wine Enthusiast.”
A blossoming company
Unlike traditional ambassadorships, Noisette is working with Stephanie Miller Love, a St. Pete-based wine expert and educator, to create a certification program for participants without wine backgrounds. Also, a partnership with a national distributor will allow brand ambassadors to work alongside its salespeople.
She called that aspect an unusual opportunity for people to learn multiple sides of the industry, and the ultimate goal is to propel diversity.
A partnership with a winery in Oregon, explained Noisette, is a critical 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 have been doing some research and development with agricultural products in Florida,” she added. “We’re just waiting for the right real estate opportunities so we can really develop that side of the brand.”
Retailers nationwide now offer Mermosa’s products, although the vast majority, 394, operate out of Florida and the Southeast. Local Sam’s Clubs carry Mermosa, as does the MacDill Air Force Base base exchange, which fits the family’s rich military history.
According to its website, 10 companies around Charleston – where Noisette’s ancestors once prevailed over slavery – also offer the family brand.
The Cousin Peggy Project provided a $13,000 match to Charleston’s International African American Museum’s membership revenue. According to the website, the museum’s Center for Family History uses expert genealogical research to connect relatives and discover untold stories.
Noisette said the plight of her ancestors, her parents serendipitously meeting in Charleston and becoming the state’s first Black-owned wine brand has put life in perspective.
“It also feels like I’m doing the right thing with my time, energy and my family,” she added. “I’ve got two little kids that know our family history – they’ve connected with family members from around the world through Mermosa. It just feels like a calling.”
For more information on Mermosa, visit the website here.