The Wine Industry, Violence, Words and Emails…Oh My

Almost a week ago I published a post here entitled, “Is the Wine Industry Racists?” It received a good deal of interest, a number of thoughtful comments, and a number of shares, links, etc. Not surprising.

There were a number of folks that liked my perspective (“racism” may in fact not be the reason African-Americans are underrepresented in the industry and among the applicant pool for wine industry jobs) and a number who thought I was off-base. As it should be.

I also received emails in response. Anonymous emails. I’ve waited a while. I’ve read and re-read and considered these emails before commenting or writing about them. Now I’m ready.

See if you can figure out why the emails came in an anonymous fashion:

“You fucking bigoted racist! You are the problem. You have no idea how your post hurts people of color. How are you an expert on anything, even racism in the wine industry. Do your clients know you are a white supremist?” (SIC)
Anonymous Email

This is my email letting you know that I’ll never read your blog ever again. I will not enable racists within the wine industry. The very idea that BIPOC are left out of the wine industry for any reason other than racism is the dumbest thing anyone has ever said on this topic. Of course it’s racism and you don’t know better because you are among those leading the charge. Go to hell and get out of wine. (SIC)
Anonymous Email

Dear Tom: I’m sure you don’t understand what kind of impact this post has on people. Let me explain. You deny racism exists at all. This is exactly the kind of privileged attitude that makes Black men and women unwilling to work in the wine industry. It’s the kind of attitude that makes them feel unsafe by having to stare down people they know hate them. If the wine industry ever expects to have a diverse workforce it must be welcoming. it can’t include people like you who so willingly violate the safety of others.”
Anonymous Email

All of these letters were anonymous and all of them went further. To paraphrase all three letters, it is racists to examine a question with reason….Tom is racist to examine the question with reason…it is unsafe and borders on violence to examine a question with reason.

Probably the most relevant and most interesting thing about these three anonymous emails is that they were not placed in the comment section of the post and they were all anonymous. There are only two reasons for sending an anonymous email: 1) you are ashamed of what you are saying or 2) you believe being identified as the author of the email will somehow be detrimental for you.

In both the post to which these emails refer and in its comment section of the post, I address the idea that the wine industry must be racist because African-Americans are underrepresented. There is no need to belabor that point and my response. You can read if you like. However, it should be noted that way the wine industry is structured, the way wine gets produced and the way it gets sold is not racist in any way. Moreover, the claim that the wine industry operates within a larger societal system of racism is a claim entirely different and even separate from the claim that the wine industry itself is racists. In order to show that the wine industry is racist you need to finish this sentence in a convincing way: “The Wine Industry is racist because it discriminates against or harms African Americans as a result of its………” Finishing that sentence with “existence within a society-wide system of racism” is not a commentary on how the wine industry is racist, but on how systemic racism within American society overshadows everything. These are two different things.

I guess I should also address this idea that words and ideas can be the same as violence or can impact the “safety” of the reader or others. This is a fantasy conjured in an attempt to dismiss or shut down discussion. The way I know this is because I know I’m not a six-year old with a six-year-old mind. I can’t positively pinpoint the moment I realized it, but I’m sure it’s somewhere in the third or fourth grade that I came to fully understand and embrace the idea that sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.

When one takes to redefining words so far away from their long-accepted meaning in order to make a point, you know the point is unworthy of being considered. If one feels “violated” or “unsafe” for having read the words “it-is-by-no-means-certain-that-racism-and-racists-are-the-primary-reason-African-Americans-are-underrepresented-within-the-industry”, then your problems rise far above feeling unsafe or feeling violated. Words don’t harm. Words don’t violate.

The wine industry has a problem of the under-representation of African Americans within its ranks. To address this issue and to give everyone the opportunity to pursue a career in some element of the wine industry if that is what they desire, we must understand the cause of the underrepresentation. Reflexive and unexamined leaps to unidentified claims of “racism” as the problem, unexamined causal possibilities, bad analysis that embraces the notion that correlation equals causation, and anonymous emails will not get us where we need to be.

