Is The Wine Industry Racist?

Is the wine industry in America racist?

It’s a pertinent and timely question given not only the current movement for social justice and racial equality but also considering the various articles that have been published over the past few weeks highlighting the experiences of African Americans working in the wine industry here in the United States.

INDUSTRY STRUCTURE
To begin with, what should be uncontroversial is that the structure of the wine industry is not racist
. That is to say, the way the industry operates and the operating regulations that undergird the industry is not racist. That wineries buy and grow grapes, that these producers fashion those grapes into wine, that this wine is sold out of their tasting rooms and sold to wholesalers across the country, that wholesalers supply and sell wine products to restaurants and retailers, who also purchase wine directly from wineries and that also and primarily sell those products to their customers and patrons, is in no way racists.

It also should be uncontroversial to note that the products at the heart of the industry, the wine, are not the result of racism within the industry. The Cabernets, Pinots, Chardonnays, Tempranillos, red blends, and other wine sold in the U.S. wine marketplace are not the product of racial discrimination. They are a product of consumer discrimination and taste as well as market forces and marketing.

RACISM AND AFRICAN AMERICAN UNDERREPRESENTATION IN THE WINE INDUSTRY
Over the past few weeks, however, the most consistent race-related criticism of the American wine industry is that African-Americans are horribly underrepresented in every aspect of the industry. Though I’ve not seen any documented statistics on what percent of wine industry workers are African-American, it appears safe to say that the number is far less than the 13% of the total population that is African American.

The question is, “why”?

This is a very complicated question that I don’t have the qualifications, nor the information at hand, to answer. However, we can speculate.One thing is clear, there exist no discriminatory legal barriers that prevent African Americans from working within the wine industry. However, this is a very low bar from which to start any inquiry. If the wine industry is racist, there are other reasons or explanations.

It’s possible that those relatively small number of the people in the industry responsible for hiring are racists and don’t want African-Americans in their midst. This is not only possible but it is highly likely that there are a small number of such people. But it is by no means certain that racism and racists are the primary reason African-Americans are underrepresented within the industry. As we all know (or should know) correlation does not equal causation. In order to ordain racism as the primary reason more African-Americans are not present in the American wine industry, we need to know much more than they are under-represented in proportion to their numbers in the population. When folks make the mistake of assuming that under-representation of one group implies or proves discrimination, I usually ask if that means that we have a real misandry problem in the American penal system given that men represent more than 92% of prisoners? Other factors besides a hatred of men or discrimination against men may be at play in this situation.

Other potential explanations for the underrepresentation of African-Americans in the U.S. wine industry include, but are not limited to:

1-African-Americans are less exposed to wine due to their drinking habits, which may make it less likely for them to consider wine as a career.

2-Because of the income disparity suffered by African-Americans families, they may not have grown up with wine on their table, and thus had not considered it as a career.

3-Because African-Americans don’t see many people looking like them within the wine industry, they may choose to avoid the industry.

4-Because in many communities where winemaking is prevalent we don’t see large Black communities, there may be fewer African American candidates for jobs at or with wineries that often look locally for hires.

5-Because many positions in the wine industry might require a degree from an institution of higher education, the fact that African-Americans are underrepresented as degree holders may play a role in their underrepresentation in the wine industry.

These and many other potential answers to why African-Americans are underrepresented in the wine industry all imply that the pool of applicants for wine industry positions do not include anything like 13% African Americans in the general population. Again, I don’t know of published data to support this conclusion, but given my experience in the industry and given what I have been reading of late, I’m inclined to accept it as highly plausible. If I am right that not only are African-Americans underrepresented within the wine industry, but they are also underrepresented in the potential employee pool, it would be a very good idea to determine exactly why this is if, as an industry, it is our desire to see this underrepresentation eliminated. That’ll take some serious research. But it’s research that should be done.

But the fact of African-American underrepresentation within the wine industry is only one factor in looking at the question of racism in the wine industry. Another key factor is the experience of African-Americans once they are working in the wine industry.

THE AFFRONTS TO DIGNITY
Over the past few weeks as the question of the African-American experience in the wine industry has been explored in the media and other venues, the vast majority of observations, anecdotes and explanations, particularly those offered by African-Americans themselves, have described slights, “microaggressions”, and dismissals. One good example is Ms. Tahiirah Habibi’s description of her experience when sitting for the Court of Master Sommelier exam in 2011. She and the others sitting for the exam in New York City were apparently told they must address the Master Sommeliers administering the exam as “Master”. For Ms. Habibi, this experience was traumatic and led her to quit her pursuit of the Master Sommelier title, determining that the Court did not align with her values.

