Next steps in diversifying the wine industry

Dr Akilah Cadet

A uniquely comprehensive look at the social challenges facing the wine industry and how to meet them.

On Monday we published a list of the recipients of the Gérard Basset Foundation diversity grants and scholarships. I found it personally rewarding to read the list of recipients as several of them involve people whose work I have admired, or initiatives I have advised or mentored.

In my previous life as an academic, I worked with a few multinational, and multidisciplinary research groups addressing racial disparities in healthcare, the humanities, and more broadly in cultural understanding. More recently, I’ve given talks and worked with groups to explore how we can better address the (lack of) diversity problem seen in the wine industry.

In the last two years especially we’ve seen an enormous increase in funding for WSET scholarships and some supporting studies through the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) and Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) programmes. There has also been a slight increase in funding or partnerships for students interested in wine at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) here in the United States, and in opening up viticulture and oenology programmes worldwide.

In the list of Gérard Basset Foundation recipients I was especially encouraged to see Wheeling Forward included. It’s important we remember diversity is not just a code word for racial differences. Genuine diversity includes consideration of other sorts of differing types of human experience: gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, financial means and disability, among others. Wheeling Forward does important work advocating and providing resources, support and education for people with physical disabilities.

It is important the wine industry continues to work to improve its diversity problem. Studies have repeatedly shown the most successful businesses are those with the greatest diversity at decision-making level. With the various economic challenges being faced globally, wine businesses would be smart to strengthen their ability to succeed on multiple levels.

You can think of the advantage greater diversity brings as working something like proactive problem-solving. Every person has areas of weakness, topics on which they lack knowledge or experience, or limitations in their understanding. When a company has diversity in their leadership, the greater range of differing backgrounds means there is also greater ability for that leadership to catch problems before they arise. Together different team members can fill each other’s gaps in terms of insight. That prevents issues before they happen, which in turn saves money, and ultimately also bolsters a company’s reputation. More diverse groups with adequate support are also more inherently creative.

But what that means is we need to be creating not just opportunities for traditional wine education but we need to foster equity within our wine industry. We can’t have diversity at the decision-making level if we’re not hiring, retaining, and promoting a diverse range of candidates. To get there, we need to be willing to invest in ongoing solutions.

Starting the conversation

It can help to remember that wine is not the only industry struggling with diversity issues. Those of us not too far from Silicon Valley are deeply aware of how the tech industry has stumbled repeatedly while trying to solve its diversity problem. Hollywood and the global film and entertainment industry has even more publicly repeated missteps not just on racial issues but also on gender. And though regard for disability issues tends to get less public attention, Hollywood has been grappling with that as well.

Maryam Ahmed

Maryam Ahmed, pictured above, is the owner of Maryam + Company, which provides community activation, project management and programme development for businesses in food and wine. She is based in California but works with companies and organisations all over the United States. The groups she works with must have a demonstrated commitment to both diversity and sustainability, even if they may be in the early stages of that process. Two years ago, Ahmed co-founded (with me) and now leads the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum, which brings together leaders of diversity initiatives in the wine industry to encourage collaboration and joint problem-solving. The Forum also serves as a centralised resource for those looking to support these initiatives.

Ahmed emphasises that however hard it is to see industries making mistakes, even making missteps is how we build investment in creating solutions.

Dr Akilah Cadet, owner of Change Cadet and pictured at the top of this article, agrees. She reminds us that every industry takes a step forward, then falls back sometimes, but even this pattern of solutions and failure means the industry is doing so much more than nothing. Working through missteps can be essential to the wine industry’s ongoing success.

Change Cadet offers diversity consulting, strategic planning, executive coaching and crisis recovery to an impressive array of businesses. These include Fortune 500 companies as well as much smaller start-ups and non-profit organisations involved variously in technology, fashion, coffee, food and, in the last few years, wine too. Change Cadet also offers an ongoing calendar of affordable, small-group webinars for anyone interested in working on understanding diversity issues.

Change Cadet partnered last year with the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum to form their Do the Work series. Do the Work provides training specifically designed for members of the wine industry to learn how to navigate the dynamics that drive diversity issues and our own place in them. The series was designed to be both affordable and to help people newer to these issues become more comfortable dealing with the discomfort. People in wine from the UK, Europe, Canada, Brazil and the United States joined the three-part series. They are offering the series again beginning in April.