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  1. Rebecca Stamey-White - July 8, 2020

    Tom – I just read this post and your previous post on racism, and as much as I hate being the younger generation telling the older generation what’s what, I guess it all just reads as though your understanding of racism is out of date and like you haven’t been paying attention to the current dialogue. Racism is not understood by the current generation as it was in the previous – it has evolved to be more encompassing of the societal and historical context, setting aside the pedantics of strict definitions and focused on centering the voices most affected. You say “the way wine gets produced and the way it gets sold is not racist in any way,” which is completely disingenuous when you consider the largely migrant labor that is relied on to harvest grapes, the way wine is marketed to luxury environments (read: white), the boys club that distributes wine, and… literally the whole system is run by white men.

    I just think it’s silly to try to say the wine industry is not racist, when literally all of American society is, and even then, to what end? What’s the point of trying to say that there are other explanations for why blacks are unrepresented? Instead of focusing on the current state of affiars and definitions and being driven to parse anonymous emails, what’s the solution to the problem, whether you call it racism or underrepresentation? And if you don’t have one, that’s okay, this is an impossible problem and ugly history to solve, but maybe focus your efforts on centering diverse voices and listening to the ideas and go from there. It’s a good time to be listening rather than talking, but I commend you for starting the conversation.

  2. Bruce susel - July 9, 2020

    This whole dimension seems to be a powder keg. I am sorry that you were subject to such violent and immature correspondence.

  3. Tom Wark - July 9, 2020

    Rebecca,

    The funny thing is had you not brought it up I wouldn’t have thought you the “youngster” telling the older guy what’s what. You never struck me as younger than myself only because you’ve always seemed wiser than I am.

    The reason for suggesting that it may be something other than a racist wine industry that explains why Afrian Americans are underrepresented within the industry is because it might be true and when we are labeling an industry and by extention those working in it evil, good or otherwise (racism is still evil, even among the youngsters, right?) truth is the most important value in coming to a conclusion. Labeling the wine industry “racist” is an indictment. Casually indicting a person or a thing of a pretty evil thing ought only be done with caution and by marshalling facts to support the indictment. Otherwise, it’s just slander.

    If the wine industry is racist because “all of Amerian society is” then everything and everyone is racist. And I think we both know that can’t be true.

    In the end, asking honestly why Blacks are underrepresented in the wine industry is done in order to solve that problem. If Julie Coney and Dorothy Gaiter and Tahiirah Habibi and others are right, for example, that one reason Blacks are underrepresented in the wine industry is due to the fact that blacks don’t see Black faces in the industry, then their initiatives to center and raise up the Blacks currently working in the industry is a very good solution. On the other hand of the reason for the underrepresentation is a bunch of white men and women at the helm of the industry who want to keep African Americans out of the industry and thus don’t hire them, then different sorts of initiatives are probably necessary. And it strikes me that the the reasons blacks are underrepresented in the wine industry go well beyond these two options. What if it has something to do with the impact of long-term wealth inequality we see in the Black community? If that’s true (and it strikes me that it absolutely must be true) then this is not reflective of a racist wine industry.

    Finally, I’d quicky retort that the wine industry’s reliance on migrant labor is a function of international economics, not the industry’s racist structure. That wine is marketed largely as a luxury good is because most of the wines are, by any economic or commercial definition, a luxury good, not because of the industry racist structure.

    Even with your own extraordinary youth relative to mine, your wisdom should convince you that in order to fix a problem one must first diagnose the problem. My argument is that doing just that is imperative and, contrary to my anonymous emailers, far from an act of violence or a personal safety issue.