While the protocol of addressing a Master Sommelier in their exam setting as “Master Smith” is not inherently racist, it is tone-deaf, and this kind of tone-deafness is what a number of writers have related. But more than that this has been discussed. We have read numerous explanations of the burdens African-Americans face from not merely often being the only Black person in the room, but also having to deal with folks apparently unable to embrace them immediately as a likely member of an industry, whether as a sommelier, a wine writer, a producer, etc.

Do these kinds of anecdotes and experiences indicate a significant racism problem in the industry? I don’t think they do. But what I do think is that the African Americans who have taken the time to relate their experiences are bumping up against is a continued racial stigma that is part of the U.S. culture. It’s no coincidence that many of the Black writers who have recently spoken up not only reference their experiences with others inside the wine industry, but many also relate their experiences with customers and consumers who also make assumptions about them and belie their own internalized assumptions about African-Americans that in the end both offend and diminish their experience and perceived value. There is no other way to describe this other than harmful and wrong.

FIXING THE PROBLEM
While the slights, microaggressions, and dismissals described and faced by African-Americans in the wine industry represent burdens that ought not to be faced by anyone, in my view the most important issue is that of underrepresentation. Here is where dignity, quality of life, economic opportunity and the joy of embarking on personal pursuits are diminished. And it is no surprise that the prospect of ridding the wine industry of this kind of underrepresentation of African-Americans is the far more difficult undertaking than what is likely to be the slow but continued diminishing of the affronts African Americans describe facing.

If in fact a group of people is not actively working to keep African-American out of the industry in service of a racist ideology, then the likely culprit is that the pool of applicants for wine industry jobs finds African-Americans underrepresented, and likely by a significant degree. Answer the question of why this is, and you are far along in developing strategies for increasing diversity in the industry and providing African-Americans one more route to self-fulfillment.

Based, again, on what African-Americans have been saying and writing about their experience in the wine industry, it seems there is something of a consensus among them that #3 on my meager list above is the most likely path to increasing African-American participation in the wine industry. The more visible African-Americans are within the ranks of the wine industry, the more likely younger African-Americans will test the industry waters, and in turn, increase the pool of African-American’s applying for work in the industry.

If this formula is correct it would be very good news indeed as it is the least complicated path to increasing African-American participation in the wine industry. It certainly is less complicated than addressing issues of income and wealth inequality, the Black community’s relationship with wine, increasing African-American participation in higher education or any number of other systemic issues Blacks have faced and continue to face that require far more complex systemic and cultural changes.

Is the wine industry racist? I don’t think so. Are there racists working in the wine industry. It would be shocking to discover there are not. Does the arch of wine industry history bend toward inclusion and diversity? It has. But not enough.


No Responses

  1. Jim Bernau - June 30, 2020

    Thank you Tom for writing on this important issue. Am available to coach and help where barriers to entry in our industry are formidable.

  2. Bruce susel - June 30, 2020

    Thank You

    I’ve also grappled with the same issue, only on the retail end……

    Long story short, you nailed it on all counts.

    There are a few other issues on the retail end, disqualifiers such as
    Criminal background and drug testing. There is a need for a little more
    diversity in the retail end, but SMH we can’t force someone Into it.

    Cheers

  3. Tom Wark - June 30, 2020

    Jim,
    Your perspective on barriers would be very appreciated. Any thoughts you have…

  4. David Gardner - July 1, 2020

    Bruce,

    You seem to be part of the problem. Wouldn’t criminal background and failed drug testing be problems for any applicant, not just people of color? The only issues you’ve mentioned are negative stereotypes of African Americans. If you are indeed having a problem with criminal backgrounds, how many of them are low level drug offenses that your white applicants would also have, had they been charged at the same rate? At our winery (where I am the African American Winemaker) we are at about 13% African American. Interestingly, criminal background and drug testing haven’t been a problem.

  5. Sara Rowan - July 1, 2020

    Hey Tom, proud of you for taking this on! If you listen to Black professionals, racism blatantly exists in wine just as it does in every aspect of our society. I’ve worked for three of the best wine corporations and half a dozen luxury wineries and can testify that diversity in hiring was more lip service than a priority. We were offered annual anti sexual harassment trainings, but never anything on how to prevent racial microagression. There are many simple actions and big programs that need to be adopted before I’ll agree we’ve made any real effort to combat racism in the wine industry. And short of that work I believe we are complacent in perpetuating its existence.

