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.
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.