  4. Deborah Steinthal - July 9, 2020

    I highly recommend fact checking before judging. I will send Tom the actual graphics, but typically 50% of wine buyers are female, though I have never seen wine buying population trends by race. And of 10k US wineries, more than 60% sell wine under $20/bottle retail. Not luxury at all. While I do not dispute distributors are heavy male dominated, i moderate a NEXT GEN Wine CEO peer group that is more than 50% female, running some of that largest NW wine producers. The millennial generation of wine leaders that I have the great pleasure of interacting with is supremely diversity conscious in their hiring practices. Within the limited pool of qualified applicants. Which brings us back to Tom’s argument, which I support. Public and anonymous shaming is not conducive to achieving positive change, IMO. It limits open and free exchange. And advances no ones cause. To paraphrase the WSJ’s Editorial Board in an article yesterday: ‘ Our hope is that the mod­er-ate el­e­ments can fend off the woke at­tack. So­ci­ety ben­e­fits when both its left and right coali­tions ac­cept ba­sic free-speech prin­ci­ples. Yet if the in­tol­er­ance turns out to be self-per­pet­u­at­ing and un­stop­pable, we have a hum­ble sug­ges­tion …. Con­sider a po­lit­i­cal be­lief sys­tem that is not premised on the trans­for­ma-tion of so­ci­ety, that is built on the sanc­tity of tra­di­tional rights …. ’ of American’s freedoms that can move mountains. My sincere hope is the current angry mob, woke attack soon leads to listening by all sides – with leadership emerging that is capable of achieving past due societal changes. In my experience long lasting, positive change does not happen when private property, people’ lives and relics are destroyed. Positive change occurs when strong leaders stand up and take ownership of an issue. Sadly, America today, sorely lacks moderate leaders capable of leading from the middle, with the conviction and fearlessness required to soften the edges and move mountains. And we certainly have mountains to move.

  5. Julia B - July 9, 2020

    Re: the comment: “What’s the point of trying to say that there are other explanations for why blacks are unrepresented?” Because correlation does not equal causation, and this remark – ‘What’s the point…” completely shuts down eyes-wide-open data and situational analysis that could lead us to root causes and solutions. To say in a blanket statement “everything in America is racist” is actually disingenuous, inaccurate, divorced from facing facts, and unhelpful, as you would be attempting (I’m assuming you have ideas for transformation change that does not disenfranchise others in retaliation or through blunt force) to change symptoms and not underlying causes, which means that today’s dynamics are bound to either sustain or repeat. Therefore – this comment is counterproductive and explains why there hasn’t been the change people claim to what to see. No one is saying there aren’t disparities that, if desired by a BIPOC population to be addressed, can be. I’m pretty sure the entire dialog happening is opening everyone’s eyes to better ways, but heeding those opportunities will require people who say things like this to settle down, open their minds, stop shaming people, and lead constructive, positive, inclusive, evidence-led, and non-riotous change.

  6. Jeremiah S. - July 9, 2020

    Tom, it wasn’t me.

  7. Rebecca Stamey-White - July 9, 2020

    Tom – I think you hit on the key distinction with the generational understanding – racism is evil, sure, but it’s also a system in which we all live whether we choose to or not, in which white people have benefitted more and continue to benefit from the systems that have been put into place by previous generations. I think the older generation looks at racism as something that has to be actively intended or acted out today, as if what was done previously has no bearing on who is in positions of power, who makes hiring decisions, who decides what the culture is. The generation speaking and protesting now understands that because racism is so systemic and generations of white folks have benefited and continue to benefit economically from opportunities that were unavailable to people of color, if we are not anti-racist and do not actively lift up people of color, then the lack of action perpetuates a system that prevents people of color from accessing opportunities within our economic system, including within specific industries like the wine industry. So when we say that calling out an industry or society as racist is not productive or creates judgment of the individuals in it, how is that worse or more important than the harm caused to BIPOC?

  8. Tom Wark - July 9, 2020

    Thank you, Rebecca.

    I’m not suggesting that action is not needed. I’m suggesting that if action isn’t related to the very specific causes of underrepresentation then the action will be for naught.

    But to answer your question, I don’t need to indict the wine industry on false charges in order to also recognize the subjugation that blacks have historically suffered in America or to recognize the challenges they face today. In fact, in order to fully understand the challenges that blacks face today in terms of being better represented within the wine industry and tot take part in an effort to help remidy this, the only real choice is to try to understand the specific causes of their underrepresentation. Simply claiming and declaring “systemic racism” or “the wine industry is racist” is far to simple a response.

  9. Rebecca Stamey-White - July 9, 2020

    Thanks for sticking with me, Tom. I think we’re getting somewhere and appreciate the dialogue.

    I would challenge you to let go of the “false charges” and the “indictments” (that entire mindset of defending an industry against attack is unproductive – as you say, sticks and stones may break bones but words will never hurt an entire industry) and recognize that in order to fully understand the challenges and causes of underrepresentation you have to first recognize they are systemic and not unique to one particular industry (although this industry came out of Prohibition and was built on generational wealth obtained during the industrial revolution and beyond and less expensive startup costs than we have today). So, you already know the cause, you don’t need statistics or studies to understand the issue, but sure, studies would be great. So yes, it’s pretty simple – it all stems from the founding of this country on slavery and the failed reconstruction that came out of it, among the many other choices that this country made to prioritize the economic prospects of one group of people on the backs of the others.

