Ever since she was a kid, Justin has loved being around wine. Having grown up with two wine lovers as parents and even being named after Justin Wine, when it came to college applications, she did some research to see which schools out there might turn a passion for wine into a career. The search was fruitful, and before she knew it, she’d packed her bags and moved from Washington DC to California, to study wine business at Cal Poly.
While studying, she had the opportunity to travel abroad, to Adelaide, Australia. Next, while looking to hone her skills, she secured an internship with Lumen Wines, in Santa Barbara County. She fell in love with the winemaking side of things and graduated to become assistant winemaker. At 25 years old with five years’ winemaking experience behind her, she’s embarked upon what is already an impressive career.
Justin is also an activist. Together with her friend and fellow Black woman winemaker, Simonne Mitchelson, they wrote an open letter to the wine trade and as a result have raised almost $15,000 for their local community organisation for racial equality, R.A.C.E. Matters SLO; a “Black-led, grassroots multiracial organisation formed in response to the killing of unarmed Black men by law enforcement.” [Link to donate is here.] It doesn’t stop there: she’s also working on a new nonprofit wine project that’s still under wraps, but from which the goal will be to collaborate with natural winemakers to create one-off sustainably farmed low intervention wines, while raising money for charities that combat racism and inequality.
She is also an avid nature and animal lover, gardener and sustainability advocate. Justin is an inspiration. Here’s her story.
JUSTIN & Christina Rasmussen of LITTLEWINE spoke over Skype. Photography by Eric Deshawn Lerma.
LITTLEWINE: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Justin. How did you first get into wine?
JUSTIN: I'm actually named after Justin Vineyards up in Paso Robles, so wine was always in my future. I’m 25 years old, and am a fourth generation native of Washington, DC. I grew up with a love for food; my parents really cultivated that. I grew up going out to fancy restaurants, eating escargots and listening to my parents talk about wine. I studied abroad in middle school - in France and Spain - and just fell in love with the culture. When it was time to start looking for colleges, my mom Googled wine schools and she found Cal Poly, so I came out here to California to visit, and I fell in love.
LITTLEWINE: What a cool mom! We feel like it’s still quite rare to realise that wine can be a career option at school. What was it like studying wine?
JUSTIN: Yes! When I started my freshman year at Cal Poly in 2013, I wasn't even 21 yet. It was really interesting to go into the industry as someone who can't necessarily indulge in wine... But Cal Poly started a Sip Class, where you're legally allowed to sip and spit in a classroom setting. Learning about sensory analysis allowed me to be able to learn so much more.
LITTLEWINE: What was your degree?
Justin: At Cal Poly, you have to choose your major before you enter your freshman year. I majored in Wine & Viticulture, with a concentration in Wine Business. In my junior year, I went to Adelaide, Australia. That was before I was 21. I knew I’d be 21 by the time I got back, so I began asking all my friends where I should apply. My very first job was in the tasting room at Tablas Creek - one of the most beautiful biodynamic vineyards. Cal Poly also requires that you take a quarter off - a ‘learn by doing’ a spect to your degree - to hone your skill. So, I went to this cool internship mixer put together by Cal Poly’s viticulture department. Adrienne Ferrara, one of my professors, put together this incredible industry mixer where I had the opportunity to meet the illustrious Lane Tanner. She introduced me to Lumen, where I had my very first harvest job. I obviously loved it - because I'm still here five years later!
LITTLEWINE: Amazing. What’s it like working at Lumen?
JUSTIN: My boss, Lane Tanner, was the first independent female winemaker to start up in Santa Barbara County, in 1981. She was ahead of her game. Her model was always to pick earlier, for great acidity, not a lot of sugar, to make really age worthy wines. She’s the Princess of Pinot, and just a wealth of knowledge. We’ve even put ginger in one of the orange wines, instead of sulphur, as it’s an antioxidant.
When we met, we just clicked. And she was like, “gotta make sure you're 21 - ‘cause I need someone to work for me that likes to drink.” I was like, “okay - let’s do this, bring it on!” Wine is just so cool... Sometimes you take one-two hour lunches and sometimes you only have time for a 10-minute donut break, but I get to really teach my palate all the time. I also had the chance to work with Amy Butler of Ranchero Cellars - so I’ve worked with women for five years.
LITTLEWINE: Awesome. Do you think you’ll stay in Cali?