These sorts of training are especially relevant now. After the last two years, most people have some level of understanding of diversity. Even people who don’t recognise the need to change things are still aware that it’s a common conversation around the world today. Ahmed points out that most businesses, and in wine a lot of regional groups, realise they want to address diversity in a strategic way. But many people and groups are still unsure of how and so I spoke with both Dr Cadet and Ahmed to discuss what the wine industry can do when taking next steps towards true diversity.

Fear of failure

Many of us are still resistant to addressing diversity issues. There is still a fear of making missteps and losing opportunities because of them. Cancel culture has become a common trope. But it’s important to remember the difference between people with repeated patterns of causing harm to others through extreme behaviours such as harassment, assault or worse, and incidents that allow the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

High-profile celebrities (unfortunately, including a few recently in wine) who have lost business, work or their power of celebrity faced those consequences because of repeatedly harming others. We haven’t been cancelling people arbitrarily. Part of our current cultural reckoning includes rethinking who we want to laud in our society. In other words, no one has the right to fame. People who have lost their social status have done so because as a society we have become less willing to accept those who repeatedly hurt others.

But in more everyday ways we need to allow room for difficult conversations. We all have weaknesses, areas where we lack knowledge, and simple habits or expressions that we haven’t yet noticed it’s time to rethink. Personally, I’ve been recognising my need to move away from the ableist language I’ve used without thinking about it. As small as these slips may seem, the casual repetition of them throughout our society (inadvertently or not) has a dehumanising effect that builds up over time. So, I am working on noticing when I use phrases such as ‘that is dumb’, ‘falls on deaf ears’ or ‘they have a blind spot’. When I realise I’ve used them I simply apologise, restate my comment in a more intentional way, and then we move on. For many of us these expressions also include harmful stereotypes we need to work to change as well. The point is, we all make missteps. If we recognise that, we can also learn in good faith to be more careful and change those habits over time.

We also need to recognise that our diversity problem will only change with time. Because the lack of equity for diversity is an industry-wide issue, many of the solutions will need repeated attempts.

Dr Cadet points out that companies or individuals afraid of being called out for less-than-perfect behaviour can address the issue by simply being honest about it. We avoid our fear of being cancelled by admitting where there’s a problem. Since the entire wine industry needs to improve its diversity initiatives, it is the companies that demonstrate that they recognise the issue and are working on it that stand out. Groups willing to assess their own weaknesses and develop ways to address them can use the industry’s diversity problem to gain an advantage for growth.

This means that improving a track record on diversity depends on accepting both accountability and failure, however difficult it is. Ahmed points out that working on diversity issues should involve personal growth as well as company growth, which can be difficult when culturally so many people have been taught to keep the personal out of the professional.

Dr Cadet suggests that this is exactly what professional coaching is for. A coach or mentor provides a professional relationship through which mistakes and a lack of understanding can be addressed. Ahmed says that we can think of coaches and mentors as accountability partners to whom challenges can be admitted, often with both parties learning from the other.

In our personal lives, we need to identify which of our friends it is safe to have these conversations with, and trust our friends to supportively point out where we’ve made missteps. It’s a way of striking a balance in committing to working on these issues and preserving the comfort of privacy in parts of the process at the same time.

For companies willing to admit to their current weaknesses, professional coaching or mentoring can provide powerful ways of transforming a company’s culture, and can also provide ways to rethink hiring.

Rethinking recruitment

As we work on addressing our diversity problem in the wine industry, we need to also rethink hiring practices.

Dr Cadet points out that to change our hiring practices, we also need to be more aware of the power of unconscious biases. These are assumptions of differing sorts all of us have simply from how we were raised. The challenge of unconscious biases is that unless we’ve worked on them, we don’t even notice we have them, yet they inform how we interact with each other and how we make decisions. Some of these unconscious biases take the form of harmful stereotypes we need to unlearn as well. Many of our diversity issues in wine come down to our implicit biases limiting who we include in wine and how. In unconscious bias education, people can learn over time to undo some of them. But even for those biases a person might not be able to erase, people can still learn to do things differently.

Hiring practices tend to be deeply impacted by unconscious expectations in a hiring committee of what they want from a candidate. So, one way to improve who we employ in wine is to transform those hiring practices.

