Do you ever wonder what it might feel like to be a Black man working in wine, an overwhelmingly white- and male-dominated industry? You may not see me — or people who look like me — very often. Black professionals make up just 2 percent of the drinks industry, despite accounting for more than 13 percent of the U.S. population. So I’m here to tell you: Even though I stand out, I often feel invisible.
During my past seven years working as a sales representative for a major distributor, I’ve had plenty of great experiences. But, I’ve also missed out on trips, tastings, and supplier-related events that have been available to my white colleagues. When I think of a quote that encapsulates my experience, one from American novelist James Baldwin comes close: “I can’t trust what you say because I see what you do.” By this, I mean it has been nearly impossible for me to be taken seriously, to excel, and to gain recognition. It is hard for me to believe the wine industry truly wants diversity when I rarely see people of color in leadership roles.
The disparities between my experience and that of my coworkers largely comes down to the wine industry’s lack of inclusion. You have to be in the room to be recognized. Think back to the tastings you’ve attended, to the wineries you’ve visited. How many Black men were there? Probably none. Writer J’Nai Gaither recently shed light on the casual racism found in Napa tasting rooms, but BIPOC professionals have to endure racism and bias throughout the industry, including the off-premise environment that I work in.
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BIASES AMONG CONSUMERS — AND PROFESSIONALS
As a sales rep, before Covid hit, I’d typically spend part of every week preplanning the most effective way to visit my accounts, to discuss sales with each store or department manager. A lot of decisions for promotional programs and brands displays happen on a corporate level, but my relationships with these local managers increases the opportunity for items “not on plan” to still be featured somewhere in the store.
I build and maintain case displays that sometimes exceed 30 to 60 cases. At every account, I interact with customers — or at least that’s my goal. Anytime I’m on the floor, I greet customers and inquire if they need any assistance finding wine or any recommendations. I want nothing more than to help them find a great wine for their specific need. Yet I usually hear, “No I’m OK.” I wish I could say that customers decline the help of white men I’m often working alongside, but that’s not the case: I’ve found many customers to be prejudiced. They want help, but not from me, as if a Black man is incapable of having wine knowledge.
One method I’ve implemented is to follow up after the customer has declined my help. In whatever area of the shop they’re standing longest in, I’ll recommend a bottle nearby. More frequently than not, the customer will purchase a wine I’ve suggested, or they’ll finally engage to tell me what type of wine they’re seeking. It’s an exercise in frustration, though. I have to try so hard just to be heard by the customer, to give them a recommendation.
On the flip side, when I am the customer, be it at a restaurant or a fine wine shop, wine professionals show their overt or unconscious biases toward me almost immediately. If I ask a question about a white wine, I’ll be escorted to the sweet wine section, or to the bargain whites.
But no — I’m looking for the grower Champagne, that indigenous Italian wine from Puglia, or the excellent Bordeaux blanc-inspired wine from Australia. In order to be taken seriously, I have to prove myself, pulling out obscure producer names and regional information before a retailer will engage with me, and that’s just disappointing. The wine industry is full of intelligent people who can do better than relying on racially motivated stereotypes.
As a colleague, let me say to other wine professionals: It’s time to let go of your tired prejudices. Black men don’t just drink sweet wines, or cheap wines. Speaking from my experience facilitating wine tasting events, Black men do drink a broad range of wines. We are hungry to explore the world of wine; we just need wine professionals who are willing to take the time to explain it, in the same way that’s afforded to white customers.
BEING THE ONLY BLACK MAN IN THE ROOM
Over the years, I can easily count how many supplier-led or company-related events I’ve been invited to — it’s not many. While my white coworkers get invited to countless winery visits and industry events, I rarely do. And when I have been included, I’m often the only Black man present. One winemaker interaction last year was particularly eye-opening.
One day, I showed up at one of my retail accounts, and my coworkers had, unbeknownst to me, scheduled a winemaker visit. It was not standard protocol for me to be unaware of the visit, but I played along and was happy to interact with the winemaker, expressing my passion for her wine in our brief discussion. She invited me to dinner that evening, along with coworkers who had already been invited.
When I arrived at the dinner, my coworkers were conciliatory, acknowledging the mistake: “Vince, I’m so sorry. I did not know that they were going to your account today.” Looking around the table, everyone present was either a white woman or a white man, and somehow they all got invitations in advance. But inevitably that’s always the case — I’m a last-minute addition, if anyone invites me at all. This lack of inclusivity has discouraged me in so many ways.
I think back to the first time I ever saw a Black man taken seriously in the wine industry. It was DLynn Proctor in the “Somm” film. That was huge for me. Representation matters immensely and if you never see someone who looks like you making moves in places you could never imagine it makes it more difficult to garner interest in any field; the wine industry is no different.
In tired moments, I wonder why I pour my energy into an industry where gatekeepers often fail to recognize BIPOC and give us a seat at the table. But then my passion for wine takes over. I love wine and I know that I have a greater purpose being present in the industry than absent. My work in wine will help the next generation of Black men see that space exists for them here.
GAINING ACCESS TO OPPORTUNITIES
My BIPOC colleagues and I have largely been excluded from industry-funded wine events and regional wine trips. When I finally landed my first successful industry-related tour to the Napa Valley in 2019, that felt amazing. But it took nearly six years of inquiries to make it happen. Would it have taken a white wine professional half that time to be asked?
That’s the question at the root of several new non-profit organizations designed to help the industry advance on racial equity, including Black Wine Professionals, Wine Unify, and The Roots Fund. If a wine brand wants to hire or invite BIPOC talent, there’s no longer an excuse to say, “I don’t know any Black wine professionals.” Just go to the Black Wine Professionals website for a directory. To hire a wine intern from a diverse background, connect with The Roots Fund, which helps facilitate that job placement. For minorities looking to find a mentor locally, head to Wine Unify’s website to apply.
The resources exist for companies to recognize, hire, and recruit BIPOC talent. Now it’s time for the wineries, suppliers, distributors, sales teams, and management staff throughout this industry to step up and mandate actionable change. That means business models that require a diverse staff throughout the organization, including upper management. It means creating scorecards to publicly rate or rank companies each year on their DIP (diversity improvement progress), and to hold them accountable.
In an ideal world, companies will have minorities at the table at all levels within their businesses. Wineries will have BIPOC professionals working in the tasting room areas without being subjected to stereotypes or prejudices. Black wine professionals will be compensated equally to their white counterparts. Each of these environments will also be LGBTQIA+ -friendly as well, with regular staff trainings on unconscious biases. And Black men, like me, will no longer feel invisible.