    The solutions are more difficult, because they involve white people either voluntarily giving up what they have (unlikely), or (more palatable) going out of their way (and potentially being uncomfortable doing so) to think about how they can individually and collectively raise up BIPOC voices and talents, whether by investing in businesses, commiting to hiring a diverse work force, mentoring and promoting those people, etc. It’s a simple response, but involves a daily and sustained commitment that is hard to do, and may involve embracing different cultures, having to face an unpleasant history and being called names that go against individual identities of being good.

  10. Tom Wark - July 9, 2020

    Rebecca,
    Prior to writing anything on this topic I read, and read and listened. What I heard across the board was that the wine industry was racist. Not that it was siimply part of a larger problem of society-wide systemic racism. There is no other way to describe this other than an indictment—as well as a false charge, in my view.

    But if I’m wrong and the wine industry does, as has been said, have a serious racism problem, then someone needs to demonstrate how that is true and how that wine industry racism works. It’s the same for the identification of systemic racism. Simply saying systemic racism colors everything isn’t close to being enough. One must show how the system is racist and show the dynamics of that system’s racism. Unless this is done, then workable solutions will not be present.

    This is why facts, figures, studies and knowledge is important. Equally important, if I am right and if the wine industry is not itself racist in a way specific to the industry, then ignoring the charge of racism will absolutely lead to the solidification of that charge in peoples minds when it it is unwarranted. Words mean things. Words are passed from person to person and done so over time until they are more than words. They are truth.

    Finally, let me just address this: “it involves a daily and sustained commitment that is hard to do, and may involve embracing different cultures, having to face an unpleasant history and being called names that go against individual identities of being good.”

    I’m starting to believe there is an impression among the younger generations that the older generations just didn’t know about slavery and Reconstruction and the Klan and Jim Crow and redlining and etc, etc, etc. An entire historical re-evaluation of these events and things occurred specifically by the Boomer generation that sharply criticized the apologists of earlier years that tried to teach that the Civil War, for example, was about “states rights”. The point is that the younger generation is late to the Understanding Party because they are the younger generation. The unpleasant history is well understood by boomers and GenXers.

    I spent 6 years doing nothing but studying American history. That history and the history of slavery is well understood. So, with the greatest amount of respect I can muster, the statement that we may need to deal with “embracing different cultures, having to face an unpleasant history and being called names that go against individual identities of being good” strikes me as a bit of a word salad. Before people are to be called uncomfortable names and before the idea of “good” is redefined, we probably want to have a discussion of exactly what all that means, rather than simply accept it from a generation that has already mistaken older generations for those that somehow missed history class and are only now being enlightened.

    Thank you…..Rebecca. You have a good and sturdy soul.

  11. Rebecca Stamey-White - July 9, 2020

    Tom, thank you for continuing to engage even though we may almost be testing each other’s patience (although it’s true, I am a sturdy (and persistent!) soul and I see a common soul in you). I’m learning from this conversation where the gaps are and I hope you are too. I also recognize that we would probably agree about most things, so in many respects, we are arguing about semantics, but, back to it…

    I would never intend to suggest that you or anyone else in other generations missed history class (excepting the youngest – they know nothing, obviously). You lived it, and I am well-aware that the generations that preceded me effected many of the cultural shifts and changes that we enjoy and build on today. I am also a history major and was raised by boomers who lived to tell the tale.

    What I am suggesting is that you are compartmentalizing the history by saying it is separate from any charges of racism today. My understanding from what you’ve written (please, correct me if I’m misinterpreting) is that if someone is to level a racism charge against the wine industry, they must support it with numbers, studies, figures, etc. related to specific racist policies, instances, laws, structures, practices that are keeping black people from joining / staying in the wine industry that would justify the charge of racism. If those concrete examples are not known, the charge of racism is invalid and until we study and identify specific problems, only then can we solve them.