Dr Cadet suggests a way to do that is to shift from assuming our first goal is to find the best candidate, to instead prioritising recruitment to address a need within the business, or a place the company knows it wants to grow. Part of why this works is that the unconscious biases each of us carries too readily factor into what we assume makes someone the best candidate for a job. When we turn our focus instead to filling a need, or expanding company potential, we more readily look to the advantages offered by the life experience a particular candidate brings to the company.

In seeking a new social media manager, for example, we might start the hiring process by asking how someone can make our online communications more inclusive and thus reach a broader audience. Companies that have brought individuals well-versed in disability accommodations into their social media management have quickly increased their reputation for universal accommodation simply by improving their social media standards. In finding a marketing manager or sales professional, we might notice segments of the market we have failed to reach and ask how a candidate can better connect us to those communities. In hiring Black, Indigenous, or people of colour for marketing and sales teams, companies have seen new uptake in sales within those segments of the population. People with life experience in areas of company need are more likely to already know solutions to those needs.

In other words, the best candidates for our needs in the wine industry might not be those with the most certifications or highest degrees but instead the more relevant life experience. Almost every job available in the wine industry has little to no need for the candidate to know the grands crus of Burgundy, or what it takes for a growing area to become an American Viticultural Area.

There is a long-standing tradition of recognising talent in individual candidates and creating the space for them to learn on the job. In fact, around the world, that’s how most of the wine industry has been built. In seeking to hire candidates with more diverse backgrounds, looking for certifications or degrees may be unnecessarily slowing our progress rather than advancing it.

Rethinking education

It’s also time to rethink how we approach education. Scholarships that have been offered to diverse candidates these last few years have largely focused on traditional certifications such as WSET, CMS, IMW or college and university degrees. These can be valuable, and it is important to support these sorts of studies. But we need to be careful not to treat such scholarships as the primary solution to the diversity problem in wine. Directing our attention primarily to traditional education comes with its own set of problems.

By focusing on education, we treat the problem of diversity as one based in the candidates themselves and overlook the fact that the problem lies largely in the way the industry itself operates. The lack of diversity is rooted in a need to improve our hiring practices but also (and perhaps even more importantly) in our ability to retain valuable employees and continue to create opportunities for their advancement.

When we assume education must take a traditional classroom and certification model, we miss an even older tradition of education based in learning by doing, on-the-job training, and community-based mentoring. This is part of what makes both the Two-Eighty Project and The Hue Society such important groups for the Gérard Basset Foundation to support.

The Two-Eighty Project has created a powerful programme for learning-by-doing where attendees meet with some of California’s most influential figures in viticulture to hear directly about the challenges of operating a vineyard. They also work with a vineyard that has been planted as part of a community project with neighbourhood members also invited to help foster the vines. And that connects to the work The Hue Society is doing. The Hue Society has built its own wine community designed to centre the experiences of Black and Indigenous people and people of colour. Members learn about wine through sharing experiences and knowledge with each other in monthly tastings, as well as more spontaneous social events that naturally develop over time. It’s a more organic form of learning and mentoring based on community-building.

The value of both on-the-job and community learning is well documented. Innumerable studies demonstrate that traditional classroom-style study is not necessarily the ideal way to learn, and even the smartest people can fail on tests. By expanding our notion of how we learn or demonstrate our knowledge, we foster a greater range of talent. When we assume our best candidates must have traditional certifications or degrees, we overlook an enormous pool of worthwhile people.

Focusing on retention

But in improving both our hiring practices and views on education, we will still achieve diversity in leadership levels only if we retain and successfully promote relevant employees.

To improve our retention and advancement rates, we need to pay closer attention to policies, procedures and the overall culture of the business itself. We can create a more inclusive environment by paying attention to the culture of a company. We can think of company culture as how employees interact in everyday ways. But, importantly, this is also demonstrated through the actions of leadership.

Changing things for the sake of greater inclusivity can be a challenge, partly because some of it is a matter of changing the unconscious habits many of us have. But it also depends on the willingness and commitment of company leadership. This can be incredibly difficult for those comfortable with how things already are, or who believe the work they’ve done to get to their position entitles them to continue with the status quo.

And that raises the question of how we will educate not just new candidates, but those already working in the wine industry.

Companies genuinely invested in improving diversity can begin to require everyone in any sort of management, leadership or executive role to undergo ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training. Many companies already require different forms of ongoing education for its leaders. This would simply be treating training in DEI as integral to sound leadership.

