“We need to change the narrative on wine,” says photographer Amber Brown. “Many view it as an elitist thing, which makes me frustrated because it is an agricultural product above all else.”
Brown’s concerns resonate among Millennial and Generation Z wine consumers, who tend to prioritize inclusivity and align themselves with businesses that do the same. As the wine community contends with racial and sexual inequities, the climate crisis and other issues, many in the industry wonder how to improve its social sustainability.
The term “sustainability” has become synonymous with the environment, but it has a social component, too. Social sustainability pertains to the enduring mental and physical impacts that an industry has on everyone who interacts with it, from entry-level workers to CEOs or consumers.
To determine whether the wine world as we know it is socially sustainable, we have to ask difficult questions. What can we do to create a better future for wine? Will current policies and practices benefit the global wine community for years to come?
“If we can take the time to learn the proper pronunciation of grape varietals and villages, we can take the time to learn to properly address our colleagues and clients by their chosen names and pronouns.” —Elaine Thap
“It’s a simple fact that including people from all backgrounds advances diversity and will in turn become a tool for further creation…within the wine industry,” says Johnathon Ramos-Garcia, a Las Vegas-based bartender. “It’s very important to me to see more inclusion of groups such as WOC, BIPOC and LGBTQ in the wine industry.”
Everyday actions like more inclusive language can attract and sustain these different communities.
“If we can take the time to learn the proper pronunciation of grape varietals and villages, we can take the time to learn to properly address our colleagues and clients by their chosen names and pronouns,” says Elaine Thap, a retail sommelier in Southern California. Like Ramos-Garcia, she believes that “the wine industry needs more POC representation in all areas,” from shops to tasting rooms to executive boards.
Listening to the concerns of invested parties is key, too.
“The wine industry has not grown as much as it should have in the 30-plus years that I have been a part of it,” says Vicki Tomiser, vice president of customer experience at Teneral Cellars. “Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic and the horrendous events and losses leading to the BLM Movement, and the Court of Master Sommeliers scandal to wake up the industry.”
Jill Osur, founder and owner of Teneral Cellars, is working to be the change she and Tomiser want to see.
“We have an advisory board fully inclusive of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ members along with a younger Diversity Delegation, made up of a diverse and inclusive group of Millennials and Gen Z,” says Osur. “Both groups have been tasked with keeping management accountable for meeting our equity and inclusion goals in hiring, content and practices.”
Such programs require buy-in from employers and employees alike. Valerie Viramontes, a wine sales representative in the Seattle metro area, believes that “the most sustainable change will happen through education, mentorship and job placement opportunities in all aspects of the industry.”
To that end, organizations like Wine Unify, The Roots Fund and Batonnage Forum Mentorship offer scholarship, mentorship and educational opportunities for BIPOC communities.
And diversity and inclusion are good for business. A 2019 study by McKinsey & Company found that top-quartile companies with ethnically and culturally diverse staffs were 36% more profitable than the lower-fourth quartile.
Meanwhile, companies with more than 30% female executives “were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, and in turn these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives, or none at all,” according to the report.
As companies create and implement inclusive practices, ecological and social sustainability may intersect.
“Do we farm organically because it’s better for the environment? Certainly,” says Sam Coturri, co-owner and operator of Winery Sixteen 600, based in Sonoma, California. “Do we farm organically because it makes better-tasting wine? Without question. But the most important reason to farm organically is because the lives of the people who work in the vineyards, and the people who live downstream, matter.
“My family, and our industry in general, owe our success to a largely immigrant workforce,” he says. “As a wine brand, it is our responsibility to not only tell their stories and give them the credit due, but include them in the success through true living wages, meaningful benefits, career advancement, opportunities for equity and much more.”
That genuine commitment to social sustainability resonates with younger wine consumers like Thap, who has decades of future wine-buying potential.
“To me, an ideal wine brand is authentic with their relationship to sustainability, ethical employment practices and juice in the bottle,” says Thap. “Wine brands need to be inclusive. Practice what you preach, sow what you reap. ‘What grows together, goes together’ can also stand for relationships, and not just food and beverage.”
A genuine commitment to social sustainability resonates with younger wine consumers, who have decades of future wine-buying potential.
Coturri has noticed the effects of its inclusive ideology in Winery Sixteen 600’s business.
“We have found that by focusing our brand around the farmers, vineyards and inclusivity, we have simultaneously attracted a younger, more diverse crowd,” he says.
Another tangible way that wine companies can engage more consumers is by rethinking their relationship to technology.
“For so long, the industry has been focused on the tasting-room experience, which is important, don’t get me wrong,” says Shana Bull, a marketing educator and freelance writer. “If you’re spending thousands of dollars on landscaping yet having someone do social media and digital marketing part-time, you’re definitely missing out.”
Companies can reach new audiences by inviting community members to co-host virtual tastings or partnering with industry organizations to offer cultural and educational courses. Targeted advertising like Google marketing spends, plus sponsored, collaborative content with like-minded influencers are all ways for the industry to branch out.
“Digital marketing allows wineries to reach new audiences,” says Bull. “They can utilize that to connect with a more diverse market.”
The visuals of marketing matter, too.
“I would like to see more diverse advertisements that look genuinely believable,” says Tonya Pitts, wine director at One Market Restaurant, and founder of Tonya Pitts Wine Consulting. “The people should look like the population, which is diverse.
“A lot of times, especially within restaurants, there is this mentality that you’re living for the next service… So, now with this huge pause, we have all been forced to take a big step back and observe where we really are. Escapism is a huge part of hospitality and wine, but we can’t escape this.”