For the Next Generation of Black Wine Professionals, Change Is Already Here - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

For the Next Generation of Black Wine Professionals, Change Is Already Here

2020 has been the wildcard no one expected. From the coronavirus pandemic bringing normal life to a screeching halt, to the fierce reactivation of the Black Lives Matter movement reminding us of the plague that is systemic racism in America, to an unprecedented wildfire season that darkened skies across the West, and culminating with a contentious general election, the year has delivered one wake-up call after another that the global community is in dire need of change.

The wine community isn’t immune. Within the predominantly white wine industry, 2020 has seen a resounding call for more equity, diversity, and inclusion. In June, shortly after Blackout Tuesday—an awareness campaign initially created to challenge artists within the music industry, but which turned into a larger catchall solidarity stance with the Black Lives Matter movement—there was an outpouring of listicles, social media posts, and articles spotlighting Black professionals in wine, as if many of them were new to the industry. In response, many Black sommeliers, journalists, and entrepreneurs began candidly sharing their experiences, making it clear that some of June’s performative activism wasn’t going to magically end the struggle many Black wine professionals have faced throughout their careers.

“It was really overwhelming,” says Brenae Royal, vineyard manager at E. & J. Gallo’s Monte Rosso Vineyard. “Being a Black wine professional who has experienced racism in the industry isn’t something that I focus on—you just get used to it and rise above it more times than not.” Royal says that in sharing her voice with different media publications, it became a bit traumatic to relive those memories she’d pushed to the back of her mind. “I was starting to crack a little bit, like the level of vulnerability was becoming a little bit too much for me,” she says.

Within the predominantly white wine industry, 2020 has seen a resounding call for more equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Tahiirah Habibi, founder of The Hue Society, a community of Black wine professionals, also experienced emotional overwhelm in June around sharing her experiences of racism in the wine industry. Shortly after Blackout Tuesday, the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas (CMSA) released a statement in response to the police killing of George Floyd, condemning racial injustice and pledging to support two women-run wine organizations—one of which was The Hue Society. The problem? Habibi hadn’t been informed of this so-called support, nor did she approve of her name and organization being included in the statement. Adding further irony, CMSA was the very organization that brought forth the institutional racism that Habibi experienced.

In 2011, as part of her two-day wine certification exam, Habibi, a Black woman, was told that she had to address instructors as “master.” While she completed her certification, she ultimately decided to step away from the organization because it didn’t align with her values and beliefs. “It was so much emotional labor, but it was also very public grieving,” Habibi says. “And then people started grieving with me.”

At the time, she felt like the news cycle was so repetitive and tried to pit her against the Court—but she made it clear that that wasn’t the case. “If I wanted to make this about them, I would have done that a long time ago,” she says. “This is about systemic racism.”

In June of this year, the CMSA discontinued the practice of addressing instructors as “master,” but that’s only scratching the surface. From that experience, Habibi, along with Carlton McCoy Jr. and Ikimi Dubose, this past July created The Roots Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering underrepresented minorities in the wine industry by providing financial resources, mentorship, and job placement. “Our goal is to launch people’s careers from the bottom up through different experiences,” Habibi says. “We want to get people into those experiences and allow them to decide how they want to pursue a career in wine, instead of being forced to be a sommelier or a winemaker. There are other ways in other jobs in the wine industry—working in fine dining isn’t the end all, be all.”

Wine journalist, consultant, and speaker Julia Coney at Maxwell Park in Washington, D.C. | Photo by Scott Suchman.

Julia Coney, a wine journalist, speaker, and consultant, has been speaking about racial injustice within the wine industry since January 2018. For her, the issues being discussed this past summer weren’t new—but it felt like people were finally seeing that everything Black people had been saying was true. After sharing her experience with racism via Instagram Live on June 2, Coney received an outpouring of direct messages from white counterparts, both backlash and those asking, “Who are the Black wine professionals?” and, “How can we help?” Early the next morning, she began putting together the framework for Black Wine Professionals (BWP), a resource for wine industry employers and gatekeepers, professionals, and the food and beverage community. “I was frustrated and knew that I couldn’t possibly be the only Black person on these media lists,” Coney says. “Black Wine Professionals is about getting Black people in wine work, getting them access—and not just for free, but making sure that they get paid, too.”

This summer, wine brands and companies began to emerge with their own initiatives specifically for Black and brown wine enthusiasts in the form of scholarships for wine education and international travel experiences. And while this reckoning has catapulted various calls to action and even started to spark change within some of the industry’s most beloved institutions, it can’t be a race to see who can make change the fastest. “Don’t try and save 2020—build something solid, a foundation that’s going to be sustainable,” Royal says. “I think if you’re just trying to be a social media warrior by promoting every single diversity initiative you’re doing, then it comes off a little bit disingenuous. As a Black wine professional, I want to see what’s happening behind the scenes when nobody’s watching. I hear about the conversations that are being had when you don’t have an audience.”

