Ask Darwin Acosta about his fall internship at Dalla Valle Vineyards, and he radiates elation. Harvesting on a mountainside with a panoramic view of the valley, doing lab work, gassing barrels — “I call these ‘magical moments,” he says. “I have had the time of my life focusing on my career.”
A recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who earned his level-one Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) award while in college, Acosta is one of the first scholarship recipients of The Roots Fund, created to help Black, Indigenous, and Latinx aspirants get experience in wine. In the fall 2020, just after launching, it brought Acosta to Napa and unveiled a world of possibilities to him. Now he wants to complete his level-three WSET by the end of 2021 and work harvests in France, Australia, and New Zealand. He has a 10-year plan to grow grapes on his father’s land in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. He dreams of starting his own label where he and the people he hires “can be 100 percent ourselves”—a vehicle he can use to put money back into the Latinx, Black, and gay communities.
“I’m Dominican. I identify as non-binary and gay. America runs on these groups; it’s what makes us unique. But coming into this industry, you see people of color cutting the grapes, working behind the scenes, but there’s not enough representation outside of that,” says Acosta. “With groups like The Roots Fund, things are changing.”
In 2020, the second wave of Black Lives Matter brought new energy around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Groups like The Roots Fund, Black Wine Professionals, and Wine Unify launched to help BIPOC professionals advance their careers. Be the Change digital job fair matched 700 diverse candidates with opportunities in the industry. Napa Valley Vintners, the Association of African-American Vintners, Cal Poly, and others announced diversity scholarships. Francis Ford Coppola Winery, the women’s wine forum Bâttonage, and others started mentorships for diversity candidates. Oregon’s Willamette Valley Winery Association and wineries including Sonoma’s Gary Farrell penned diversity pledges.
What impact will all these diversity efforts have? How will American winemaking evolve with the involvement of ambitious young people like Darwin Acosta? A commitment to diversity has moral value in itself. Yet, there are myriad nuts-and-bolts benefits, too. The transformation is in its nascency, but for an industry that has long attracted investors and collectors from white male-dominated sectors like finance, asserting the tangible advantages of diversity can help it become a matter of course. That’s important because diversity is essential to the health and future of the wine industry.
Profits matter, and American wine has had a tough time lately. Young drinkers’ waning wine consumption was already a problem when 2020 brought Trump’s tariffs wars, Covid-19, and more Western wildfires. In this difficult economic climate, diversity is a strength. “Companies that are more diverse have more revenue on average than their industry peers,” says Elan Glasser, director of operations for the non-profit Diversity in Wine and Spirits. According to a 2018 McKinsey study, companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse boards are 43 percent more likely to see higher profits, and those with executive teams in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21 percent more likely to outperform competition.
For an illustration from the wine world, researchers Lucia and John Gilbert have shown that wineries with female lead winemakers outshine those having male lead winemakers. According to their study, though women fill only 14 percent of lead winemaker positions in California, 23 percent of their wineries were listed in “Opus Vino,” a global guide to top-quality wineries, compared to 14 percent of wineries with male winemakers. Though the authors don’t address the issue of profits, we know that acclaim through tastemaker publications can boost a winery’s sales and justify higher price tags.
Marketing and Customer Service
One way diverse companies succeed is through more effective marketing. According to Priyanka French, the winemaker at Napa’s Signorello Estate, the wine world needs to catch on to this. “The consumer side is evolving rapidly. The wine industry has chosen to ignore the fact that consumers driving changes are coming from diverse backgrounds,” says French, who has been pitching in on The Roots Fund, Wine Unify, and Bâttonage’s mentorship program. “Wine is losing its position as a volume consumption product compared to other beverages.”
The IWSR Drinks Market Analysis reports a two-year downturn, as categories like hard seltzer trounce wine. “We haven’t tapped into consumer bases that have demonstrated growing economic power and would support the industry if they felt a connection,” says French. The solution is obvious: “The more we diversify the people making wine, the more that connection between consumers and producers grows,” she says. “Representation matters.”
Black American spending has increased 275 percent since 1990, to $1.4 trillion. A 2016 Nielsen study projected Black spending on alcohol to outpace spending overall. The same was true for Asian-Americans, who displayed a preference for premium-priced wines. A diverse staff can bring expertise and experience to conversations with these consumers. “Having people of color and women at the table, you make better marketing decisions,” says Jackie Summers, the founder of Sorel Liqueur and a longtime advocate for diversity across the beverage industry. “How much more can you make if you actually have the people drinking the stuff tell you how they want to be spoken to?”
Take Philippe André. The U.S. brand ambassador for Charles Heidsieck, he uses songs by The Pharcyde, Dr. Dre, and other Black artists to introduce his “Charlie Chats” on Instagram. He wears big, stylish sunglasses, big chains, and big, natural hair. “This is who I am. I don’t have to pretend to be someone else. I am Blackout Tuesday. I am the black square. And you know what? I killed it. The first year under my belt, we ended the year up 55 percent,” he says. “How we can be impactful in this industry is being authentic, and that will lead to success.”
Retention and Company Culture
Anyone who needs convincing of diversity’s importance can look no further than the world’s largest wine company, E. & J. Gallo. Its workforce is strategically shaped to reflect the country’s changing demographic. “America’s future is multicultural and inclusive,” says chief marketing officer Stephanie Gallo. “One of the most important things we can do at Gallo is to embody the diverse world that we live in, allowing us to be more prepared to meet and respond to new challenges.”
Gallo supports seven employee resource groups — Gallo African American Network, Gallo Veterans Organization, enABLE Disabilty Network, and more. These foster an inclusive company culture. “Everyone gets ‘rah-rah sis boom bah,’ knowing that individuals are having similar experiences to you, talking to leaders within the organization that share your ethnic background or lifestyle,” says Black Wine Professionals’ Larissa Dubose. “These are things that create retention and productivity. You get powered up to work for a company that believes in you.”
