In 2020, several critical events caused the wine industry to reckon with the underrepresentation and mistreatment of marginalized groups in all sectors of the trade. The industry found itself under intense scrutiny from within and without.
Pledges were made, black boxes were posted and money was donated. After nearly two years, have “we”—the collective wine industry—made any significant changes?
Doing the Work
“We’re at the very primary version of this change, where doors are being opened and gates are being broken apart,” says Miguel de Leon, wine director of Pinch Chinese, who’s written several influential articles about social justice, equity and systemic inequalities in the wine space. But, he adds, “We run the risk of doing the bare minimum and saying that’s enough.”
There are, de Leon notes, certain areas where applied pressure has led to significant changes. “Education has—we’ve concluded that in order for us to have full ownership of the spaces we inhabit, we must create them ourselves,” he says, pointing to organizations like The Hue Society, where he sits as a council advisor, and the Roots Fund.
On the flip side, previously established educational bodies are also making strides toward diversity, equity and inclusivity. “The WSET [is] taking big steps to re-examine standards for what’s allowed on the tasting grid, defined by regionality, which has big implications for global shift in the conversation,” says de Leon.
In terms of wineries and wine brands, steps toward change need to come from within, starting with those in leadership positions. And those changes need to be in public view.
“If places of business want to welcome diversity and provide equal opportunities to all—whether we’re talking about race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability or any other marginalized group in society—their public image should provide a reflection of the type of employee and clientele they welcome,” says Theresa Heredia, winemaker at Gary Farrell Winery and active advocate for the LGBTQ+ community.
This includes social media posts and images, food-wine pairings, tech sheet information and tasting note verbiage, Heredia says.
Ethics should also be reflected in how wineries spend their time, money and other resources. Gary Farrell Winery, for its part, sponsors and donates to several events and organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and its Major Donor Leadership Summit, as well as Art4Equality.
In the restaurant and retail sectors, “it’s a mixed bag,” says de Leon. “These topics become entwined with personal beliefs. But, as it stands, I’m optimistic: Change is already happening, change can continue to happen. It will whether or not you like it.”
Giving a Hand-Up, Not a Hand-Out
It’s hard to get a job in the wine industry, especially for the inexperienced, and even more so for inexperienced minorities.
“I’ll be realistic, people of color are a small portion of the industry,” says Julia Coney, wine writer, educator and founder of Black Wine Professionals, a platform dedicated to connecting established Black wine professionals with the broader wine community. “Some may not qualify for jobs on paper. I get that—but they may have experience that can transfer into these positions.
“But I also realize there’s still not a lot of—not hand-outs—help-ups,” she says.
Coney questions businesses with programs only looking for talent within. If they don’t find in-house talent, do they have built-in programs to look outside and identify people with potential?
“Then, once you help-up, are you still supportive? Allow for growth opportunities?” she asks.
This is how businesses that put in initial effort can later fall short.
“We run the risk of having lots of tokenized folks in these spaces because people were trying to do the right thing but couldn’t follow through because it was uncomfortable, or expensive, or bothersome,” de Leon says.
This is also where equality versus equity comes into play. Equality implies fairness, but also implies likeness, equivalence, sameness or similarity. If an employer decides to hire a diverse staff, Heredia says, then that employer must understand the differences that exist among the employees, cultural or otherwise, and work to create an environment in which each employee has access to the training, guidance and mentorship to excel in their chosen career path based on their specific needs. Only then will that employer provide true equity.
The ongoing fight for equity has resulted in an increase in nonprofit, independent organizations that promote awareness for and support to those who need that help-up.
“There are a lot of initiatives, tons of people doing the work within and outside the wine community,” says Alicia Towns Franken, VP wine portfolio at Archer Roose and head of mentorship at Wine Unify.
Since its launch in 2020, Wine Unify has provided over 70 awards to mentees that span the wine industry spectrum and ages 21 to 76 years old. “I’m proud of what they’re doing, the awards they’re winning, the jobs their getting,” says Towns Franken. “They’ve taken the baton and are really running with it. They just needed a little bit of ‘you belong here.’”
Other groups have seen similarly positive results.
“A major success we’ve seen is with our scholarship programs, which continue to support entrepreneurs in the industry,” says Rania Zayyat, founder and president of Lift Collective.
Lift Collective recently partnered with wine brand Avaline to provide eight Self-Made Scholarships, which allocates funds to new entrepreneurs launching businesses across multiple sectors, including import and distribution, consulting, education, wine bars and a winery.
Support will expand in 2022. “Our successes is fueled by partnering with like-minded businesses, organizations and leaders with access to funds, resources and opportunities we can give back to our community,” says Zayyat.
In September 2020, before Maria Calvert and Lydia Richards cofounded Hispanics in Wine (HiW), there was no centralized place to connect Hispanic or Latinx wine professionals in the U.S. or worldwide. Just over one year later, the community engages more than 140 Hispanic or Latinx professionals around the world.
“With HiW, new professionals can reach out to us if they have questions about navigating the industry and referring them to a mentor within their sector,” says Calvert. The website also acts as a resource, listing job openings, scholarships and other opportunities.
“It’s all about having a centralized place for support,” she says.
Effort and Follow-Through
Wine professionals agree that there’s still a lot more work to be done in terms of creating a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive environment in the industry.
“We often speak about the need to meet us halfway, but the effort—and the will—must come from both sides, with equal enthusiasm,” says de Leon. “It’s no good if I’m trying to meet you at 50% but you’re at 35%.”
It’s about follow-through, he says, and about how we continue to support people. “That’s the heart of equity.”
That follow-through is often reliant on motivation.
“Are you doing these things because it’s a hot topic?” asks Towns Franken. “To tick a box? To get more clicks on your website?”
Collective action coincides with individual, everyday choices.
“If you see something, say something,” says de Leon. “Taking action takes effort. It’s not always easy. But if we don’t do anything we continue to get stuck in cycles that only make us suffer. Do, do again, do more.”