In a 2014 Purdue University report titled, “Reaching an Underserved Wine Customer: Connecting with the African American Wine Consumer,” researchers Rhonda Hammond, Sandra Sydnor, and Eunjoo Kang explored why the Black wine consumer was constantly being overlooked, how marketing strategies were playing a major factor in that lack of attention, and what needed to be done to tend to their needs. “African American wine consumers have demonstrated a desire to heighten their participation as knowledgeable and active customers but industry strategies do not appear to connect with them,” the report noted. Six years later, this still remains the case. As the consumer buying power of African Americans sits at more than $1.3 trillion, wine brands and companies are still missing the mark when it comes to ensuring Black wine drinkers are not only educated about the products they’re drinking, but fully see themselves in advertisements, and approach the beverage in a comfortable way.

Coney challenges white consumers to pay attention to the marketing of brands that they consume and support. “Does the marketing reflect the world you want to live in? Are you going to support brands who only still have this lily-white image of a wine?” she asks. “Being an ally means you’re being an ally when no one is looking, and showcasing Black-owned brands—without explicitly calling them such—to your family and friends at socially distanced holiday gatherings.”

Hadley (left) and TJ Douglas at The Urban Grape in Boston. | Photo by Greta Rybus.

For most Black people, wine isn’t something that was readily available on the dinner table growing up. It was considered a luxury item that seemed intimidating and pretentious at first, but for those Black wine professionals who didn’t let it scare us, we took the leap to explore it further.

The 2020 film Uncorked, directed and written by Prentice Penny, tells the story of a young Black man (Mamoudou Athie) who works at both a wine shop and his family’s barbecue stand, and has dreams of becoming a Master Sommelier. Throughout the film, we see some of his family members—particularly his father (Courtney B. Vance)— pushing back on his wine dream because it seems unlikely that it could lead to a successful career. This illustration resonates strongly for many Black wine professionals—primarily because working in wine wasn’t an opportunity that was readily accessible or encouraged, but rather something that was discovered along the way.

This past June, TJ Douglas and his wife, Hadley, co-owners of The Urban Grape wine store in Boston’s South End neighborhood, launched The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color, to break down barriers and increase opportunities for people of color in the wine industry. For the last five years, the couple has been brainstorming how to bring this program to life, and two years ago partnered with the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center at Boston University Metropolitan College. Award recipients will receive education, paid work experience, and mentorship over the course of about one year.

Douglas says that often in his career, he would be the only Black person in the room for tastings and other events, and he didn’t want that cycle to continue. “At one point, we were having a really hard time finding Black applicants to hire in managerial and sales roles,” Douglas says. “I’ve always asked myself, ‘How do we get young people of color to understand that a career in wine and hospitality gives you wonderful opportunities?’ We knew we wanted to create access, and that access is going to create a generational change.”

Sommelier, winemaker, and author André Hueston Mack. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

When it comes to change, entrepreneur, sommelier, and author André Hueston Mack always chooses to embrace it. Two months before the pandemic led to widespread quarantine and closures, he opened his newest venture, & Sons—an American ham bar in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood, a project that was three years in the making. Mack wasn’t phased by the stay-at-home order; he saw it as an opportunity for him to pivot and get to work on another project. But with June’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement—and the accompanying spotlight that was placed on Black wine professionals—he wasn’t sure at first how to accept it. “Any person who’s an artist wants their work to be judged on its own merit, not by the color of their skin. So all of the attention felt cheap, in a way,” he says. “The fact that we did over a quarter of a million dollars in one month—just online—I didn’t know how to take the influx in business. I wasn’t sure if I wanted all of this attention.”

In the beginning of his career, Mack, like many of his Black peers, was often the only Black person in the room. It’s something that he got comfortable with quickly, and learned to accept as an opportunity to add diversity to his life and the lives of his white counterparts. He also credits this with helping him navigate the ways of the industry in order to be able to create his own rules. “You can create the life that you want to live,” he says. “I want people to be able to experience that in life—on any level, in any industry.”

As a new generation of Black wine professionals is exposed to newly created educational opportunities, scholarships, and career paths, industry veterans offer one suggestion: Get ready to work, but don’t get complacent. “We have to act now. No one is ever ready— but you’ll never be ready if you don’t start,” Coney says. “We know we’re always outnumbered. But if we [Black wine professionals] still don’t show up in all spaces, we will continue to be outnumbered.”

Royal suggests that even though there’s currently momentum within the industry to bring forth change, new wine professionals should still brace themselves for adversity. “I haven’t had a handout to get where I am,” she says. “Just because there’s a gap in diversity doesn’t mean it’s time to coast. You still have to work, you still have to add value to the business, and you still have to earn your keep. The current challenge is making sure that the size of the gap and the opportunity is the same for everyone.”

Mack believes that discipline and consistency are what separates those who go out and achieve their dreams, from those who simply talk about it. “To all my young Black wine professionals, keep creating, keep building, even if you think nobody’s watching,” Mack says. “Continue to do what you do, work hard, and it’ll happen.”

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