JUSTIN: I did a harvest abroad in 2019 in New Zealand. That was really fun. I got to teach myself a lot. I call it my sabbatical - I went and educated myself further. I’d like to be able to go and work abroad before I turn 30. Many people don’t realise that after you turn 30, it becomes that much harder to get a visa to go and work abroad. Argentina, Chile... maybe back to New Zealand. I’d also love to go to Europe - to France or Germany. There are so many things I want to do. I'm part of this really awesome group for any winemakers out there that want to get into wine and want to be able to go and work abroad, called Travelling Winemakers on Facebook. I found my NZ job there.
When I’m not working for Lane, I also work in the tasting room and I really like talking to people in the tasting room, taking them on tours, and interacting with people in the media. But winemaking is my passion. I could definitely see myself having my own label. I have a few different ideas. They’re all based around my family, based around Washington DC, once fondly referred to as Chocolate City. I just really want to be able to give back to my community. I want to be very present with regards to what’s going on. 2023 baby! When I’m done with student loans, then I can really start doing some stuff.
LITTLEWINE: Lots to look forward to! When we chatted on email, you mentioned you were doing some gardening. Is that a hobby?
JUSTIN: Yes. My love for nature really blossomed when I met my boyfriend. We've been dating for five years, and he's a biologist. When we first started going on dates, he would point out different plants, flowers, animals... That really sparked my interest. We started going on more hikes. When we moved in together, I got my first garden. We have mint, rosemary, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce, persimmon, I love radishes... I’m a succulent mom and have houseplants everywhere. I’m a city girl - you know, I didn’t go camping or hiking. So, when I came out to California, I was like... wow. Nature is cool.
LITTLEWINE: Nature IS cool! What have you learnt about nature from school, and from your work? Please can you tell us a bit about the vineyards?
JUSTIN: Going to an agricultural college, I already knew I wanted to do something outside, but it was my sophomore year where I became really interested in the environment. I got to work up in Davenport, just north of Santa Cruz, right on the water. I worked at this huge ranch called Swanton Pacific Ranch - where there are people working with cattle, forestry and agriculture. So even before I was making wine, I got to work in pumpkin patches and orchards. I helped to put together irrigation systems and make sure places stayed healthy and thriving.
At Lumen, we only source from sustainable and biodynamic vineyards. We make sure that they appreciate their land, and I really enjoy the fact that Lane has created all these different relationships with the vineyard owners, so we get to learn their stories. They don’t use pesticides, they use bird boxes throughout the vineyards, and employ techniques like gentle pruning. They’re very hands-on, and we get to have a say in the farming, too.
I definitely want to work in the vineyard at some point in my life. I think that’s so important - everything starts in the vineyard. There’s nothing like harvest. Picking each cluster, listening to it fall into your bucket... going back to the winery and squishing that fruit... It's like magic at its purest form. It really is.
Presqu’ile is this beautiful winery that also has an acre of garden. They do farm-to-table mezze boards of all their produce from there. Everything tastes so fresh and is so beautiful. Another vineyard we have worked with is called Camp Four, and it’s owned by the Native Chumash Tribe of Santa Ynez. There’s a really cool winemaker there – Tara Gomez, the first Native American female winemaker of the US. She makes Kitá Wines and her and her wife, Mireia Taribó, have a project called Camins 2 Dreams.
When we arrived at Camp Four, we saw hundreds of buffalo. As we walk down rows picking grapes, we can just sense the beauty. I think that’s what sustainability is about: making sure you have vines, animals and gardens together in the same place. We're guests here on Mother Earth: we have to treat Her right.
LITTLEWINE: We do! Speaking of treating people right, many cases of racism in the wine world have come to light recently. As a Black Woman in the wine industry - which remains very white - how has it been for you?
JUSTIN: There are so many great things about the wine industry; there are so many great people that I've met, and so many awesome supporters. But, there are a lot of people that really hesitate, and a lot of people that don't want to see me thrive. I do get daily microaggressions. I have a huge afro, people will say to me, “wow, your hair is wild today.” I think they mean it positively, but it doesn’t sound like that to me. My hair is an extension of me - my hair is not me. There are these underlying meanings. It’s the same with clothes, and what I wear. I’m a large Black woman, I’m short and I’m cute, but I’m not what people’s idea of a winemaker is. I’ll be working in the winery and someone will come in and say, “where’s the winemaker? We’d like them to move this, or we need to talk to them about that...” and I’ll be like, “I'll be right over, like - I’m here, I'm coming!”
