Actionable Items for the Wine Community

Miguel de Leon
8 min readJun 9, 2020

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We are in an extraordinary position to talk about the systemic changes necessary in order for the future and survival of sommeliership and the wine industry. There might not be many sommeliers working due to COVID-19, but there is still wine. There will always be wine. There will always be a structure for educating our staff and community about wine, but the current practices of legitimacy in the industry are rooted in a denial of access and education, kept behind closed doors with barriers of entry that are much too high.

The recent killings of Black people have also impacted our delicate relationship within our own community: the silence and passive reaction of the wine community at large, educational or otherwise, has been staggeringly disappointing. We are forced to reckon with past decisions as a status quo because there have been no inward calls for change in diversity, outreach, and access; in sum, the wine community continues to sell its BIPOC members short because white comfort, white money, and white privilege do not see any existing issues.

If the wine community wants to change and push for diversity it must reconcile its aggressions to BIPOC and minorities from which they have long benefited. We offer the following points of action in differing layers of the industry:

Image courtesy Unsplash

1. In spaces where you don’t see us, bring us in.
We operate in spaces that are defined by the color of our staff and the color of our clientele. People who look like us are genuinely more curious to try your place of business if someone who looks like them can help them feel more comfortable, which in turn creates another stream of revenue.

Opportunities for education, such as tastings, press trips, media invites, and the like, should publish their invite list and be aware of their blind spots.

Restaurants / Retail
Prioritize hiring BIPOC in your spaces. In turn, mentor, promote, and support BIPOC in your spaces, with as many paths available for leadership and eventual partnership.

Educators / Media / Vendors
Demand that your BIPOC colleagues attend 1:1 for white seats in symposia, lectures, talks, and seminars; this applies to both audience and panels. Demand that BIPOC be prioritized for tastings, trade and press trips, and wine fairs. If they are at a loss for names and invitees, provide one.

Winemakers / Wineries
Demand that your tasting room staff be sensitive to their implicit biases. Prioritize BIPOC for positions such as harvest hands, assistant winemakers, barrel room managers, tasting room managers, and the like. Create paths to production from pick crews to vineyard management to winery operations. Pay interns, or ask for financial support in order to begin paying for labor.

Image courtesy Unsplash

2. In spaces where you can see us, hire us, and invest in us, make the space for us.
Hiring BIPOC in entry-level positions is a good first step; however, our stability and security is rooted in our financial empowerment. Your trust in us to aid your growth helps us not just earn a living but also empowers us to become eventual partners. We want to learn. We often do not have the capital to even begin our path to legitimacy via certificating bodies. When hiring us, invest not just in our paycheck but the future of what that paycheck can look like when we have the proper education. Acknowledge that a lack of education or experience can also bring new voices and new perspectives.

Management is a good next step, and so is offering partnership.

Restaurants / Retail
Encourage and promote BIPOC in leadership capacities, such as key holders, managers, and other high-visibility positions that are involved with community and free of tokenism. When investing in us, mentorship, whether educational, professional, or otherwise, should prioritize us.

Educators
Offer scholarships or subsidies in certificated wine education, or, as a governing body, lower the barrier to entry by providing introductory courses. Prioritize tutoring and training opportunities for BIPOC as both students and teachers.

Vendors / Media / Winemakers / Wineries
When hiring or making key decisions, prioritize BIPOC voices and experiences as a whole, not just rote knowledge. When investing in us, mentorship, whether educational, professional, or otherwise, should prioritize us.

Image courtesy Unsplash

3. In spaces that you have made for us, ensure our safety and your support.
BIPOC and LGBTQ+ colleagues bear an unbelievable burden daily of having to justify their existence and their place in the wine community. Spurred not only by the emotional labor of being othered, we often face microaggressions that undermine our legitimacy and our value.

ALL
We need you to speak up and defend our bodies and our worth vocally and enthusiastically, in front of guests and behind closed doors. Racial slurs, sexual harassment, implicit and explicit biases, whether from guests or fellow employees, should be called out and addressed in a manner that prioritizes us over white fragility. We count on you to make responsible choices in the people that you bring to our spaces, and hope that their choices reflect your beliefs and standards as well.

Image courtesy Unsplash

4. Hold others accountable for their lack of action.
We are calling for you as leaders to publicly denounce police brutality and violence, and to funnel resources to that end as a point of sustainability, either by donating money, or creating another program inherent in and necessary for completion as qualification for the certification. We are people first — if we devote more time to understand personal biases, we are better equipped to engage. Uphold the integrity of our existence.

