Keeping Black Wine Professionals Up Front And Center

The wine industry seeks ways to sustain the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement for its Black professionals

Communications and opportunities from the Hue Society, The Roots Fund, Becky Wasserman & Co. are but … [+]

When the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013, was urgently resurrected in the wake of last year’s racially motivated violence, many business sectors upped their support of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). And many in the wine industry—long dominated by white people and stereotypes about Black wine consumers—also performed a self-inventory.

Perhaps no one more so than Julia Coney, who in the wake of both the coronavirus pandemic and the #BLM movement found herself recalling the times when as wine writer and educator, she was the only Black person wine-industry trips.

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“I remember [a trip organizer] telling me they didn’t know that many people [like me] to invite to a trip,” she said. “I knew we had a lot of really talented Black wine professionals working and yet very few of them had ever been on a media or a wine-buying trip.”

Enter Black Wine Professionals, an online resource she founded to connect companies to her fellow wine experts of color.

I didn’t want to create anything to get people in the business; I created this to help those in the business get more recognition,” she said. Her efforts garnered her a recent “Social Visionary Award” from Wine Enthusiast magazine. And other rewards have come, too: financial support from key importers such as Skurnik Wines and Maisons Marques et Domaines, and Laurent Perrier, the prestige Champagne house, which has sponsored five scholarships for Black wine professionals to earn the master-level certification in Champagne from the Wine Scholar Guild.

Julia Coney founded Black Wine Professionals

Coney’s site is but one of a number of such initiatives that seek to amplify the industry’s diverse voices, including the Association of African-American Vintners (founded in 2002), The Hue Society (founded in 2017), and more recently The Roots Fund, Wine Unify and the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum.

The latter leadership forum was founded in summer 2020 to help connect inclusive organizations with BIPOC wine professionals needing an ally.

“[We] wanted to be sure that a donor or a potential beneficiary could more easily find an organization aligned with their current needs, and that we didn’t lose that interest to the overwhelm of research,” said Maryam Ahmed, a food and beverage consultant who co-founded the site with Elaine Chukan Brown, a wine writer and educator.

The blossoming of such opportunities last year included virtual and real-world assist, large scale and small, and ranged from mentorships to scholarships.

Supplementing its existing Employee Resource Groups, the California-based E. & J. Gallo Winery company established an internal Diversity & Inclusion Council for monitoring programs and measuring accountability. In addition to D&I programming on an individual brand level, the company increased its umbrella recruiting efforts to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and diverse student business organizations and events on campuses around the country.

The objectives, says chief marketing officer Stephanie Gallo, “ensure our employees reflect what America looks like today.”

“We must be intentional with our efforts because we know that the wine and spirits industry lags behind in representation and inclusion,” she said.

She is undaunted by the task.

“Even if you feel you have a lot of work to do, you can start right now by just watching and listening to the courageous conversations around these issues. If you participate in meaningful conversations with empathy, authenticity and humility where needed, you will gain a huge amount of knowledge,” she said.

Small is beautiful

Even small companies can make a difference and start a ripple effect.

That was the approach taken by Teuwen Communications, a New York City boutique public-relations firm that specializes in wine and spirits. Owner Stephanie Teuwen said she was “shaken to my core” after the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor.

“It opened up a lot of questions for myself and I stated looking at my own comfort level being white in this world,” she said. Teuwen, a native from the south of France, grew up in a restaurant with a Moroccan-born mother, whom she said welcomed people from all walks of life.

“I’m not a racist, but I realized I wasn’t doing enough to be anti-racist and to leave my comfort zone and be a real ally for people of color,” she said. She and her eight-person agency created a program to support Black-owned businesses through education, product purchase and other financial support where possible. Employees receive a stipend each month to buy product from Black makers—ranging from wine and other beverages to cookbooks and culinary products. Everyone commits to an “hour of learning” each week on company time with regular meetings to share their discoveries. The entire team uses social media in a specially branded campaign to promote the voices of the Black makers they discovered.

Teuwen Communications created a program and social media visual branding for its program supporting … [+]

“The idea was learn, discover, support and amplify in every direction,” Teuwen said. Eight months into the program, she says “we want to keep learning and not stop when we are comfortable: We want to always ask how we can be of service and more supportive.”

Hands-on is right on

In an industry that prides itself on hands-on work, it’s only natural for some wine companies to offer support through immersive experiences.

In Hood River, Oregon, the Hiyu Wine Farm offered paid seasonal residencies to two BIPOC interns who lived and worked at the poly-agricultural farm with its adjacent restaurant.

Co-owner Nate Ready, who resigned from the Court of Master Sommeliers last June over its lack of response to the #BLM movement, said he wanted to create insider-track learning opportunities—similar to those from which he benefitted as a sommelier in training—for interns who might not otherwise crack the code.

“You can go to school and learn to make wine, but learning about fine wine is an artisanal craft that’s passed on though apprenticeships,” he said. “As a former master sommelier, I knew it required having a network and a mentor who could pass on that specialized knowledge, and I wanted to make that more accessible.”

“It’s not an open channel that everyone knows about; it’s really crucial those doors get opened to a wider audience,” he said. His two interns—Yakira Batres, a pastry chef from San Francisco and Kathline Chery, furloughed from her restaurant job in Brooklyn—not only worked the land and in the restaurant, but also learned about business. The 30-acre farm employs nine (no seasonal labor) and produces about 4,000 cases of wine per year. (Hiyu wines sell to the public from $75 – $150.)

With a deep interest in food and regenerative agriculture, Chery thought being on a farm would give her space to reflect on her goals.

“I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and much of that crystallized when I was there,” she said. Ready trained her on the cellar equipment and allowed her to experiment with making her own wine. “I don’t know if I would have had a mentor elsewhere that would have let me try that.”

Now back in Brooklyn, Chery plans to start a wine venture in Vermont with two partners. She credits her Hiyu internship with helping her come to the decision.

“On a spiritual level, it gave me life and reinvigorated me so I could feel my purpose. Nate as a mentor and a resource made me think I could do this … that it might take some hard work but I could find my way.”

Kathline Chery found her footing in a hands-on internship at Hiyu Wine Farm in Hood River, Ore.

In France’s Burgundy wine region, Becky Wasserman, an American expatriate who founded her eponymous import company, created four all-expense-paid residency scholarships for Black professionals to learn about the trade in what is widely regarded as the holy grail of fine wine.

“Black Lives Matter prompted us to create a scholarship for Black professionals in the trade residing in the U.S., who have not had ample opportunities to travel to wine regions,” said marketing director Paul Wasserman, Becky’s son. The program, which includes immersive cellar and vineyard visits, tutored tastings and dinners with winemakers, will eventually be open to all BIPOC candidates, but in its inaugural year, his mother wanted to recognize the #BLM movement.

Brother Peter Wasserman said the family’s support of the Black community reflects a long-time effort to support diverse engagement in what is otherwise a rarefied world. “We are not doing this because it has become popular in this moment. We have always done this as a matter of course because it is the only right thing to do,” he said.

Whether large or small, efforts such as these all must have sustaining power says Coney, calling the movement “a marathon, not a sprint.”

“This will be an ongoing thing even when the world opens back up, because we can’t go back to the way it used to be,” she says. “People say they want to ‘go back to normal,’ but what was normal for you wasn’t normal for a lot of people: This, what we’re doing now, this is the new normal.”

A career journalist, I turned my attention (and tastebuds) to wine reporting in 2009 and have covered trends, products, regions and the business of wine ever since. I

 

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