Activism takes on many forms; like liquid, it adopts the shape of the vessel it is poured into. And when we are the vessel, it coats our hearts, loosens our tongues and, sometimes, compels us to invest financially.
For the past two years, a crusade for change has been brewing in the wine and spirits industry. And yet, I was caught off guard by reactions to the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Sadly, the murder was not a shock to me, there have been many George Floyds. Say their names. What astonished me was how it birthed brand-new white activists.
Let me be clear: There have always been white allies and activists. However, last summer, the dormant became woke and I sat wide-mouthed watching a bud break.
One of the results of this awakening was the campaigning to Buy Black as a form of white activism. Black folks have been practicing Buy Black for more than 15 years. Never had I ever thought I would see the day where a large group of white consumers openly seek to spend their dollars at Black-owned businesses like mine.
In the wine and spirits industry, Buy Black soon turned into Drink Black. And, as with many things born in Black culture, when white folks get a hold of it, historical context, hold-up-a-minute and instructions are required.
The phrase Buy Black is a movement to support Black businesses by urging consumers to make a political statement with their dollars. Now, hush if you are thinking this is racist, it is not. The Buy Black movement is a way to balance inequities. Like Small Business Saturday, it’s a call to support business owners that are disproportionately denied access to capital, which can mean limited marketing and thus fewer customers.
The concept calls back to a widespread myth that goes like this: “A dollar’s life span is 28 days in Asian communities, 19 days in Jewish communities and six hours in Black communities.” This has been discredited by Black authors, experts and a Howard University student, but still, the idea has “grown legs and hands to wag a disappointed finger,” Anthonia Akitunde wrote in a 2019 New York Times article, “Buying Black, Rebooted.” The concept has spread like little fires everywhere and ignited a movement; but another, foundational issue crackles beneath.
In Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy, Maggie Anderson documents her family’s attempt to spend all their resources with Black businesses. Through her account, the reader gets an understanding of how few Black businesses there are and their stunted lifespan. If the reader is curious, they may begin to search for the why.
Hold Up a Minute!
While community spending is a fable, it is a fact that nearly half of white-owned businesses received bank loans in the last half of 2019, just before the pandemic began. Less than a quarter of Black-owned and a third of Hispanic-owned businesses found funding from banks.
“The data is clear: White-owned small businesses are twice as likely to receive bank financing compared to Black-owned small businesses,” says Brad McConnell, CEO, Allies for Community Business.
Robert Johnson, chief economic inclusion officer of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, says that “there are 2.6 million Black owned businesses in America, 96% of them are solo entrepreneurs with no employees. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, 50% of the Black-owned businesses are estimated to close by the end of 2021.”
When it comes to Black-owned business in the wine and spirits world, the numbers are thin. According to a survey of 3,100 wine professionals by Silicon Valley Business Report only 2% of industry members identify as Black.
“As far as Black-owned wineries and brands/labels, it is estimated to be 1% of all U.S.,” says Dr. Monique Bell, associate professor of marketing at California State University, Fresno. She surveyed more than 100 Black wine entrepreneurs and professionals and interviewed more than 40 Black wine business owners for a forthcoming study, Terroir Noir: Diversity in Wine Entrepreneurship and Marketing.
“Even in my research, it has been challenging to pin down an exact figure,” Bell says. “The Association of African American Vintners (AAAV) counts more than 100 members, which includes Black entrepreneurs and professionals, and non-Black supporters, across a spectrum of wine ventures and careers.”
So, when many people decided to Drink Black last summer, my inbox started to fill up. I was grateful for the work. I was not prepared for the virtual meetings that began with a white prospective client asking, “Are you the owner? Our company wants to work with a Black female wine expert and Black winery.” ALL BLACK EVERYTHING!
Every entrepreneur has her why. One of the motivations to keep building this business is the hundreds of constituents that I am able to employ. I have not been able to keep them all on payroll during the pandemic, sadly, but to be able to hire a dozen during this time feels incredibly satisfying.
My team and I are usually called to educate consumers on wine and spirits via demos and events. Since last summer, however, I’ve found that we also have to teach our clients about why finding Black-owned wine brands may still be a challenge.
In addition to access to funding, one of the major obstacles for any privately -owned winery or distillery is distribution. In a three-tier state like Illinois, where I live, the system requires wineries to work with distributors to get their products into stores and restaurants. Distributors are therefore key to getting Black-owned wines to those professing their desire to Drink Black.
Although I understand it is costly to bring on a new producer, the movement will not gain more momentum without the support of distributors.
How can distributors identify Black-owned wine and spirits to support? The Drink Black movement has made it easy.
Prior to May 25, the only “formal” record of Black-owned wine and spirits brands that I was aware of was given to me by Marcia Jones of the Urban Connoisseur. The collection of names was passed among Black folks like a salacious high school rumor. It traveled via social posts and slipped into inboxes. It was the Green Book for exploring wines by Black Americans.
Now, this list is everywhere. It’s been covered by wine publications, graced the feeds of wine influencers and can be found with a quick Google search. So, distributors, you have no excuse.
Consumers can also Drink Black by shopping at Black-owned retailers. Shops like Kimbark Beverage Depot, The Purple Corkscrew, Corks and Cuvee, 3 Parks Wine Shop, among others, were and still are the lifeline to Black-owned wineries. As we wait for more distributors to catch on, it is imperative that we continue to support these establishments and buy direct from the wineries.
These are tangible moves we as individuals and an industry can make. Systemic problems evade easy solutions.
I asked J. Israel Greene, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert, about strategies to diversify the wine industry. “Everything begins with awareness. The attempt to Buy Black is no different,” he said. “Increasing our cultural competence is where our energy should be directed.”
Now that you are aware, pour yourself a glass and become a vessel for change.
For more essays by drinks professionals, visit Outpourings: Industry Voices.