  6. Bruce Susel - July 1, 2020

    Well you can have your own opinion but I don’t understand how I could be part of the problem.

    Previously I believe I said I do not see color and people are forcing me to see color now. I am simply stating facts and I am sorry that you have to feel the way you feel about the facts.

    In a retail environment where over half-a-million $2 weekly is turned it is very normal to do a criminal and possibly even personal background check. There are no emotions feelings or color involved it is simply a process. The results are facts
    Witness over a 10-year. In several States.

  7. Tom Wark - July 1, 2020

    Sara,

    How are you? It’s really good to hear from you.

    I think an important point I’m going to stick to is that if there is racism in the wine industry, then it needs to be understood–either as a consequence of individual racists or a consequence of a system specific to the industry. I dont’ think it’s the latter. As I wrote, I’d be shocked to discover there are not racists that work in the wine industry, just as I’d be shocked to discover there are not racists that work in the retail tire industry or the plastics molding industry. Nor do I think it is necessarily racism that accounts for the underrepresentation of African-Americans in the wine industry. So, the question is why is there underrepresentation.

    Tom…

  8. Sara Rowan - July 1, 2020

    Tom – we are well, but miss you guys! I would encourage you to pursuit answering that question alongside Black wine professionals. Julia Coney is putting out great info: https://www.blackwineprofessionals.com/news. Consider inviting her a conversation?

  9. David Gardner - July 1, 2020

    Bruce,

    To your “I do not see color” point, this is a beautiful sentiment but it’s untrue. If you “do not see color” how do you know the African Americans are the ones who have criminal backgrounds? I know it’s semantics, but the logic means you have internalized that information. These are the microaggressions that Tom is talking about. They include a few that I’ve heard myself such as “one of the good ones” and “very articulate”.

    My earlier point went unanswered and it’s the reason you are being “forced to see color” now. It is that people in the black community are policed at a much higher level than white people. Obviously this means more will be found with small amounts of drugs (or in some completely despicable, albeit rare, circumstances, have drugs planted on them). They will not as a rule be issued a warning, they will be charged and most likely convicted. This is due to not being afforded the “They just made a mistake” defense that overwhelmingly works to keep white low level drug offenders out of the system.

    Therefore, since black and white people use drugs at the same rate but black people are charged at 6 times higher rates, your “colorblindness” is resulting in far fewer black applicants getting jobs due to your colorblind criminal background check, even though your white applicants most likely use drugs just as often.

    What is the solution? When running a criminal background check, change the policy to ignore low level drug offenses. Do this for all applicants. Now you are colorblind. Now talk to the applicant and see if they are a fit for your company. I’m pretty sure the interview will tell you if this person is an asset or a liability.

  10. Alder Yarrow - July 1, 2020

    Tom,

    There’s a point that you don’t seem to be hitting squarely on the head, at least from my read of your article, and that is the idea of structural racism and the historical and current non-level playing field that exists for BIPOC.

    The simple answer to the question “is the wine industry racist” MUST BE YES, if the representation of BIPOC in the wine industry doesn’t mirror the statiscal representation of those people in the population. Racism is a set of conditions that is more than simply the way that people see the world from inside their heads.

    My shortest summary of your point seems to be “the wine industry isn’t inherenrly racist, the broader culture is, and that affects how things play out in the wine industry” but I think by saying that you absolve the industry of work it has to do.

    The wine industry is FAR “whiter” and much more inaccessible to BIPOC (AND WOMEN!!) than other industries (as evidenced by their representation in the industry both as consumers and as workers/employees) and therefore it is racist (and sexist) and inequitable, and there is work to be done.

    We need to be very careful not to construct arguments that allow the industry to feel like the problem isn’t ours to solve.

    Alder

  11. Tom Wark - July 1, 2020

    Alder,

    Very pleased to hear from you. All is well I hope.

    Under representation of a group (or over representation) does not not automatically equal discrimination. My first question (and it must be the first) is this: is the structure of the wine industry (how it operates and how it is configured) racists. It’s not. There are discriminatory elements of the industry, but those aren’t racist, they are commercial.

    As for absolving the industry, I hope I didn’t leave that impression and I dont’ think I did. The underrepresentation of African-Americans in the wine industry is clearly the most visible manifestation of something that needs to be fixed. But to fix it, you first must diagnose the problem. As I noted in the post, the consensus seems to be that 1) underrepresentation is a clear problem and 2) making African Americans more welcome, particularly by highlighting African American industry participants, is a primary way of doing that. Julie Coney’s new project is a perfect example of that solution, but there are others.

