The many hues of wine talent

Collage of POC wine professionals

It's time for change. Black talent in the wine business needs recognition and positive encouragement. It's long overdue – and would surely also help to recruit much-needed new wine drinkers. See details of who is pictured above at the end of this article. A slightly shorter version of it has been published in the Financial Times (and dismissed by one commenter as 'Marxist claptrap'). You have been warned.

Andy Evans works in the rather smart wine department of John Lewis in 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 my world, 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 personalities around the world. Julia Coney, 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 working in wine is in a South African vineyard earning a pittance. But an increasing number of seriously talented Black individuals are, at last, occupying considerably higher positions in wine. They deserve to be given far more prominence, and on a long-term basis. Not least because of the hurdles they have had to overcome in the overwhelmingly white world of wine.

Julia Coney, for example, told me of attending a tasting at a Napa Valley winery 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.’  She is planning to launch a directory at blackwineprofessionals.com at the end of this month.

Alicia Towns Franken has been in the wine business since 1997 and is now a wine consultant. With two female associates, one Indian, one French, she built up the wine list at Grill 23 & Bar to be far and away Boston’s best, selling $3.2 million worth of wine a year. She told me she was routinely assumed to be a hostess. ‘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 knows just what it’s like. Having been in charge of the wine programme at some of the finest restaurants in St Louis, she’s well on the way to becoming only the fourth African-American Master Sommelier. (There are 269 in total worldwide.) Unlike many wine directors, she likes to work the floor, but when she arrives at a table to take a wine order, 'Where is the real somm?' is an all-too-frequent response.

And 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 brought the bottle, Tonya Pitts, wine director of One Market in San Francisco, observed to me ruefully.

It is probably not surprising that the great majority of these Black role models are in the United States, which is also where there is most need for social change, not just for the individuals involved but for the sake of the wine industry itself. Dorothy J Gaiter, who, with her white husband John Brecher, wrote the Wall Street Journal wine column for 12 years, wrote recently for SevenFiftyDaily 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 is under serious competitive threat from other alcoholic drinks in the US, and yet those putting together ads and marketing campaigns, choosing panel members for discussions, assembling lists for media trips, or commissioning articles, far too often ignore representatives of one of the biggest potential market sectors.

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

The common argument is that because there are relatively few prominent Black people in the wine business and because wine marketing more often targets white consumers, Black consumers assume wine isn’t for them. But André Mack, who from his base in Brooklyn has built up a fearsome reputation as a trailblazing sommelier, entrepreneur and visual artist, sees glimmers of hope in extending the population of wine drinkers in the US – specifically via rappers and sportspeople. 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 Snoop Dogg’s very own California red, a joint venture with the Australian-based Treasury Wine Estates, owners of Penfolds, who have long been ahead of the game on this issue. They appointed the genial DLynn Proctor, identified as Best New Sommelier in America by Wine & Spirits Magazine in 2008, to be their brand ambassador in the US in 2010, global brand amabassador in 2013, an appointment that paid off when Proctor was associate producer of and character in the recent ground-breaking movie Uncorked, a tale of a wine journey within an African-American family. (He is now director of Napa Valley winery Fantesca.)

I was intrigued to be introduced to Femi Oyediran, co-owner of a smart wine store in Charleston in the American South, not a town I readily associate with Black opportunity. But, he assured me, ‘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’ and he is cheered by ‘people of influence who want to build new paths for themselves in the world of wine. NBA players like Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony are creating a bridge that will engage an audience that has always felt neglected by the wine industry.’ (See Alder's 2018 article Will basketball be the next Sideways?)

Another location that struck me as unlikely for an activist who describes her skin colour as ‘chocolate soufflé’ is the island of Tasmania. But Bedfordshire-educated Curly Haslam-Coates had been working in wine there for some years before she understood her role: ‘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.’ Her energy has been noticed. She has been nominated for several important international awards but feels that the mainstream Australian wine media have shown little interest in her achievements.

Even though many wine events in Australia now begin with a formal Acknowledgment of Country, with the exception of Mount Yengo Wines in the Hunter Valley there has been little successful intersection between wine and Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This contrasts markedly with how well Maori interests are now fully integrated into New Zealand wine production and celebration (see, for example, the end of the introduction to NZ Pinot styles emerge).

As for South Africa, that’s a whole other story which I try to tell in South Africa - a social progress report. Things are improving there, albeit slowly. Two pertinent films have been made there – The Colour of Wine released in 2018 and Blind Ambition, about four exceptional Zimbabwean sommeliers, scheduled for later this year. My attention has also been drawn to Red, White & Black, a worthwhile documentary made by Oregon's first Black winemaker, Bertony Faustin of Abbey Creek Winery.

What I’m particularly excited about is that in my own field, some of the Black commentators have a fresh way of communicating about wine. For New York healthcare IT specialist and Black Girls Dine Too blogger Shakera Jones, ‘wine is essentially history in a bottle’, while arch-traveller Julia Coney described it as ‘a liquid passport’ in her enthusiastic review of Uncorked. Tanisha Townsend, who has managed to set up Girl Meets Glass, a wine tourism business in Paris, despite not initially speaking French, claims, ‘We are changing the way people talk about wine – moving away from words like “unctuous” to telling the stories behind wines.’

So what can be done, apart from continuing to give real breaks in wine to talented people whose skin doesn’t happen to be white? Mags Janjo, senior account manager at Roberson Wine, one of pitifully few Black members of the UK wine trade, has a concrete suggestion, one that takes us back to the beginning: ‘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.’ Yes, that would work, and I will do my utmost to make it happen in the UK - look out for further developments.

Mags Janjo and I plan to compile a directory of BAME** wine professionals in the UK. Should you wish to be included, or to nominate someone for inclusion, please write to info@bamewineprofessionals.co.uk

As Shakera Jones observed, ‘For too long we have focused on the things that make us different – race, class, education, geography, socio-economic status, etc. We are far more similar than we think.’

Any wine professional reading this is urged to read Shakera's recent article for SevenFiftyDaily 'What being an ally really means'.

In our illustration, with photographers credited in brackets, are...

Top row, L–R: Alisha Blackwell-Calvert (Ed Aller), Tanisha Townsend, Lawrence Francis, Curly Haslam-Coates (Matt Wilson), Alicia Towns Franken, Femi Oyediran (Olivia Rae James)

Bottom row, L–R: Mags Janjo, Tonya Pitts, DLynn Proctor (Danny Hardesty), Shakera Jones, Dorothy J Gaiter, André Mack (Sash Photography), Julia Coney (Amy Mullarkey)

* For a useful explanation of the capitalisation of Black as a mark of respect, see here.

** BAME is a British term for Black, Asian and minority ethnic that is used to refer to people in the UK who are not white.

When it comes to this controversial topic, language is all-important!