    My response is that your framework is problematic because it ignores what we know to be true already. I’m not opposed to expanding knowledge, but my point is that we do not need more information to determine whether the wine industry has a diversity problem and how to solve it. We can just look at the history and the story is clear (this does not suggest that you don’t know the history). The industry was started by mostly white men, who hired mostly white men, and more recently, started hiring white women. The lack of diversity means that the wine industry has not prioritized diversity, so does not attract diversity and remains mostly white. Is this racist? I think you would say no, but I think we can agree that it is not anti-racist.

    As far as my “word salad” (which I will take as a compliment – I love a good salad), I’ll weave in a metaphor to try to make my point (hopefully not confuse you further). Addressing racism in America (including within the wine industry) is kind of like coping with Covid-19. To end the Covid-19 crisis, we need only follow my word salad:

    (1) Daily and Sustained Commitment: Individually eat well and exercise to stay healthy, wear masks, wash hands;
    (2) Embrace different cultures: Protect the most vulnerable populations and support communities in need;
    (3) Face an unpleasant history: Recognize that we may have contributed to this pandemic through overpopulation, industrialization, climate change, and that we may have to change our patterns to prevent this in the future;
    (3) Being called names: Hold each other and our communities accountable.

    By identifying those small things, I’m not saying you don’t know them to be true or that you missed the news coverage, but sometimes it’s good to have a list so that we don’t forget anything important. If everyone just did their part, the cases would go down and we could all go back to drinking wine in public places – pretty simple, right? But apparently hard in practice because people make mistakes, they don’t want to be inconvenienced, etc.

    Similarly, to get a more diverse wine industry, we have to do small things (summarized in my word salad), to change behavior. This means white people (who are in positions of power within the wine industry) must have:

    (1) Daily and sustained commitment: Diversity training, company policies, hiring practices, using awareness to inform how they engage with customers, colleagues, etc.;
    (2) Embrace different cultures: hire diverse people in a tasting room or on a sales team and market to different types of consumers, seek out diverse business partners and advisors;
    (3) Face an unpleasant history: not just know it, but face it, talk about it and make it a safe place for people to engage about the history and do better;
    (4) Being called names: being called racist may cause the industry to engage in these kinds of discussions to discuss how we want to be part of an industry that promotes opportunities for all, and doesn’t expect those previously excluded to figure out how to fit in (or explain what the problems are) but instead gives them opportunities to lead.

    In summary, it’s not about the proverbial you, it’s about holding each other accountable and making it safe for everyone. I appreciate you, Tom, for challenging me and having this discussion publicly, as I hope it will spur more productive discussions and awareness among your readers.

  12. Helene - July 10, 2020

    My goodness! I had no idea that an industry as ‘simple and complex’ as the wine industry would engender so much discussion on ‘racism’. Welcome to my world (the UK)! We have socio-economic inequality which some have deemed, ‘racist’. Reality check, please. In the working world (whichever sector) there are policies to prevent/control racism (not only blacks but also Asians, and other ethnic minorities who do not fit the ultra-traditional WASP-model).

    The problem in our society starts much earlier, even before school-age. Families tend to gravitate for socialising to people of the same backgrounds, so, of course, our kiddos tend to be close friends with those who live in the same neighbourhoods, go to the same (independent) schools, play the same sports (often only open to those with a fair amount of disposable income) and so forth and so on. Social equality isn’t even dependent on the same careers or the same jobs.

    But there are some initiatives to engender the idea that ‘Everyone matters’, and a few USA Universities have been making inroads for a couple (or more) decades. Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell Group could do more, perhaps, but how can you discover a great mind from lower or even lower-middle class non-selective secondary schools when there are no signposts, apart from national Exams? And then how does the University provide enough support pre-enrollment to have those students with ‘potential’ to be able to study completely independently with only one, or possibly two, 1-hour tutor sessions per week for the 12 weeks of the term? Of course, boys from Eton or Winchester, etc. or girls from Wycombe or North London Collegiate and the GDST schools will be prepared for what is expected at Uni, but most State School-sector children are not, most definitiely not, prepared for independent study at age 18. And, believe me, teaching in the State Sector is mostly NOT up to the level of the decent independent schools. A societal conundrum. For which I do not have any answers.

  13. tom merle - July 10, 2020

    If one wants to diversify society shouldn’t it begin with focusing on our companies and other associations particularly if we hold positions of authority?


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