Responsibility in the Wine Industry

“Our most protective urges are almost always saved for our family first. Blood relations or otherwise, our immediate family tends to be the folk we are quickest to rise up and protect and defend when treated unfairly, threatened, or intimated in wrongdoing. 

“Why this is the case is unimportant to me. Why our protective urges are on greatest display when family is involved may have many explanations. All I do know is that I would leap into a boiling vat of hot COVID-19 if my family were under attack and so would you.

“However, there are other, perhaps less immediate forms of family that often come in for the same protective treatment. These families are usually the community of people that have supported us, long been part of our lives and who have been at our side during our success and failures. For me, the wine and the broader alcohol industry has been my extended family for 30 years now. It is within this community that I have matured, met most of my very best and closest friends, and that I have taken into account as I planned out my life. My urge to protect it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who understands the nature of family.”

This was part of the response that I wrote and sent off to a relatively younger but enthusiastic and accomplished member of the wine industry who sent me an email that, in part, read this way:

“Why do you continue to use your voice and position to attempt to undermine the ongoing efforts to reform wines and rid it of it’s systemic racism and misogyny. You come off at best as the old white guy more concerned with your privilege than justice and at worst as the supporter of white supremacy.” 

The writer was referring to a few different articles here at FERMENTATION that have dealt with the current cultural moment including:

IS THE WINE INDUSTRY RACEST?

THE EVOLUTION OF SOCIAL JUSTICE WINE WRITING

THE QUESTION OF CANCEL CULTURE AND FEMININE WINE

The above question, with its interpretations of my motivations, is a legitimate one, particularly in light of the fact that my recent posts concerning the racial and gender context of the wine industry have been among the few that appear skeptical of, or question what appears to be, a widely accepted narrative. One dismisses and questions the prevailing wisdom at their peril. Yet, it must also be true that one fails themselves when they unquestionably embrace that wisdom.

The three articles listed above must be seen as a small defense (and even a protective one) of the industry I refer to as my family. This I recognize. What they should not automatically be seen as, however, is evidence of privilege, an embrace of white supremacy or written with nefarious intent. They are responses. They are long-form questions. They are requests for consideration. And they are offered in good faith.

When the talented Tahiirah Habibi, Sommelier and founder of the Hue Society, describes the trauma she felt in having to join her peers in addressing instructors at The Court of Master Sommeliers as “master”, I take her at her word that this was her experience and that she offers this insight as her perspective on where the black wine community is today. I assume no more than what she told us before thinking about and analyzing her perspective.

When I read the accomplished distiller, educator and hospitality professional Jackie Summers describe the various onerous hoops all applicants for a distillers permit must jump through as a means to “disenfranchise people of color”, “chicanery” and an example of “systemic oppression” I take him at his word that this perspective is offered as an expression of his love for the industry and as an effort “to create spaces for those who have been disenfranchised”, despite the fact that I don’t agree with him.

When I read esteemed sommelier Richard Betts declare that use of the words “feminine” and “masculine” to describe elements of wines is “offensive”, I take him at his word that he’s come to this opinion based on his notion that these words can cause “great damage”. I don’t have to agree with him and I can even offer a counter without assuming bad intentions on his part.

But my younger colleague also had more to say in their email that deserves a response:

“If you can’t see the systemic racism that infects the [wine] industry perhaps it is because you are not touched by the pervasive racism and you should probably be quiet about it now and let those that can see it take over. You have a career that I think is distinguished and reading you taught me a few things, but do you really think you have any right to question the systemic racism in this industry?”

Again, the question is legitimate. If a large crowd is convinced of a claim and willing to repeat the claim over and over again, is there really any warrant to question or examine the claim, particularly if my racial identity is not part of the subject of that claim? I made my case to the colleague.

“But, I am touched by the claims that the wine industry is infected by systemic racism. This is my industry and my second family as much as it is anybody else’s. The claim that wine is systemically racist is a very big claim that might be true, but because of the size of this claim it’s not unwarranted to ask for very big evidence or very big explanations for the truth of the claim.

“What system in wine is racist? is it the distribution or pricing or production or marketing systems that are biased or racist and if so, how? By what mechanism is that racism imposed upon people of color? What evidence of this systemic racism should we expect to discover if we look for it? Is that evidence merely a matter of minority underrepresentation in various facets of the wine industry and if it is aren’t we talking about a society-wide or socioeconomic issue rather than a wine issue? Is the systemic nature of the wine industry’s racism found in discriminatory practices that run counter to the law? What role do culture and class and economics play in the underrepresentation of minorities in wine? 

“These questions are founded on skepticism, on a love for this industry and on a genuinely inquisitive mind that cares about the answers. There is no and ought not be any prerequisite of identity for asking these questions. So, yes, I not only think I have a right to question elaborate and serious claims of systemic racism within my industry, I actually think I have a responsibility to do so. Where those questions land me as to the legitimacy of the claims is where this kind of inquiry is supposed to end.”

Responsibility. Responsibility to myself and my industry family. That’s the nugget. That’s why I’ve written a few posts on these issues and likely will in the future. The issue of equality is the one that touches us all and the issue likely to stay bound to the wine industry for quite some time.

As actions are taken to address issues of equality in the wine industry and as discussions on this issue are had within the industry and among peers, it seems to be irresponsible to assign corners into which various members of this industry ought to be required to retreat. It seems more responsible to encourage as many members of the industry as possible to engage in this discussion in the fashion that best matches their educational proclivities and their points of view.

Inquiry and questions are legitimate forms of uncovering truth and process. They are not signs of nefarious intent, nor are they signs of a corrupt conscience. To suggest otherwise without evidence or intimate knowledge of another person’s mind is nothing more than a demand for acquiescence.

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  1. Jim Ruxin - December 10, 2020

    Tom–

    You do not have a racist bone in your body. If anything, you sacrifice your own oipinions to be faiur to others,

    The writer unfortuantely does no service to service to his cause with his ideological purity (without gioving details of course) that is what got Trump electted in the first place. He is merely playing identity politics instead of appealing the basic humanity of all people. He betrays his ideals with his insistance on an all or nothing to cultiural racism or insitutional racism in the broadest sense.

    If he reads your columns at all, he would know that you are always supporting thje buyer’s interests in a way that does not hurt the producer, and that you acknowledge that both are required to strive an equitable marketplace.

    If he is referring to influence of money in business and political connections, you have neither! So he is attacking you because it feels good, regardless of merit.

  2. Tom Wark - December 10, 2020

    Jim,

    It really wasn’t a matter of accusing me of racism. Rather, I was taken out for a woop’in because I inserted myself into the narrative in a way that didn’t sufficiently support the “systemic” narrative.

    Thanks,
    Tom…


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