On any given night, New Yorkers spend over $10 million on alcohol. That’s more than we spend on reading materials and tobacco products combined according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a healthy twenty percent more than what we spend on dairy. We’re a town that shells out, whether it’s for courting Tinder matches or dropping on a round of picklebacks.
Berlin Crystal Kelly frequently drank when she worked in finance in New York, but her interest in alcohol was more than pedestrian. Now based in Boston, she’s the founder and co-CEO of Proud Pour, a wine company “dedicated to making your happy hours even more celebratory” via direct partnerships with local oyster restoration projects.
When she lived here, the astute twentysomething was an active member of the New York City Homebrewers Guild. She spent her free time fermenting different concoctions in her West Village apartment, often while streaming environmental documentaries. Like many, she got more fulfillment from these diversions than her regular work. She also aspired to “provide value to this world,” and regularly dreamed about how she might harness her practical finance skills to do so.
Change came after a friend told her, “Don’t follow your heart; follow your heartache.” She often teared up while learning about the negative effects of plastics or declining bee populations, and felt especially drawn to oysters in early 2014 after watching the documentary Shell Shocked: Saving the Oysters to Save Ourselves. From it, she learned that at one point in recent history, it’s estimated that New York harbor once housed over half of the world’s oysters. Decades of pollution, habitat destruction and overexploitation have destroyed those monumental reefs, however, and to disastrous effect for local marine ecosystems.
She also learned that oyster reefs can provide important environmental services like mitigating storm surge and cleaning the water. They’re a keystone species, or one on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend. Each adult oyster filters about 50 gallons per day, and as the water quality improves, more marine wildlife will be able to survive. They’re so effective in fact that multiple organizations along the Eastern Seaboard, including New York Harbor School’s Billion Oyster Project (BOP), actively install the productive and inevitably inedible (too toxic) bivalves to clean waterways.
“Why didn’t I know that?” Kelly asked. “Because I was going out and drinking and so were my friends.” An entrepreneurial optimist though, she recognized an opportunity for the intersection of her heart, its ache and her business savvy: New Yorkers like to eat oysters, which pair well with wine. City dwellers spend on booze, so why not offer them a bottle whose profits would fund oyster restoration?
Kelly committed to this calling, quit her job and started Proud Pour in 2014. She moved to Boston in November of that year and soon met Brian Thurber, a lawyer and environmentalist who would eventually become her co-CEO the company’s only other employee. Around this time, Proud Pour also released its first wine, a 2014 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc called “The Oyster.” It’s a vegan wine with citrus and mineral notes meant to pair well with seafood — especially its namesake. For every bottle sold, the company pays to restore 100 oysters via direct partnerships with the BOP and the Massachusetts Oyster Project — a comparable Boston-based organization targeting the state’s marine estuaries.
They chose to partner with an anonymous West Coast winery for cost and quality; they couldn’t produce the wine they wanted at their desired $20-$23 price point from Northeast vineyards. They strive to mitigate the partnership’s environmental impact though by working with a sustainability-minded winery — they use targeted irrigation, limit pesticide use and compost their scraps — as well as partnering with Carbon Neutral to offset emissions.
The company also campaigns to have a local impact where it’s sold. Depending on the state where it’s distributed, the back label changes to showcase their nearby oyster restoration partner and the environmental significance of their work. Underscoring this desire to create a tangible connection between consumer and Proud Pour’s mission, each bottle also comes with an oyster shell tied around its neck. Kelly writes something inside each one, most often the company’s adopted hashtag: “#cheerstochange.”
Long term, it’s even possible that Proud Pour could apply this model to other beverages and environmental causes; imagine a mead that builds beehives, for example.
In their less than two years of existence, they’ve had some early success while taking home silver and bronze medals at the San Francisco and New York International Wine Competitions. They’ve been cutting checks to their oyster restoration partners since the beginning (the amount varies according to how much it costs to restore 100 oysters in a given area) and have so far funded 369,000 oysters in the New York harbor. They also plan to expand their partnerships across the Eastern Seaboard, from oyster restoration efforts in Rhode Island, South Carolina and Florida. Long term, it’s even possible that Proud Pour could apply this model to other beverages and environmental causes; imagine a mead that builds beehives, for example.
The eager entrepreneurs’ complete vision extends far beyond giving cash, though. An ultimate hope is to strengthen consumers’ engagement to nearby environmental work by inspiring them to invest additional money or volunteer their time. They also look forward to a day when this Warby Parker-for-wine-like-model takes hold and drinkers everywhere not only ask what a wine is or how much it costs, but what good it does. “I always think about someone saying to someone else at a restaurant in ten years, ‘Oh what does your wine do?’ And having that be a question someone asks without irony,” says Thurber.
Remembering one of her New York nights, Kelly described how she once went out to the Palace Hotel with a colleague. She recalls an exorbitant drink menu with options like 1985 Bordeaux, 2002 Dom Perignon Reserves and 80-year-aged whiskeys. Now she can’t help herself from imagining a Proud Pour bottle among those ranks, perhaps with a gold oyster hand-twined around its neck.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if they had the wine not because it’s old and expensive,” she asks, “but because it does something really valuable?”
Want to learn more about the art of pairing oysters with wine? Read more from Paul Greenberg.