Restaurants
Empower your staff to make clear decisions on when to engage or disengage untoward behavior, such as sexual harassment or racism. Know when to intervene. Use these moments as teaching opportunities for all parties.

Retail
Make conscious efforts to highlight bottles and regions that align with human standards. Understand when to flex your buying power if a producer exhibits questionable behavior, and speak up to your vendors if something is afoot.

Vendors
For imported producers, educate them on the current state of affairs in the United States and be honest about your expectations and new standards. Cultural leeway can only go so far: you can approach social literacy for your producers about using better language (eg, eliminating gender in wine description, saying Black instead of colored) and better action (eg, not alienating a buyer because they’re queer, not asking anyone where they’re from if it only serves one part of the conversation).

For domestic producers, support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ owned and operated businesses.

Hold your producers accountable not just socially but also financially: if they continue to resist change, acknowledge that you may have to abandon their wine as an option. Hold your buyers to a similar standard: if they continue to resist change or do not meet your standards or expectations regarding words or actions, acknowledge that you may have to abandon their account as an option.

Educators
Make the qualification reconcile diversity and safety by creating a unit that outlines BIPOC aggression, sexual harassment, and implicit bias similar to the existing framework of alcohol abuse in curricula, and adapt better practices for consistent education of this material. Prioritize BIPOC in tutoring and teaching roles.

Winemakers / Wineries
Adapt sustainable practices on the human scale. Ensure your pick crews and vineyard managers have easy and safe access to healthcare, child care, and secondary education, and are being paid at or above a fair wage. Do not engage with ICE, Customs and Border Patrol, and other bodies seeking to undermine fair labor under the guise of illegal immigration. Consider the environmental and human impacts of what you need to maintain grape health and yield.

Image courtesy Unsplash

5. In spaces that don’t want us, dismantle those spaces.
The barriers of entry for BIPOC are twofold: first, it is our appearance and our (seeming lack of) cultural cache; second, it is the lack of our financial power. Spaces that legitimize our profession place a financial burden on BIPOC by instituting a fee on introductory courses that deter rather than invite curious, engaged voices. Entitlement and tipping stem from a cultural denial of the accrual of wealth of BIPOC. Destroy the gates that keep us from engaging and flourishing in those spaces.

Restaurants
Reserve your right to refuse service to any guests who do not place your employees’ safety and agency with respect — they are a guest in YOUR house, not someone who can deny you a transaction. Empower your management to speak to and correct entitlement, maintaining a safe space for your employees and other guests.

Retail / Wineries
Dismantle the idea of “correctness” with tasting notes. Do not talk down to your clientele about your wines. Engage in a productive manner without condescending, be conscious about your biases in your choices, and do not base any assumptions on your wine recommendations based solely on how your guest looks.

Winemakers
Demand that BIPOC owned and operated businesses be represented in the portfolios of vendors and distributors that you work with, encourage that they sell your product in BIPOC owned and operated spaces, and that they adapt best practices for disengaging in untoward behavior such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and sexual harassment. If they resist change or no longer meet your new standards and expectations, acknowledge that you may need to abandon that relationship. Hold your distributors accountable for their actions or lack thereof.

Educators
Establishing new standards that can keep up not just with current wine trends but with the social literacy required is a path that can reconcile a lot of your shortcomings. Remove the eurocentrism entrenched in the presentation of wine information. Service must be delineated as a two-way street, emphasizing equity; mentorship and entrepreneurship as a reachable goal; and active participation in the disavowal of racist structures and systems.

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This list of action items was initiated from a conversation by Zwann Grays, wine director of Olmsted in Brooklyn, and Cha McCoy, a wine consultant and sommelier based in Lisbon, using a framework provided by Julia Coney, a DC-based wine writer, educator, speaker, and consultant.

I am grateful for the voices of everyone who helped provide their input, especially Jirka Jireh, manager of Ordinaire in Oakland; Raquel Makler, sommelier at Peasant in Manhattan; Jackson Rohrbaugh MS, owner of Crunchy Red Fruit in Seattle; Claudia Leung, retailer at Thirst Wine Merchants in Brooklyn; and the bottles of Riesling and Syrah that helped fuel these conversations. We look forward to holding more.

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Miguel de Leon

restaurant operator, wine director, sommelier. cal 05, nyc since 07. MNL -> LAX -> SFO -> NYC. //\\//\\ ig @migueld1 tw @migueld // he/him