    Is it simply a matter of African Americans being disuaded from entering the wine industry due to a lack of visible African Americans in the industry making it seem more welcoming. It would be very good news if this is the case and the Industry ought to determine to address this.

  12. Bruce susel - July 1, 2020

    Hey David

    Again I am just reporting facts. My experience, a big box store with @approx. 30 employees, you can imagine retail turn. Every employee has the same requirements. Just stating facts, there is a disparity between races in these results.

    Having said that, and knowing all three brothers who spearhead Total Wine, there was always a great desire to hire a diverse background. Numbers dont see color, it is a process. Do I wish it was more diverse? Heck yeah. We simply hired the best, that passed the test.

    I have iNteracted with literally Thousands of professionals since 1992, and not once have witnessed any issues directly related to racism. Perhaps I dont have my antennas up?
    Should I? I am concerned that myself and my team act accordingly. Our actions, attitudes, and perceptions have not changed in respect to the alcohol industry.

    I could tell you stories all day, but please don’t paint a picture of prejudice towards me or my team. Thanks

  13. Mike Dunne - July 1, 2020

    Nicely sensitive while also frank. If African-Americans are under-represented in the wine trade, and that looks to be the case, as you note, then a deep, candid and balanced look for reasons could be undertaken, hopefully resulting in concrete steps to make the business more embracing. Your five explanations for under-representation have merit, providing starting points for deeper exploration into the matter.

  14. Julia - July 1, 2020

    Tom,

    This article is severely misguided.
    All actions, all industries, moment to moment, are either being racist or anti-racist.
    I think you have a lot of extensive research to do before pretending to answer the question of “Is the wine industry racist” when the answer is, unquestioningly, YES.

    I highly suggest reading “How to be Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi before you even attempt to speak on racism.

  15. Tom Wark - July 1, 2020

    Julia,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s appreciated.

    I disagree with “All actions, all industries, moment to moment, are either being racist or anti-racist,” but unless you want to discuss I won’t get pedantic about it.

    Thanks for the recommendation regarding Kendi. I’m familiar with the work as well as a number of others.

    Tom…

  16. Alder Yarrow - July 1, 2020

    Tom,

    Discrimination is not the same as racism. You seem to be focusing on intent, but no intent is needed for racism to exist.

    Alder

  17. David Gardner - July 1, 2020

    Bruce,

    It may seem as though I’m picking on you. However, your viewpoint is the easiest to address.

    I am aware there is a disparity in results for your background checks. I explained why that is. Lets say you have 10 prospective employees 5 white 5 black. For simplicity sake let’s say they all do drugs. Chances are much higher that the black candidates have had contact with the police (due to higher policing). Even without that, your black candidates are 4-6 times more likely to be arrested if they are found to have drugs. So when you run your criminal background check you will find it much more likely that your black candidates have a criminal record. The result could be easily be 4 white candidates and 1 black (or possibly none) making it through that screening.

    So even though you are not racist and your companies system is not racist, the result IS racist due to racist data being used to vet candidates. A better system would be ignoring low level drug possession charges and only use the drug tests. That will tell you who is doing drugs and is a current liability. Now the system is not racist (if done consistently).

    To your point about not witnessing any direct racism issues, I’m not going to pretend to know whether or not any happened around you, but I’ve been in the industry much less time than you and I’ve seen some from vendors and heard it through my coworkers. Interestingly, it is normally not directed towards us but is said in passing between customers or from a company we’ve worked with to what they think are my white coworkers who are on the same page (obviously they’re not!).

    Should you have your antennas up? Yes, if you want to fix the problem. The direct racism isn’t the cause of less people of color in the wine industry, it’s not n-words and nooses. It’s “Oh I didn’t expect you to be so knowledgeable about wine”, and “Is there someone that knows about these wines?” I can promise you that if you have black employees they have heard this. Ask them what you can do, that will go a lot farther then anything else.

    David

  18. John - July 1, 2020

    I would suggest anyone interested in understanding that racism is a system not and event they do the following. Watch this youtube of Dr. Robin DiAngelo author of “White Fragility” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45ey4jgoxeU&ab_channel=SeattleChannel
    Read “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th”. Doing so may clarify to a small degree what African Americans deal with every day.

  19. RH Drexel - July 1, 2020

    What Alder said.

    Also…Short answer is: the wine industry is racist. Period. End. it’s also extremely elitist. So, add racism to classism.

    So many in the industry act “woke” , especially following George Floyd’s murder. But, where were they when Eric Garner was killed? Or Philando Castile? Or countless others?