Indeed, Gallo has been named one of the Human Rights Campaign’s Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality, a Best Company for Women by Fairygodboss, a Best of the Best by U.S. Veterans Magazine, and a Glassdoor Best Places to Work. “Diverse, inclusive companies where people of all backgrounds and experiences feel they belong have higher rates of employee satisfaction,” says Gallo. That’s key, she says, to cultivating the talent needed to compete.
Of course, diverse talent is not new to the wine industry; it’s just gone unsung. Most of the workers in American vineyards are Mexicans, and though their skills are essential, they’ve had few avenues for advancement or recognition. Now, the growing diversification of wine professionalism is compelling new conversations around vineyard workers. When sommelier DeAna Ornelas moved to Oregon to join Winderlea Vineyard as tasting room ambassador and communications lead, she found few other Mexicans in winery leadership roles. She and other Latinx leaders formed Ahivoy, an organization that provides English-immersion education and professional development to Latinx wine workers to advance their careers.
“It’s a Hispanic thing,” says Ornelas. “We spend time in the community uplifting each other.” But Ahivoy is good for winery and vineyard owners, too. “Having a more knowledgeable workforce improves your capacity to take on adversity,” she says, “and to create a positive company culture.”
As Summers says: “If people of color and are all back-of-house, that’s not real inclusion. Put them in charge, give them training and tools. Put them in positions where they can have influence.” Because Ornelas was in a position of influence, the equation flowed from her to others.
Of course, ownership brings even power. Says Amy Bess Cook, founder of the wine club and directory Woman-Owned Wineries: “When women and BIPOC and people with disabilities are in ownership, they are not in a position to have to ask for equal pay, promotions, childcare, or for somebody to keep their hands off them. They are in control.”
Though loans and venture capital dollars go largely to white men, as a growing diversity of wine pros are supported by new initiatives, the more potential there is for ownership opportunities for them. And as they find their way, they can mentor others. Says Japanese-born Junichi Fujita, who is launching his own Oregon winery and vineyard, “I feel a mission to make my business successful so I can be a role model for other Asian people to start something of their own.”
Better, More Innovative Wine
“Being a minority by definition makes you unique. If you can use that as a strength, there will be an interesting story to tell. It will make your wine better,” says Fujita. “I made the connection between natural wines and a philosophy from Japan known as wabi-sabi” — the beauty of imperfection. “I’m drawn to that more than wine trying to be flawless. Going deep into my heritage has shaped how I think about my wine.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” says Dubose. “When you bring different mindsets and backgrounds to an industry that’s very traditional, that’s where you get this innovative thinking.”
A case in point is the perspective brought by perhaps the most under-represented group of wine pros, those with disabilities. Organic chemist Dr. Hoby Wedler uses his experience as a blind person in consulting with wineries like Coppola. His blindfolded “Tasting in the Dark” events help participants “think about what flavor, aroma, and texture really mean, hear each other without distraction, and be more aware of the world around us,” he says. New ways of writing tasting notes come from work, and Wedler brings further insights. “We can add texture to bottles to make them more grippable, make text on labels bigger and more legible, make websites screen-reader compatible,” he says. “The more approachable we are, the more product we sell.”
“Great ideas come from a diverse, inclusive culture that embraces each other’s backgrounds, perspectives, cultures, experiences and ideas,” says Gallo. “Diverse work groups are better at problem-solving. Seeking diversity in all its dimensions encourages creativity, leading to a stronger company with better results.”
Or as Fantesca Wines director DLynn Proctor puts it, “White folks aren’t the only brilliant people out there.”
Continuing to Evolve
Notes Coppola’s human resources director Gina Charbonneau: “Historically, the wine industry has been pretty status quo. But everyone at this time is reexamining their business, taking stock of what’s important and thinking outside the box to still be relevant,” she says. “The nimble organizations that can pivot will be successful. It’s no longer OK to not be racist. You have to be anti-racist. We need to do better and continue to grow.”
If the traditional gatekeepers won’t budge, says Far Niente winemaker Nicole Marchesi, “there’s this whole generation of younger people in wine that are passionate about diversity and inclusion, and I think upper management in all of these wineries are going to be hearing from their employees. I don’t think that group of people is going to get quieter.”
Among them is Justin Trabue, the activist behind the new BIPOC scholarship in wine and viticulture at Cal Poly, where she graduated in 2017. Following the felony arrest of a San Luis Obispo BLM activist, Trabue and winemaker Simonne Mitchelson wrote a call to action “out of hurt and disgust over this region’s silence over what was going on,” she says. They addressed it to area wineries and demanded accountability and diversity. The scholarship came out of that call.
Assistant winemaker at Lumen Wines, hospitality supervisor at Ancient Peaks, and cellar assistant at Dominion Tantara, Trabue is also making a dry-farmed Cabernet for the women’s leadership summit Dream Big Darling and her own wine for a natural wine club she’s collaborating on. She’s a rising star on the Central Coast, an ambitious, creative, young Black woman with a bright future in American wine. The diversity she seeks in the industry, she says, will bring “new understandings and point of views, new ways of thinking about winemaking, new ways of tasting” — and new expectations that wineries will “pay people of color and LGBTQ+ people proper wages because we deserve that in everything we do” and “create respectful, inclusive, and non-toxic work environments that feel safe and comfortable.”
Waiting for all of that can be hard. “But seeing the ways wine is slowly changing, I don’t want to run away. I’ll stay here as long as my heart can handle it,” says Trabue. “There’s hope if people are willing to actually make a change.”
Published: January 4, 2021