Wine is made in almost every corner and continent of the world, and yet the industry built around it has been criticized for its homogeneity—created by, aimed at, and telling the stories of white people, almost all of them male. Indeed, the lack of access to careers and education for interested and eligible candidates from any other background, whether actively or by omission, has been all too apparent in recent years. When we attend large wine events, especially consumer galas and fundraisers, on behalf of Robb Report, we see a lot of people who, like us, identify as white.
So as we approach the third anniversary of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota, and of the ensuing nationwide protests that shone a light on the discrimination inherent in numerous aspects of American life, it seems an appropriate time to assess the progress that has been made in the small but not insignificant enclave that is the world of wine. While we’ve seen an encouraging uptick in efforts toward welcoming and encouraging newcomers to the industry who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the stories we’ve heard from friends and colleagues don’t always bear that out.
One Black wine writer we know was asked by another guest at a tasting to get him a clean glass. Another has been repeatedly quizzed about who she knew who got her in, as if she couldn’t have been invited on her own merits as a wine professional. Someone else had to sit through dinner while a fellow attendee, also a journalist, remarked that the Black woman who was speaking to the group was so “articulate” for a member of her race.
In the 2022 Best of the Best issue of this magazine, the “Big Idea” in the wine industry was “Wine Wakes Up,” which raised “a glass to the shift to diversify wine culture that has begun in earnest over this past year.” And across many areas of the wine-and-spirits world—including education, certification, importing, distribution, sales, publishing and media—many efforts have been made to address the failings of the past and bring members of previously underrepresented groups into the fold. This has been accomplished partially through active hiring practices and also by foundations set up to assist interested candidates in furthering their education or receiving access to the right job opportunities.
Though professional events we attend, even in cities, hardly look reflective of the multicultural society we live in, the crowds at high-end consumer gatherings are almost universally white. This may change as more people of color enter the professional world of wine and more are courted as clients and customers. We hear tales of Black and Hispanic wine lovers, especially women, being steered toward sweet wine in restaurants and wine shops, rather than being asked about their preferences before assumptions are made. Not to mention people of color experiencing the “down sell” on a wine list, being pushed toward less-expensive bottles, based, presumably, on an assumption of relative wealth.
While the number of Black-owned wineries is abysmally small, those that get the most attention often come with the added cachet of being owned by former and current NBA players such as Tony Parker, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Steph Curry or musicians such as John Legend, Jay-Z, and Drake—but efforts have also been made to publicize other Black-owned brands. There are many more Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people on the mastheads of well-known wine publications and websites than there were a few years back, and several foundations and organizations have set up scholarship programs that help BIPOC candidates pursue further education in wine.
One of the best known is the Gérard Basset Foundation (of which Robb Report is a media partner), established in honor of late sommelier Gérard Basset MS MW OBE, a well-liked member of the UK and European wine-and-spirits community who died in 2019 from esophageal cancer. In all, $2.66 million was raised by the foundation in 2021 and 2022. These funds are in addition to scholarship programs sponsored by Dom Pérignon, Hennessy Cognac, Artémis Domaines, the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Liberty basketball teams, and Taylor’s Port.
At the Golden Vines event in Florence last year, we met Carrie Rau, an Indigenous Canadian who is a chef, winemaker-in-training, and cofounder of two nonprofits. She is using the funds from her Taylor’s Port scholarship to further her studies in the Master of Wine program, whose membership is also overwhelmingly white. Calling the award money “life changing,” Rau told us: “The opportunity to explore internships with companies that have aligned themselves with the foundation is probably the most exciting part for me.”
Jarrett Buffington, a Black American sommelier who now lives and works in Australia, is using his scholarship funds to pursue the Master Sommelier certification. He pointed out that this opportunity offers him the “chance to do what few people who look like me have achieved.”
But what would be really exciting when we attend the Golden Vines gala next year is to see more people who look like Rau and Buffington among the attendees rather than just onstage accepting awards.