I experience a lot of gaslighting - I try to talk about my feelings, and people won’t acknowledge them, or they’ll try to make them seem less important than they are. But then there are people like you—and people who actually want to listen to me—and who want to better themselves and who see me feel better.
The Black wine community is like nothing else - we come together and really want to see ourselves thrive, and there’s so many allies. There’s this really cool woman named Ashtin Berry who says,
“All of your faves are problematic.”
That’s so important to state. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody is constantly learning. I’m constantly educating myself, just like you’re constantly educating yourself. The wine industry is educating itself, but some people are putting in more effort than others and that really does show. The letter that my friend Simonne Mitchelson and I wrote - we wrote that letter out of necessity. We felt so hurt. San Luis Obispo, in all its beauty, is extremely white. Cal Poly, in all of its excellence, is extremely white. I went to a school that has less than one percent African American and Black students. And you know... that’s not okay.
It really sucks walking around and not seeing people that look like you. I faced a lot of racism at Cal Poly, and I know other people who faced a lot of racism at Cal Poly. They do need to work on that, just like the wine industry needs to work on it. I’ve heard stories of other Black students walking home to their dorms and hearing people from above making ape noises at them.
LITTLEWINE: That’s awful.
JUSTIN: Yes, girl. Crazy s&*t, and a few years ago there was an incident of Blackface on our campus. There are great things about Cal Poly, but there are terrible things about Cal Poly; and I love Cal Poly with all my heart! It is working on bettering themselves - there are communities for Black people, Indigenous people and People of Color, but there aren't enough of us and the organizations are still small. Simonne and I are currently speaking with Cal Poly and working on setting up partial and full scholarship programs for students in agriculture, specifically for wine. I was the only Black student in wine while I attended. There is one Black student now in wine and viticulture. It’s going to take some time for there to be 20 or 30 Black students. But I’ve got time. I’ve got patience - I want to be a mentor and to help people along, and to be there for them.
LITTLEWINE: Change needs to happen. We saw the letter that you addressed to the wine trade in the wake of the tragic murders of Black people in the US. It was very powerful. Please tell us more about it?
JUSTIN: It’s been 167 days [from date of publication, 5th September 2020] since Breonna Taylor was killed. George Floyd was killed more recently. It’s been a year since Elijah McClain was killed. It’s been five years since Sandra Bland was killed. We still haven’t seen change. I feel like I'm finally starting to see real actual change because people have been stuck inside. People have had nothing to do, so they look to learn and to educate themselves. I can’t tell you how upset I have been over these past few months; I was really overwhelmed. I was going to take a few days to go away and to recenter myself, because I think harmony is really important, but then a friend reached out to me.
I had been at this really amazing Santa Barbara woman winemaker event - Santa Barbara is one of the larger woman winemaker regions in California - shout out to Santa Barbara County! - when this really bad-ass lady walked up to my booth and started chatting to me. Her name is Simonne. She was like,
“Hey, I know we just met each other, you know, like that song - this is crazy, but here's my number, and let's f*&king dismantle racism.”
So, as I was about to go on this trip, she contacted me. I thought, this is my turning point. I could have been like, Oh no, you know, I'm about to go on this trip. I can't really cope. But no. I was like, f*&k this. I'm going to regret it if I don't actively do something. So, I said,
“Simonne, what can I do?”
We realised that we’d be doing a disservice to ourselves and to our community if we didn’t speak out. So, we wrote this letter out of anger, pain and sadness. We did it right in the thick of things [at the start of June], when a lot of people were becoming aware of the mistreatment of Black people. We started a Google doc, and we put in all of our ideas. We got all of our homies to help, and two days later we had a letter. We chose our local organisation to support. There are all these big organizations like Campaign Zero or the Minnesota Freedom Fund, who have been getting loads of money, which is incredible, but we figured it's important to start local. We thought about starting with $1,000, but then we looked at a map and thought—well if ten wineries donate a hundred dollars, we’ll get a thousand, so maybe we should ask for more. So, we asked for $5,000. In under 24 hours, we had exceeded $5,000, and then we exceeded $10,000. And then we got all the way up to $14,500—to go to R.A.C.E. Matters SLO. It was so awesome. My heart was so full of joy. But did we doubt ourselves every step of the way? Yes. Was I afraid that I was going to get Blacklisted? Yes. I was so scared, you know, but I'm so happy I did it. There are a lot of people that didn't respond to our email, but a lot of people that did respond to our emails. It was so great because we had all these wineries showing support, with people talking about new diversity actions and actively working to do better, but it was a bit overwhelming. I'm not a social media influencer. I want to be able to respond to everyone and to help everybody educate themselves, but that’s also taking a lot of my energy as well. To all the companies that reached out in support and making real change, make sure to continue to work towards bettering your companies.