    Guess we all have time to mull things over now because of this pandemic, but if there were no pandemic, I’m afraid it’d be business as usual for the wine business.

    I only received one email blast about BLM from a winery. Lots of black squares on IG, but didn’t see any other mentions directly linked to commerce and ordering wine. Forlorn Hope sent out a thoughtful letter to their customers about BLM and how we can support these and other organizations. That was it…one email blast.

    If you think racism is politics and don’t want to bother your customers with thinking about it, well, then, time to look in the mirror.

  20. Sao Anash - July 1, 2020

    What Alder said.

    Also…Short answer is: the wine industry is racist. Period. End. it’s also extremely elitist. So, add racism to classism.

    So many in the industry act “woke” , especially following George Floyd’s murder. But, where were they when Eric Garner was killed? Or Philando Castile? Or countless others?

    Guess we all have time to mull things over now because of this pandemic, but if there were no pandemic, I’m afraid it’d be business as usual for the wine business.

    I only received one email blast about BLM from a winery. Lots of black squares on IG, but didn’t see any other mentions directly linked to commerce and ordering wine. Forlorn Hope sent out a thoughtful letter to their customers about BLM and how we can support these and other organizations. That was it…one email blast.

    If you think racism is politics and don’t want to bother your customers with thinking about it, well, then, time to look in the mirror.

  21. Tom Wark - July 1, 2020

    Sao,

    Very good of you to have read and to have commented. Thank you. I’ve followed your work.

    I appreciate your comments, but I’m not entirely sure I understand your point. You seem to be saying that one piece of evidence that the “wine industry” is racist is seen in the fact that apparently few wineries proactively announced their support for BLM and racial justice; that not speaking up in the face of injustice identifies one (or an industry, if the lack of speech is consistent across that industry) as in partnership with or a collaborator with the the people or power that propels that injustice.

    If I got that wrong, then correct me and ignore what follows.

    If not speaking up publicly about racism and racial injustice is a sign of once’s complicity, does this principle apply to all injustices we witness? Or just to racial injustice. Or just to the injustice that is most concerning in the present moment? I don’t see how the principle could not apply to all and every injustice. That’s a tall order. Not making a public pronouncement about racial justice in the wake of the George Floyd murder does not necessarily imply racism, a lack of concern, a lack of commitment to make a positive difference. Though not a huge fan of everything C.S. Lewis had to say, I agree with him when he teaches, “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”

    I think the term “racism” might be in the process of being defined out of any meaning. As Alder notes above, the wine industry must be racist because those that consume wine and those that work in the industry don’t do so in relative proportion to their percentage of the population. He’s right that African-Americans are underrepresented in both the industry and as wine drinkers. But of course this can’t possible be the necessary evidence for the industry being racists. As you know, correlation does not equal causation. The fact that racism exists and the fact that African Americans are underrepresented in the wine industry is not necessarily a cause and effect relationship. It’s not necessarily true that racism explains the the underrepresentation of African Americans. It might. But not necessarily, It might be part of the cause, but at the same time it might be only a small part of the explanation. As I pointed out in the post above, if we make this assumption so automatically about the wine industry, can’t we say with equal assurance that misandry is the explanation for why 92% of prison inmates are men?

    No one is going to argue that African-Americans don’t face bigotry and racism in the course of working in the wine industry. The most recent testimonies make that perfectly clear. But throwing out “racism, of course” as the explanation for why African Americans are underrepresented within the industry and within the applicant pool for wine industry jobs is a facile explanation the deters the industry from seeking all all the potential causes and working to fix them.

    The way I know this is that many folks have suggested that setting up scholarships for African Americans within various wine education programs acknowledges the income and wealth inequality that African Americans face and which is not caused by the wine industry. This kind of action speaks not only to the problem of income inequality but also to the problems that income inequality leads to…such as lack of access to formal education, which is often a requirement in the wine industry. If the wine industry is willing to examine the fact that African Americans are underrepresented in the industry but unwilling to look at all the potential reasons for this problem, then I can guarantee the problem won’t be fixed.

    As for the charge of elitism being “classism”, I’ll leave that for another post….but thank you for the idea. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment, Sao.

  22. Paul Vandenberg - July 2, 2020

    There was a comment made that drug use rates are similar among skin color groups. The studies funded by the US government actually show the highest drug use and dealing is among young “white” Folks.
    Much higher use, possession, and dealing, vastly lower rates of searches, arrests, convictions, imprisonments, and shorter sent.
    We need to end this insane War On Drugs and start medical careers rather than penal care.

