When I began writing about food and wine in 2010, I was so enamored with my newfound love that I made a grand career goal: In five years, I’d move to the Napa Valley, the epicenter of wine in America. As a writer, there would be plenty of material to explore. I’d profile the Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers living in the area; I’d delve into the storied legacies of iconic American wineries; and I’d taste through all of that fermented grape juice that I loved to talk about and imbibe. When I finally made the move in 2016, I knew there was no better place in the U.S. to engage my love of wine. That was the dream. Unfortunately, the reality was a nightmare.
To jump-start my Napa wine writing career, I took a job working at a well-known tasting room and winery. It seemed like a great move; the role would allow me to deepen my knowledge and educate consumers while networking with people in the business. But right from the get-go, I discovered just how unfriendly the wine world could be to BIPOC.
In the tasting room, the customers I interacted with weren’t even subtle in sharing their racially biased views. A typical guest interaction would go something like this:
“”So what got you into wine?” a guest would ask me.
“Burgundy. Around 2004,” I’d say.
“Really? Like, really?” they’d ask, incredulously.
“Why do you sound so surprised?” I’d counter.
“Well, Burgundy is so expensive and so sophisticated! That’s just hard to believe…” they’d say.
That type of insulting conversation was the norm. But the overt racism from guests wasn’t the worst of it. That came from management.
Managers consistently dismissed my concerns of bias as being too sensitive, as reacting to the way someone said a comment, instead of its hurtful meaning. Come evening, I’d feel so dejected. By the end of my nearly 15-month-long tenure, the best part of my day was getting into my car to leave the property to no longer have to think about the customers or staff for the next eight hours.
Someone asked me once, “What is it like to be a Black person working in wine?” As I considered the question, my eyes welled up with tears. It was just an innocuous question, but that I had such a visceral reaction is telling. Yes, wine is my chosen profession — the one that stirred my curiosity and passion like nothing else ever had. But for an industry that touts service and hospitality as key attributes, it is failing people of color tremendously on both sides of the equation — as both customers and as professionals.
One of the reasons that racism persists in the wine industry is because there are very few people who look like me working in this business. According to one industry-wide survey examining the three-tier system, only 16 percent of respondents were people of color, with only 2 percent of those identifying as Black. And the numbers get even more dismal when looking at the high end of wine, including Michelin-starred restaurants and corporate roles.
It’s true that as time passes, more and more Black-owned wine brands, including Mouton Noir, Brown Estate, Theopolis Vineyards, the McBride Sisters, and many others have proliferated, as well as people like Selena and Khary Cuffe of Heritage Link Brands — Black importers whose mission has been to extol the virtues of Black-owned South African wineries. But they are a small sliver of the industry overall. And bias happens on the producer level, as well. Even in my presence, I’ve heard it asked of Black-owned brands: “But is the wine good, though?” I shouldn’t have to explain that the amount of melanin in one’s skin does not impact their intellectual or artistic ability — or their potential to make world-class wines.
In my experience, every aspect of the wine industry has failed people of color. But in nowhere is it more evident than in the tasting room. Working as the lone Black employee in a tasting room was tough. It was soul-crushing to witness just how dismissive my colleagues would be when a Black couple would come to the bar. Their enthusiasm would wane and there’d often be a whisper: “These guys are probably not going to buy anything. They probably won’t leave a tip, either.” When I challenged that assertion, I was always the one accused of overreacting. “Oh, stop being so paranoid. We’re not talking about race.”
After a year and a half, I grew exhausted. The micro-aggressions tore me down little by little every day. There was that time a customer and I bonded over our shared love of all things sparkling. I said: “I love sparkling wine, too. In fact, I collect Champagne, and have been doing it for some years now.”
She said: “That’s a very expensive hobby for you! Do you actually mean sparkling wine, which is anything other than Champagne?” Now, I couldn’t help but stop dead in my tracks and glower. First, we had whitesplaining. Then we had mansplaining. Now we’ve got… winesplaining? Never mind that, at the time, I’d already been writing about beverages for nearly eight years or that I was making my way through the wine world’s dizzying array of wine certifications.
I responded, “Oh, I guess you didn’t hear me. I said I collect Champagne, and have for years. Champagne only comes from Champagne, France, and sparkling wine is so-called anywhere outside of the Champagne region. However, Champagne is a sparkling wine.” Would you believe that she turned… white?
Taken individually, these sorts of encounters may not seem like cause for alarm to a non-person of color. But it’s the volley of them, day in and day out that becomes unbearable. “You are so cultured!” one guest told me when I mentioned that I’ve lived in both New Zealand and China. “Wow, you’re actually really smart,” another customer commented upon learning where I did my undergraduate education. Over time, the accumulation of such comments weighs heavily on the psyche of Black staff members — and has the potential to hurt so much more than something like the blatant use of the n-word.
At the winery, I was proactive. I talked to my managers regularly about the biased interactions I had with customers and staff members. But no one seemed to care. Not one manager ever asked, “How are you? How can I support you?” I never felt heard; I never felt safe. No one ever came to my defense.
Instead, the responses I received were entirely unsupportive. “Oh, she didn’t mean it that way,” and my favorite, “I go through the same thing you do — people are dismissive of me when I walk into a room because I have a vagina!” Because being a Black woman in America and being a white woman in America are the exact same thing, right? The reality is that, in this country, you’re white before you’re a woman. For evidence of that assertion, look no further than the senseless murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others whose names we know, as well as those we don’t.
Wineries don’t want to acknowledge that people of color on staff get treated differently, because they don’t want to do the work required to develop truly inclusive workplaces. It starts with taking care of your employees, with caring for their emotional and mental states. When an employee reports a racially biased encounter, listen to them and brainstorm a way to build a more inclusive environment. One tool is to develop a zero-tolerance policy for harassment — by customers or staff members.
It means showing empathy, not apathy, for your BIPOC employees, who are more likely to be targets for harassment. It means recognizing that our experiences are going to be different than other employees’ experiences.
It also means hiring: Actively recruit people of color for your organizations — and not just for administrative or tasting room roles. Then, when those employees express the desire to do more or to use their hard-earned skill sets to improve the company, let them.
For consumers visiting tasting rooms, here’s a tip: You don’t need to talk to people of color in slang or what you deem as “ebonics.” We probably wouldn’t know what you’re talking about anyway. Talk to us like people, as fellow wine enthusiasts and professionals.
And then spend your wine dollars doing good, supporting the work of Black wine professionals and Black-owned wine businesses who are invested in getting this industry to a more equitable place.
Wine is many things. It’s a product that speaks of place and time, and also of people. The people who created it; the people who drink it. It’s about jovial experiences and fond memories. Let’s make that a reality for all wine drinkers and professionals. One where my experience of racism is the exception, not the norm. Now is the time to do better. We can do better.
Published: June 19, 2020