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Waking up to the whiteness of the trade

Published:  25 June, 2020

I was invited to write this blog following an email I sent Harper’s editor Andrew Catchpole expressing my disappointment over the magazine’s silence on race and diversity in the UK wine industry in light of the global Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd.

I hesitated in agreeing. I’m not an expert or a journalist and I worried my white privilege and ignorance meant I would get it wrong. I still do. However, if my fear of saying the wrong thing means I say nothing at all then I am not an ally, I am the problem. So, I’m going to check my white privilege and just make sure I learn from my mistakes when I make them.

I sent that email because I wasn’t seeing any coverage on the race issue in the UK mainstream wine media. Ours is an industry where racism, sexism and elitism are no strangers at the tasting table and I thought no-one was talking about race at all. With just a little digging on social media however, my Instagram feed began to explode with an outpouring of outrage and solidarity from black wine professionals in the USA.

Watch wine writer, educator and consultant Julia Coney’s heartfelt Instagram videos on ‘Racism in the Wine Industry’(@juliaconey); read author and senior editor at Grape Collective Dorothy J Gaitor’s article ‘Being Black in the White World of Wine’, watch sommelier and founder of The Hue Society, Tahiira Habibi’s Instagram video (@sippingsocialite) on being asked to call her Court of Somms instructors ‘Master’ and listen to The Swirl Suite’s podcast on ‘Racism in the Industry’ (@swirlsuite).

Their championing of other black wine influencers ensued, including D’Lynn Proctor, Tanisha Townsend, Femi Oyediran, André Mack, Charles Springfield, Will Blackmon and Cha McCoy.

The reality is that many people are talking about racism in the wine industry, but in the UK - other than Jancis Robinson - the mainstream wine media was not.

I am embarrassed by my lack of awareness, not only of so many of the prominent black wine professionals in the US, but of how few BAME wine professionals I know of working here in the UK – people like Iain McPherson, owner of Panda & Sons in Edinburgh (@thecocktailpanda), Mags Janjo of Roberson Wines (@magsjanjo) and Lawrence Francis, creator of the the Interpreting Wine podcast (@interpretingwine).

I spoke with McPherson about Panda & Sons, which has been included on The Worlds 100 Best Bars List. Iain is Scottish Korean and now owns four bars across the city. He told me: “As a person of colour, you always knew you had to be better than the rest to be recognised as you can’t be ignored if you’re the best at what you do.”

In 2020 he was awarded Innovator of the Year at the Imbibe Personality of the Year Awards. His ethos at Panda & Sons is to create a place where all ages and all people feel welcome - a mantra we would do well to heed.

I can count on one hand the number BAME customers I worked with as an on-trade sales rep in southern Scotland and as the hashtags #checkyourprivilege, #wemustdobetter and #whiteally trend off the chart, the whiteness of my industry experience, particularly in Scotland, is really hitting home.

At the time of writing this, Robinson stands alone in the UK press on having written about this issue. In her Financial Times piece on Sunday, titled Too white wine: Jancis Robinson on the industry’s diversity problem, she shares the successes and racist experiences of BAME wine professionals from a number of countries and discusses the industry’s lack of diversity as a whole.

I urge you to read her article and if you’re still not convinced that individual and institutional racism are alive and kicking in the wine trade, then I urge you to read the comments too.

Much attention has been given to sexism and women as a minority in the wine industry. Robinson has been instrumental in encouraging women to demand their seat at the table and progress to the top levels of the industry. She is an inspiration.

I strongly believe that seeing people who look like you in the industry, especially at the top level, is key to making you feel like you belong, whatever minority you are from.

Victoria James, beverage director and partner at prestigious New York restaurant Côte talks about her difficulty in constantly being compared to a group of “pale, stale, male” people as she advanced in her career and in finding mentors and peers that would support in her Vinepair Podcast episode Staring down sexism in wine. These points are relevant for all minorities, not just women.

Robinson’s article, meanwhile, asks the crucial question: “What should be done to make the wine world more inclusive?”

There is a consistent message that people from the BAME community are fed up being asked by well-meaning white people what they can do to be less racist. As white professionals in the drinks trade, we need to look inwards, reflect, listen, learn and take some real action.

Change has already begun. In the US, Tahiira Habibi shared her experience of the Court of Master Somms instructors insisting on being referred to ‘Master’. The Court has since announced it will be discontinuing this practise, which had already led to two members, Richard Betts and Brian McClintic, resigning.

‘Black Wine Professionals’ is a new resource highlighting black professionals in the US wine industry and will be launched by Julia Coney on 30 June. Closer to home, Robinson and Janjo are in the development stages of an equivalent UK resource that will include a directory of UK BAME wine professionals. Get in touch if you’d like to be included.

The pair are also in discussions with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust on the establishment of specific bursaries for WSET courses.

A UK Wine Industry Diversity Survey has been created by Robinson and Janjo with the help of Gus Gluck of GB Wine Shippers who says he hopes that the data collection will “help quantify the shortcomings of our amazing industry and give a structure to policy that grows from it”.

If you haven’t already filled it out, please do so - and perhaps our industry trade bodies could be lobbied to fund further research.

What else can be done?

Ideas from James at Côte include tuition fee free education for minorities, internal mentoring programmes to build staff up from within and the training of sommeliers and waiting staff not to let stereotypes and preconceptions affect their wine recommendations (a common example being the automatic offering of sweet wines to black customers).

These are ideas that could be implemented relatively quickly and easily and without huge cost.

Other ideas include: clear career progression routes; a strong no tolerance policy on discrimination (supported and implemented at management level); the extending of industry tasting and event invites to minority professionals unlikely to be offered the same access as white people; and working with schools and colleges career advice programmes to talk to BAME students about careers in the wine industry.

The same stories are being told over and over again of minorities being poured less wine in their glass at tastings, of customers asking for the ‘real’ sommelier if their sommelier is black, of being mistaken for waiting staff because of skin colour. In 2020 there is simply no excuse for this. If charity begins at home, then so too must anti-racism.

With that in mind, I have set up an Instagram account called @drinklusive as a starting point for dialogue and action. I am reaching out to those in the trade with a strong focus on quality wine and drinks and a desire to improve inclusivity to try and start a dialogue. If you have ideas and want to get involved, then please DM me or follow the account.

Wine faces more competition than ever from other categories in the drinks sector. The print media is fighting to keep paying subscribers. The Covid-19 pandemic means the hospitality sector is having to find new ways to work to survive. What better time for real change. Diversity should be a goal and not just a buzzword

Nap time is over – it's time to get woke.

Susan O’Neill has worked in the wine business since 2011, in various sales roles for companies including Alliance Wines and Bibendum, and is currently with natural wine bar Vin Cru in Glasgow.