    Paul Vandenberg (a sort of pinkish, tan human)
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard

  23. Bill St. Croix - July 2, 2020

    David, I’m not certain data can be “racist.” How the data are used, most certainly can be used to create outcomes that are desired by the end user, of said data. Also, selecting (to another of David’s points) which data are going to be used and the weight placed on said data, will drive outcomes, either consciously or subconsciously.

  24. David Gardner - July 2, 2020

    Hello Bill,

    I was being a bit reductive when I made the statement that the data is racist. The way the data is produced is racist, therefore tainting any possible use of that data. This isn’t data that is produced without a bias such as “automobile emissions have dropped over the last 10 years”. This requires an officer (with a bias) to interact with a person. If that officer lets the person off with a warning, the data doesn’t show that a crime was committed. If police were only allowed to charge black people with crimes (even though white people also commit the crimes) wouldn’t that make the data saying black people commit 100% of the crimes be racist? This is the type of data that white supremacists use to show that African Americans commit crimes at a much higher rate than whites.

    Without every crime being seen (impossible) this data is unusable for fair hiring decisions in the case of low level drug offences since it will show an artificially low drug possession among white applicants.

  25. sao anash - July 2, 2020

    Hi Tom,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and considered response. I appreciate it very much.

    In your response to my post, you asked: “If not speaking up publicly about racism and racial injustice is a sign of once’s complicity, does this principle apply to all injustices we witness? Or just to racial injustice.”

    For me personally, if you live in America, it’s just racial injustice. Speaking only for myself here, I believe that racism is our greatest shame as a nation; our greatest beast of burden. It is the cruel 400 year old machine that has driven so much else that is wrong with American society. For centuries, Black people have been the “Other” in a nation they in fact built, if not entirely, then to a greater extent than the white man. If this observation seems shocking, then it’s probably because our racism is so deeply systemic, we don’t even see it anymore.

    The wine business and the entertainment business are a lot alike. I single out these businesses in particular because I’m familiar with them both personally. They both are full of creatives who enjoy a certain lifestyle. Many in the wine industry also enjoy a lot of attention for their creative efforts. They imagine their platform is more important and influential than it actually is. The same can be said for so many in the entertainment business. They feel their opinions matter a lot…maybe more than the average Joe or Josephine.
    .
    Virtue signalling is rampant in the entertainment industry, as it appears to be these days in the wine business.

    There is a lot of hypocrisy in both industries. I’m sure you probably saw the tone deaf “I take responsibility” video that was put out by a few celebrities. They are probably well-intentioned individuals, but the narcissism inherent in their need to draw attention to themselves at this time speaks volumes about how out of touch they are regarding the kind of centuries-old suffering that cannot be ameliorated by a slick little PSA.

    Similarly, in the wine business, there are currently a lot of very “woke” folks posting on IG about how they’ll all do better moving forward; how they can be better allies. I will believe it when I see it. Not only is there a dearth of Black wine writers at major publications; few Black wine executives holding high level positions, etc. But, the Black consumer has largely been ignored by wine marketers, producers/suppliers, etc.

    My faith these days rests almost entirely with the younger generation; they’re not so consumed with virtue signalling. They seek real, fundamental change and are willing to pay the price for those changes.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to fancy dinner parties or fundraisers where winery owners in attendance were positively progressive, woke and liberal in their views regarding racial injustice, only to witness them later in the evening, after most of the guests had left, condescend to their house staff, speak to them inhumanely or ignore them outright.

    In Santa Barbara County, where I do a lot of work, there’s a major political donor who enthusiastically supported Trump through the birther movement and even hosted his inauguration. Many of my “woke” colleagues find Trump’s racism reprehensible and disgusting, but if this local winery-owning billionaire of whom I speak has a polo match or a fancy party at his winery, they’ll all attend. Why? Because of the “impeccable food”, “great wines” , the who’s who guest list” etc.

    At any rate, Tom, I hope my comments make sense. This is an emotionally charged time and perhaps I’m a bit disorganized in my thinking here. At any rate, I’ll just finish with this quote:

    “First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  26. Bill St. Croix - July 3, 2020

    I’m with you, David I suspected as much. I should have added a 🙂 after my comment.

    I also agree that any sort of data collection can be skewed/biased, very easily and I believe that is exactly your point with ‘over policing’ of the black people and black communities.

    If a police officer pulls over a white person fr speeding and let’s them go with a warning but tickets a black person, for the same offense, the data will be adversely affected and invalidated. The problem is we don’t really have a good view of that.