LITTLEWINE: It can’t be easy suddenly having dozens of emails come into your inbox.
JUSTIN: Yes. Do your own research. Ask, by any means, but allow Black people, People of Color and Indigenous people to take their time in responding. Because you might not realize it, but they have so many people asking them the exact same thing. I’m so excited that everyone wants to educate themselves but not everyone can lean on me. It’s been really crushing in a lot of ways, and people should be paid for their advice. Many of my friends have started to ask for that.
LITTLEWINE: Yes. It’s also up to white people to do the work. We can’t expect that just because someone is Black, they should do the work for the entire industry. Maybe white people are worried about saying the wrong thing or doing something wrong, but by not doing anything at all—that is wrong. We’re acting while learning, and we put our hands up if we say something wrong and apologise.
JUSTIN: Yes. And Blackness is not a monolith. I am not the spokeswoman for all Black people. I am the spokeswoman for me, while at the same time trying to raise other Black voices.
People have said, “oh your Instagram’s changed.” I’ve blocked people, and I’ve had people follow me that I haven’t talked to since I was a kid—people who sort of bullied me at school; who were sort of racist to me. They were mean, and it’s triggering to see those people follow you. It makes me think—are you following me to check up on me? Are you following me to try to apologise for all the pain and the sadness, and the insecurities and the self-doubt you put me through? That’s me and my own personal insecurities and my own childhood traumas and silences. I’m actively working on dismantling all of that.
LITTLEWINE: We’re so sorry you went through that.
JUSTIN: Yeah, it’s a daily process. You have to take each day with grace. You have to be easy on yourself – everybody, not just Black people. We’re doing so much, we’re working so hard, we’re trying to be the best person we can be. We have to give ourselves a break. Since the letter happened, on my days off, I have awesome interviews like this. But I do have quite a few of them, so I also make space for myself here, and make sure to have a sip of wine there. But this is the most joy and excitement I’ve felt in a really long time. I really feel like I’ve found my purpose, and I feel very thankful for that. The fact it had to happen this way is so sad, but we’re going to dismantle this system together. It starts with us—with opening up your eyes and trying to actively make a difference.
LITTLEWINE: Yes. Action and support. Are there any other companies or people working to promote Black voices who you know or follow that you’d like to tell us about?
JUSTIN: I didn’t meet another Black person in the wine industry until 2019—I had been in passing with other Black people, but we’d never had the chance to talk. It took four years—and I had to go abroad to New Zealand—before I made my first Black friend. His name is Marlon Noble, he’s the sweetest man ever.
It’s not okay that it took me four years to meet another Black person in this industry.
So many parts of the wine community are great, the Black wine community, the Black hospitality community and the Black spirits community have stepped up, and really made active change.
It’s still in the works, but I’m also working with a group of people to create a group called Natural Action Wine involving art. It will be a non-profit wine club, where we will work with natural winemakers and fruit from sustainable vineyards. The proceeds will go to different Black Lives Matter organisations. We’ll be releasing the website soon.
LITTLEWINE: That is SO EXCITING. We can’t wait to hear more.
JUSTIN: Yes :-) And in terms of people to follow and to learn from - Ashtin Berry, who I mentioned earlier - put together this badass event called the Radical Xchange. It’s a beverage and hospitality conference that has Black People, People of Colour, Indigenous People, Queer People, all at the forefront, talking about really important topics in hospitality. They are actively making radical changes happen and talking about hard-hitting topics that nobody else talks about. I met one of best friends Erica Christian at the Radical Xchange event, she is a talented Sommelier based out of DC. Larissa Dubose and Regine Rousseau are two of my biggest supporters, I am so thankful for them. I was introduced to these two amazing ladies at an event last October called Dream Big Darling. I am so thankful for Simonne Mitchelson coming into my life earlier this year; she has been a guiding light in my dreams, needs, and education.
Julia Coney is also amazing. She is a wealth of knowledge - so smart and such a leader. I hope to one day have the courage to reach out to her. Her and a group of wine professionals put together Black Wine Professionals.There’s also Wine Unify. Black Brewer, Marcus Baskerville, released an amazing initiative called Black is Beautiful.