But greater understanding of these issues needs to happen for everyone across the wine industry. This is what makes efforts like the Do the Work series from the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum so valuable. Initiatives designed to fund diversity education for the wine industry could look to supporting not just traditional certifications and degrees but also DEI trainings such as these designed for the wine sector.

For those interested in pursuing diversity-specific training, numerable resources are available outside wine as well. Because doing diversity work is a lifelong process, these trainings can be useful in an ongoing fashion. Diversity-specific training includes unconscious bias education, anti-discrimination training, active bystander training, anti-harassment training, understanding power and privilege, recognising the norms of white dominant culture and more.

But training is only the beginning. Such programmes can help those of us in wine better understand our unconscious bias, the way privilege advantages some of us more than others, how we can use that to help create positive change, how to safely intervene when harm is being done, and how to get better at avoiding pitfalls such as insensitive and harassing language and behaviours. Once we have the training, change happens in how we implement that understanding.

Company practices

Valuing diversity means valuing not only the satisfaction of most employees, but also that of individual employees with distinctive norms or needs as well.

In recent posts on the social media platform Upworthy one person shared how, even though they are the only employee at their company who conducts daily prayers, when their manager found out, a space was created solely dedicated to that purpose. Another person at a different company shared how their manager could not provide additional space for this purpose so instead added an extra 15 minutes to that employee’s lunch break to ensure they still have a full hour for lunch. In both cases what the managers did was to treat their employees’ differences as uniquely important. It’s a way of welcoming diversity into the workplace.

In other words, transforming our industry into one that values and prioritises diversity depends upon how we build relationships with each other and interact with fellow employees every day. That’s the culture of our work life.

Dr Cadet suggests that to get started, businesses can create a simple survey through an online platform such as SurveyMonkey, or any one of the number of survey apps now available. Doing so can help a business get a rudimentary sense of the level of understanding employees have, and what improvements they’d like to see. It also helps keep the results anonymous while giving the company a place to start to develop a strategic plan. This is the point where most groups would do well to hire an outside advisor.

An advisor can help companies create new initiatives, but more simply they can also help review policies and procedures. Here are a few examples. Does the company have as robust an anti-discrimination policy as it does an anti-harassment policy? (Here in California, companies are legally required to provide anti-harassment training to employees to help prevent sexual harassment or assault. There is no such requirement for anti-discrimination training.) Do internal documents still rely on discriminatory language such as maternity leave, rather than the more inclusive parental leave. And are there mentions of husband and wife rather than references to spouses or partners?

Once policies are refined, companies need to also be working on their procedures to address missteps. This is where accountability occurs.

A commitment to accountability means that even long-standing, or the most influential, employees must be required to meet company standards of behaviour. To do this, companies need to be clear on how they approach employees’ steps for improvement, as well as what violations become grounds for dismissal.

Most of all, in working on these issues, people need to feel they have the support they need to succeed in the process of ongoing change. For companies, this includes making it safe for employees to work on ways they need to improve, while also creating opportunities that foster that sense of simultaneous personal and professional growth. For employees in leadership, working with a professional coach is essential. In our personal lives, we can also find our own professional coaches, take trainings, and most of all ask ourselves which friends we can talk through areas of confusion with.

Ultimately, what this means is we can no longer treat diversity as a separate project we work on occasionally. Instead, we need to bring it into all our efforts personally and professionally and see it as integral to the success of everything we do in wine.

Next steps

  • Remember change is challenging and happens over time. Find accountability partners – friends and coaches you can work through change with. Don’t expect yourself to fix everything at once. Find what you can work on and keep at it.
  • Diversify what you read, watch and who you follow on social media. Find people you admire who talk and work openly on diversity issues and look at which books, articles, shows or movies they watch. Check out who they follow online.
  • Take interactive trainings to improve your understanding of these issues and notice where you might have weaknesses you can work on improving.
  • Recommend that your company or regional organisation sponsors training for employees. Be sure to vet the trainer beforehand. An effective trainer knows how to make attendees comfortable dealing with uncomfortable issues. When a trainer is too confrontational, attendees can shut down and not face the issues. When a trainer is too easy, attendees leave believing they’ve done the work without learning how to handle the challenges.
  • In forming diversity committees, be careful not to put only your more diverse employees onto the committee. We need to foster investment from all employees.

Disclosure: I co-founded the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum and helped create the first iteration of the Do the Work series. Maryam Ahmed now leads the Forum and Dr Akilah Cadet serves as advisor.