    Lies, Damned lies and Statistics!

  27. Dave Jefferson - July 3, 2020

    Tom,
    I have been reading, enjoying, and contemplating your work since 2008, but this piece on racism you did this week is the most provocative, well thought out, and insightful writing I have ever read on this difficult subject. Sure, there are others who are objecting to your discussion from differing experiences and standpoints, as is their right, but few contest your valid points.
    Here are a few of my thoughts to throw into the fray:
    1. The low participation of African Americans in the wine industry is probably more a result of cultural, educational, and financial differences than any overt and embedded industry racism. Many will argue that “white advantage” has significantly influenced these differences, and that certainly is true. But it is up to an entire society to address these precursor differences and advantages, rather than point at a low employment participation in the wine business by Black Americans and accuse the fast majority of being de facto racists.

    2. Owing one of over 10,000 bonded wineries in the US is not an activity in which many get rich. (From 47 years of NorCal wine grape business experience, I know it is largely a full-time effort to simply not go broke.) Accordingly, most US wineries are owned by families who made some sort of fortune in another business and now can dabble in winery ownership, even it means subsidizing a small operation bleeding slowly to economic death. Excuse me if I believe that does not yet describe what most intelligent and successful Black families want to do with their hard-earned capital, even if they love wine.

    3. An exceptionally large number of the head winemakers at US wineries are graduates in oenology/viticulture from UC/Davis or Fresno State, and they have a natural propensity for selecting interns and proteges from the same schools. Without the college training in wine making, especially with strong emphasis on chemistry, individuals of any race are going to have big hurdles to overcome. What is the historical racial makeup of those universities, especially in the ag departments? Our prior Sonoma County manager was a 2010 Fresno State grad in viticulture, who replaced his Hispanic father who died of cancer after a remarkable 30 plus year career with us. His son has no recollection of any African Americans in the wine grape programs of Fresno State during his years on campus.

    4. Wine price points and tasting fees have a major impact who shows up at a tasting room. If the typical bottle of wine at a winery is, say, $30 or more, and modern tasting fees run, say, $15/person, the winery is appealing to a well above average income bracket. If the typical SRP of most wine sold in the US is sub $7/bottle, many Black Americans are simply not going to be interested in going to tasting rooms where they perceive they are largely priced out before they get through the door. Then a vicious cycle starts and continues where if there are few people of color (POC) patronizing the wineries, there are fewer incentives to wineries to reach out to find POC staff to meet the public.

    5. It appears the greatest number of opportunities for African Americans in the wine industry will be in sales and marketing. I have been mentoring an exceptionally talented Black female friend for well over a decade and have added a second woman she recommended this past year. These two women are quite conscious of their minority status in a chiefly White dominated business but are utilizing their demonstrable differences to their benefit. They are both charming wine professionals who are constantly learning more about wine and sharing it with others. In short order, most around them realize they know more about wine than “anyone else in the room,” gravitate to them for knowledge, want to buy their products, and share their unique stories with their friends. We need much more of this advancing enjoyment in the wine industry today, and not arguments about a past left behind.

    6. Unfortunately, there is still racism in American society, and but at a minimum, the potential for even inadvertent cultural insensitivity on the part of many tasting room visitors is exacerbated by the consumption of beverage alcohol. Most tasting room visitors strike up conversations as frequently with other visitors as they do tasting room staff. (“What do you think of this wine, stranger?” Even if conversations start innocently, there is a high potential for stupid remarks, and hurt feelings, in these settings.

    7. From the beginning, chiefly as a grower but also a minority partner in a Sonoma County winery, we have always had “affirmative action” programs in place. But they have been directed at encouraging our Hispanic workers to learn English in order that they may advance and be more valuable. (We farm in Spanish, but wineries operate in English. Being bilingual is a big plus, especially for our truck drivers at harvest.) Most of our vineyard workers did not make it past 6th grade before they went into the fields of Michoacán, but they all can speak better Spanish than this old White guy who learned Spanish in high school. The resulting managerial “role reversal” is always an entertaining plus and denies White/Brown racism even a foothold.

    Our two county vineyard managers are both former undocumented Hispanic workers from decades ago. It is clear our affirmative action in managerial promotions has been and will continue to succeed. We might also add we have seen multiple family members working for decades for us, and many from the same small Mexican villages. (The word gets around that we are a good place to have a career in wine grapes.)

