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Diversity talk urges wine industry to own up to its privilege

Published:  22 October, 2020

Wine education to diploma level costs upwards of £10,000 – a number which has been used to highlight the issues involved in making the wine industry a more diverse and inclusive place.

This morning’s diversity and inclusion talk via the Winetraders spoke bluntly about the ways in which the wine industry, often the preserve of the white middle class, is skewed against BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) candidates.

“For me, the drinks industry is really about privilege and privilege is about money and opportunity,” said Michael Palij MW, who introduced the talk. “And I think that that’s something that we need to consider as an industry alongside the more obvious things like gender and skin colour.”

Led by Magnavai Janjo, the talk tackled difficult questions about what it means to be a non-white person operating in the industry today.

Drawing on his own experiences, Janjo spoke about “sticking out” in tastings, and called on the industry to continue the conversation around diversity and inclusion which reignited over the summer.

“When you look at the numbers, including the samples and travel, wine education gets pretty expensive pretty quickly. So, if we’re saying we want to make the industry more diverse, we need to understand the people we’re trying to help. This isn’t me saying that every white middle class person is privileged and every black or non-white person is not.

“But it’s acknowledging that there’s a skew towards one, and what we’re trying to do is to balance things. To even out the audience – level out the playing field – and support those who need help,” he said.

Inclusion should be about “empathy rather than sympathy” he added. It required companies taking an honest look at representation among their employees. Often this will involve reaching out to potential candidates for whom wine might not have been a cultural cornerstone. For many, he pointed out, wine often plays second fiddle to other types of drinks at meal times or family gatherings.

Privilege also isn’t just financial. Janjo gave the example of the difficulties that come with not owning a British passport.

“When I joined Winetraders, we were organising a trip to Italy and trying to book the tickets. Maybe a little naively, I didn’t understand what it meant for me to be able to travel to Italy.

"A British passport brings a lot of privilege. With a Cameroonian passport, you have to jump through several hoops.”

He was in the process of applying for a British passport at the time, which came through just in time for the trip. As soon as he landed however, he was pulled over by airport staff.

“Over a quarter of the trips I’ve taken, my bags have been taken and searched,” he said. “It was a real knock on the head.”

Cameroon-born Janjo has worked in the industry for over ten years after finishing his education in the UK.

One of his first roles was at Majestic Wine, where he became head of sales, before moving across to Roberson Wine. Recently, he set up his own company, while collaborating regularly with Winetraders, an importer and distributor.

He also recently co-founded the Bame Wine Professionals with Janics Robinson MW. The initiative aims to support and highlight the work of existing members in the trade while offering “a gate” to those who would like to pursue a career in wine, but might think the industry isn’t for them.

It began after the Black Lives Matter movement, during the height of lockdown, put a spotlight on non-white people working in the wine industry.

Janjo said: “At that time, Jancis was trying to write an article highlighting high functioning BAME members of the trade. She wouldn’t mind me saying this – she couldn’t find half a dozen people of colour. That’s a problem.”