the only one in the room

I was most recently at a wine conference where I was a panelist, and among the group of sommeliers they’d selected, the only one who was a person of color; there was only one other minority person and she was a white woman. The rest of the group were privileged, able, cis white men, some of whom owned their own businesses.

I didn’t feel like I stuck out like a sore thumb until I got to the grand tasting and it was myself and a handful of Asians — literally, I could count all the other Asians on one hand — that I did.

There’s a peculiar feeling whenever I’m at a wine tasting, glass in hand, that when I look up and scan the room, it’s easy to find the only other brown people there — there’s Anthony tasting some French white; there’s Jhonel tasting Syrah; there’s Anna Christina eyeing Champagne; there’s Chess looking at some Spanish wine and oh look, Amanda and Anncherie are right behind her. In this case, it was the roving group of journalists from some sort of Chinese publication, and the one other Asian person, a woman drinking Riesling to her heart’s content.

Image for post
Image for post
We find each other in the room a lot of the time. Clockwise from top left: Anthony Cailan, Jhonel Faelnar, Miguel de Leon, Anna Christina Cabrales

We have the same experiences whenever we put ourselves out there for wine. At one point during La Paulée, for example, I was speaking to Thomas Pastuszak, beverage director at the NoMad, noting the general lack of diversity in terms of age for the audience and in terms of race for the sommeliers. I looked up to Josiah Baldivino, or Kuya Joe as we called him, owner of Bay Grape, as one of the few and one of the proud, and even Josiah was excited that there were a handful of Filipinos in the crowd this time, and noticeably younger. “I’d never felt like this was a space for me,” I mentioned, “since no one really had much to connect with from someone from the tropics. It’s a different crowd. Honestly, even as a queer person, this place never felt like the safest one for me.”

Thomas looked at me quizzically, almost astounded. “I… I don’t think… I’ve never felt…” I could feel him searching for something to relate to why I would think or even feel like that considering our community tends to be open and accepting.

The only response I could muster, really, was a nod and a knowing smile. It’s a different thing when you look like me.

— — -

Once I was confronted by someone asking us about certifications and the whole idea of somm pedagogy, on why we always start with France, on why we were always being questioned more often than any other somm who didn’t look like us. I said that “sometimes it’s just easier for you to go with the flow with someone thinking that you’re not the one in charge,” as I looked long and deep into my wine glass, “but I’m hoping we’re bold enough and young enough to change that.”

Image for post
Image for post
Our boy band is called Boyz II Montrachet.

Youth seems to be a driver here; at that same conference from earlier, Thomas also mentioned that millennials are the ones who are most adventurous with their wine choices and the ones who are more open to drinking experiences that are guided by somms. The older people in the room laughed a little bit, chiding at the Other Olds who would be so closed-minded. At the same time, I thought, how many of these people are actually open to what we’re offering at our wine programs? How many of these privileged, richer, older folks would be open to pét-nat, to skin contact, to sans soufre? We’re not just trying to establish trends — we’re trying to make sure that the spectrum of wine, much like the spectrum of the people serving it and writing these wine lists now, are much better represented. Is it that what we’re trying to sell is inherently bad? Absolutely not — it’s just that the regular Chad and Karen are going to spring a few more hundred dollars on a “tried-and-tested” appellation like Chablis Premier Cru instead of Pinot Gris from the Czech Republic, and will always have difficulty when the wine they’re trying has a bit of residual sugar.

It’s also the fact that younger people, devoid of all hope and optimism because of impending climate change, abysmal political spheres, and insurmountable student debt, are drinking much more selectively in terms of pricing. Any aspiring somm would be hard up to pay rent after purchasing Grand Cru Bordeaux (or, even, Sauternes with age), but it seems that’s the first thing we establish in terms of certification and wine education. Imagine what it’s like for little millennial/GenZ Zach who’s earning pennies but wants to have a good wine experience at a restaurant or wine bar: it’s not his palate that’s discerning, it’s his wallet. There’s no mention anywhere in certification classes of the concept of “natural” wine, or very few sentences spent on minimal intervention. Educators and established somms and critics alike malign wine that’s not in bottles, or even those without traditional cork closures; imagine what it’s like for us growing up in an industry that’s immediately de-classed and de-valued these kinds of wines that inherently have pleasurable experiences simply because they look different, or have strayed from the norm.

There’s a metaphor in that.

— — -

There’s an inherent “pay our dues” mentality as well with somms and people our age, but more and more the decision-making is coming from a place of this Momofuku-esque philosophy of “deliciousness trumps tradition.” Jhonel, for example, does wine gymnastics at Atomix nightly, and it’s a beautiful thing to see when guests marvel at the genius of his work in tandem with the chef’s, JP and Ellia’s. He’s had the chops, and he’s also had the privilege of working at some of the toughest dining rooms in the city. Chess, on the other hand, is completely on her own at Diner; her experience is all about intuition and tastemaking on a personal, much more intimate level. On both of these examples, however, the overlay of being the only person in the room is persistent.

I’ve known a handful of us brown somms but not to the extent that I wish I knew us; we’ve always spoken about getting together on a more regular level and giving each other a platform for our voices. Zwann and Yirka of Olmsted, for example, have been the biggest cheerleaders for diversity and other voices in our spaces. Vinny in San Francisco continues to be one of the biggest supporters of fairness on all fronts. Eddie in Philadelphia is leading the charge despite all the hoops that she goes through to get wine in that city for people to receive a forward-thinking experience. But the question always seems to be lurking in the background: what more can we do? What is this system forcing us to do and how do we fix it? How do we combat these forces that are uncomfortable, chewy, unrelatable, micro-aggressive, passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive? And lastly, why do we have to be the ones to fix it?

Jhonel, Anthony, and I were fortunate enough to have been interviewed about the western bias in sommeliership and that the inclusion of global voices is necessary. The fact that it was ground-breaking felt like pushing a boulder uphill; the fact that it resonated with so many readers felt like pushing that boulder with a thousand other people. The hope is that the next time I’m at a wine tasting, when I scan the room and look up, that I’m energized to introduce myself to someone who looks like me, to shake someone’s hand who is enthusiastic and passionate like we are but has never had the opportunity, to lift another voice that feels somewhat alienated or othered or otherwise disenfranchised in the community.

Representation matters. It’s one of the things that’s motivating me daily in this industry. I can’t wait to see the Best Sommelier in America be someone who looks like me, someone who can get inspired by a somm whose values resonate with their own.

I don’t want to be the only one in the room anymore.

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store