    8. It is indisputable the 80 years from the end of the Civil War to the end of WWII were a despicable period of US White racism. (The oft heard Black contention that “All Whites are racists” is quite understandable based on that history.) However, there were many exceptions, starting with my late, wonderfully kind Midwestern parents grew up in that era. They were disgusted by segregation when they first saw it firsthand near Washington, DC. Subsequently, the integration of professional sports and the US military services starting in the late 1940’s. the 1954 Supreme Court decision regarding education, and the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s were major steps forward. Nevertheless, while it is one thing for the majority to reverse course and legislate fairness, elimination of racism, in all its forms, for a society of 330 million, is going to take generations to succeed in this effort. Fortunately, racism is not genetic, but it is learned in backward homes and groups, and there will always be a number of backward people in any society.

  28. Alder Yarrow - July 3, 2020

    Dave,

    I’d like to point out that you and many people are missing a subtle but incredibly important point. Saying the wine industry is racist is NOT THE SAME as saying “accus[ing] the vast majority of being de facto racists.”

    This is a kind of “taking it personally” point of view that is a product of white priviledge and is a barrier to actually making progress in dealing with these issues. It’s the wine industry equivalent of “Hey, I have black friends, so I can’t be racist.” The vast majority of people in the wine industry are likely NOT individually racist — which is to say they’re not active bigots who consciously discriminate against BIPOC. But that does not mean that the wine industry as a whole isn’t operating with the same kind of systemic racism that exists in our society as a whole, which it clearly is. Why aren’t there more black winemakers? Same reason there aren’t more black surgeons: racism. When I say that about surgeons, I’m not accusing every member of the admissions staff of medical schools of personally being bigots. I’m saying the medical field suffers from racism. Same thing with the wine industry.

    It’s not personal. It’s endemic to the fabric of the industry (like most industries). And if people keep objecting to that idea because they know people in the industry and they “aren’t racist,” that prevents meaninful action for serious change because it makes the conversation an argument about whether there are bad individuals (easy for people’s anecdotal experience to refute) instead of a conversation about whether there are fundamental inequities at play that unfairly affect people and need to change.

    Alder

  29. Jon Larson - July 4, 2020

    As a black man on his third career, I find this debate fascinating. American society as a whole is incredibly racist. That does not mean every American is racist. At some level, you learn to ignore as much of it as possible. Currently, my wife (who is white and Canadian) gets more upset than I do when we get pulled over by the police and some white cop with no sheets in his house that don’t have eye holes cut into them starts asking where we are going, if I’m carrying weapons, if I am carrying drugs, and if he can search the car. At some level, the constant surveillance is exhausting. A white female police officer pulled me over as I was rushing to see my father who was hospitalized in critical condition. She didn’t pull the car I was following over, and I wasn’t gaining on it. I let all of my frustration out on her. Afterwords, I felt a sense of relief, to finally say what she was doing was wrong, why it was wrong, and that I knew it was wrong.

    At my last job in medicine, the nurses called the NSA and reported me as an enemy combatant. The NSA sent three heavily armed white guys who weren’t wearing uniforms to try to put me in an unmarked van. When I told them in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going with them, they threatened to shoot me. To which I replied “Start shooting because I’m not going with you”. I raised my hands and stepped towards them, pointing out the video cameras covering the lobby of the hospital where I was a cardiothoracic superfellow. They insisted they could make the footage disappear. So I encouraged them to start shooting or leave, saying ‘Go ahead, I’ll make you famous’. ‘You are about to shoot an unarmed man in a white coat in the hospital lobby where he is a cardiac surgeon’. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they left. I got an official looking packet in the mail from the ‘Alphabet Agencies” and had to change my social security card, drivers license, passport, and provide my original birth certificate.

    I could keep going with stories of white women who were in automobile accidents and refused to be touched by a black man while I was in general surgery training in a busy trauma center. Nurses threatening to ‘break’ me. Hospital administrators calling triple board certified attendings ‘Niggers’ to their face. Police beating me nearly to death over what turned out to be a speeding ticket. But I’ll spare you.

    In the wine industry it’s more subtle. Female purchasing managers not wanting to go anywhere alone with me. The look on people’s faces when they see what ‘Jon Larson’ actually looks like. Comments on pictures of me working in the vineyard “Ohhhh, your the owner…….”.

    I’m not perfect. No one is. Having painful conversations, and acknowledging the problem is a huge step in the right direction. Talking about potential solutions, and exploring ways to fix the problem can’t happen if no one talks about the problem. It just leaves those of us whose skin is the wrong color (in the US, anyway) to suffer in silence.


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