Too white wine: Jancis Robinson on the industry’s diversity problem

Andy Evans works in the rather smart wine department of John Lewis on London’s Oxford Street, a department store that virtually defines middle England.

When I tweeted recently my shame at the lack of ethnic diversity in the world of wine, he replied, referring to the standard professional wine qualification: “Amen! I have two black colleagues who are WSET-qualified and experienced wine specialists. I get the wine questions from customers, they get the rum! There are times I want to hide in the stockroom. . .”

I followed up by emailing various prominent black wine professionals around the world. Julia Coney, a wine and travel writer based in Washington, DC, explained: “I have had winemakers meet me and when I introduce myself say, ‘I didn’t expect you to be black.’ My reply is usually, ‘I didn’t expect you to be an asshole.’”

By far the most common place to find a person of colour in the world of wine is working in a South African vineyard, earning a pittance. But increasing numbers of talented black individuals are, at last, occupying higher positions in wine, despite the hurdles they have had to overcome in this overwhelmingly white world.

Coney, for example, told me of attending a Napa Valley tasting last year in her capacity as a wine journalist when a woman at the next table observed: “I didn’t know you people drank wine.”

Alicia Towns Franken has been in the wine business since 1997. With two female associates, she built up the wine list at Grill 23 & Bar to be far and away the best in Boston, selling $3.2m worth of wine a year.

She told me she was routinely assumed to be a hostess at the restaurant. “Even at the level I had achieved, I had to prove myself/my knowledge not just nightly, but table by table. It was exhausting. Race relations should have been added to my job description. The challenges ran the gamut from innocent to outright sexist and/or racist.”

Alisha Blackwell-Calvert has experienced similar treatment. Based in Missouri, she’s well on the way to becoming only the fourth ever African-American Master Sommelier. (There are 269 in total worldwide.)

“Where is the real somm?” has been an all-too-frequent response to her arriving at the table to take a wine order at both restaurants she has worked for in St Louis.

A particularly common observation from the wine professionals I emailed was that they are routinely poured less wine in their glasses at tastings and dinners than their white neighbours.

This, I know well, is the ultimate slight for someone mad about wine — especially if you’re the person who bought the bottle as Tonya Pitts, wine director of One Market in San Francisco, observed to me ruefully.

The great majority of these black wine experts are based in the United States. Dorothy J Gaiter who, with her husband John Brecher, wrote the Wall Street Journal wine column for 12 years, commented recently on the site SevenFifty Daily about wine business leaders who “profess over and over that they want more diversity in their ranks. It’s an empty promise. Which is both maddening as well as foolish for an industry that needs to grow its consumer base.”

Just as in the UK, wine in the US is under serious competitive threat from other alcoholic drinks, and yet those putting together ads and marketing campaigns, choosing panel members for discussions, assembling lists for media trips and commissioning articles too often ignore the black members of the industry.

Lawrence Francis, a London-based Jamaican/English business psychologist, who got the wine bug and now runs his own drinks podcast company, Interpreting Wine, told me that he had observed far more diversity in the spirits business than at wine events.

The common argument is that because there are so few prominent black people in the wine business, black consumers assume wine isn’t for them. But André Mack, who has built up a reputation as a trailblazing sommelier, entrepreneur and visual artist from his base in Brooklyn, sees glimmers of hope.

On a recent online presentation for the Real Business of Wine, he said he saw wine getting to “more and more people who didn’t think wine was for them”.

He mentioned specifically the forthcoming release of rapper Snoop Dogg’s own California red, a joint venture with the Australian-based Treasury Wine Estates, owners of Penfolds, which has long been ahead of the game on the issue of race.

Penfolds appointed the genial, Napa-based DLynn Proctor, who was named Best New Sommelier in America by Wine & Spirits Magazine in 2008, to be its brand ambassador in the US seven years ago. This year Netflix released a movie based on Proctor’s life called Uncorked, which tells the tale of a young African American who wants to become a Master Sommelier.

Femi Oyediran, co-owner of Graft, a smart wine store in Charleston in the American South, told me that “opening Graft was a rejection of the idea that I needed to wait for someone to give me opportunities I felt I was long deserving of”.

He reckons: “People of influence who want to build new paths for themselves in the world of wine, such as the NBA players Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are creating a bridge that will engage an audience that has always felt neglected by the wine industry.”

Bedfordshire-born Curly Haslam-Coates had been working in wine in Tasmania for some years before she realised: “I thought I was just teaching people about wine. With reflection, I realise that inherently I was teaching them not to judge their customers on what they looked like. I make a point of talking about how we all have different journeys through the wine world and each have something different to offer.”

She has been nominated for several important international awards but believes the mainstream Australian wine media have shown little interest in her achievements.

Many wine events in Australia now begin with a formal Acknowledgment of Country, paying respect to the traditional owners of the land. But with the exception of Mount Yengo Wines in the Hunter Valley, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been under-represented in the wine industry. This contrasts markedly with how well Maori interests are integrated into New Zealand wine production and celebration.

As for South Africa, that’s a whole other story. Things are improving, albeit slowly. Two pertinent films have been made there — The Colour of Wine, released in 2018, and Blind Ambition, about four exceptional Zimbabwean sommeliers, due for release later this year.

What I’m particularly excited about are the fresh ways of communicating about wine coming from some black commentators. Belize-born Shakera Jones is a New York medical IT specialist by day. At night, she somehow finds time to maintain her blog, Black Girls Dine Too, about wine and restaurants. She told me by email: “I have always loved history and wine is essentially history in a bottle.”

Meanwhile, Tanisha Townsend, who set up Girl Meets Glass, a wine tourism business in Paris, says: “We are changing the way people talk about wine — moving away from words like ‘unctuous’ to telling the stories behind wines.”

So what can the industry do, apart from continuing to give real breaks to talented people of colour? Mags Janjo, senior account manager at Roberson Wine, and one of the few black members of the UK wine trade, has a concrete suggestion: “Grants or funds for underprivileged (financially or otherwise) groups, aimed at sponsoring or subsidising WSET education, could go a long way in diversifying the industry.” I agree and will be lobbying hard to make this happen in the UK.

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