Tahiirah Habibi of The Hue Society is so awesome and has been a great mentor. I actually found her through her earrings, Statements by Habibi! If I wasn’t in my robe and bonnet right now, I’d be wearing her earrings. She is doing so much for the wine industry. She’s calling people IN, and she’s educating people to make sure they don’t f*&k up anymore. She makes people realise what’s actually going on.
Events like Radical Xchange are by Black people for Black people. But white people, please show up. It’s all fine and dandy for Black people to be out here, educating ourselves, and doing all this work, but you all have to do it too. People need to feel comfortable coming to these events. It probably feels how it feels for Black people going to most wine events. When I walk into big wine tastings with hundreds of people and I’m the only Black person, and nobody’s talking to me—well, if you do see a Black person, be nice. We’re so nice! Don’t say all this “I don’t see color” stuff.
LITTLEWINE: 100%. We watched the Somm Con & Diversity in Wine’s seminar Panel, “Unheard Voices in Wine” - featuring all Black speakers. Lia Jones’ commented on the microaggression of white people saying they can’t see colour. She said, “When you say you don’t see colour, what that means to a Black person is that yes - we agree that you don’t see colour. We don’t see colour on your board of directors, amongst your employees, panellists, judging competitions, leading competitions. But this - this is a panel full of colour.” That was so powerful. It is vital that people learn what is unacceptable to say—and to do.
JUSTIN: Yes! I was once at an event about to have an interview, and suddenly I felt this hand coming up behind me and someone touched my hair, and said, “oh your hair looks so great.” I turned around and it’s this woman I don’t know. I was just in shock. The person interviewing me was in shock. They should have spoken out, but maybe they just weren’t ready yet. Maybe they didn’t know what to say yet. I’m not blaming them; I’m blaming the person who came and touched my hair. But yeah, that was the worst interview of my life.
That wasn’t even the first time it had happened. I remember once when I was studying at Cal Poly, in the library - my favourite place to study - with my head in the books, learning about soil samples. And I felt someone come and touch my hair, and I turned around and this girl’s jaw dropped. She said, “Oh my God, I thought you were my friend.” I was still more shy back then, in my sophomore year, trying to assimilate - to fit in - trying not to create waves, but then I realized we need to make waves. I’ve grown so much, and I’ve been working on my own internalised racism and my own internalised fear. You have to be able to acknowledge that, to work on it, to build from it and to grow from it.
LITTLEWINE: That is so inappropriate, and such an invasion. So sorry you had to go through that. In the wine trade, if enough of us do something, things will begin to change. That’s exciting, because you and I will grow up with it.
I have a 14-year-old brother, and I fear for his life all the time. I’m pretty sure when Elijah McClain was killed last year, I saw it, I was upset and then I forgot about it. When I look back now, I'm so mad at myself that I forgot about that because when it resurfaced it was my brother’s 14th birthday, and my parents sent me a photo and he was in the exact same shirt. They’re the spitting image of each other. That shouldn’t be the only thing that makes a difference, though. Care for Black people because you care for Black people.
I have some thoughts that are really important:
Stop putting us in an environment where we’re being set up to fail. Black people often have to tolerate white complacency, so acknowledge the hostility of a lot of work environments.
Believe Black people. When we tell you something's up - I can't tell you how many times I go into a restaurant, or I go into a winery, or I go into a store, and I know that the employees are looking down at me; and they're like, what’s she in here for? I know she can't afford this. People doubt me. It takes me 15, 20 minutes when I'm in the tasting room sometimes to get people to want to listen to what I have to say. And then I always have these buzzwords - I talk about New Zealand, Australia, Spain, winemaking... and then they’re like oh, she knows her stuff. Meanwhile, there are other people out there, making up s&^t and they don't have to give you their credentials. Believe us.
I was racially targeted recently - I had to have the oil in my car changed, asked a few questions, and the employee asked me why I was being aggressive. I wasn’t being aggressive. I said, “are you saying I'm aggressive because I'm a Black woman?” His jaw dropped and he said no. There was also a Black man working there. He didn’t say anything, and just stood there.
Black men, stand up for Black Women! We’re constantly standing up for you.
The white employee told me to get out. So, I had to go all the way across town and get an oil change somewhere else. I had to totally reroute my boyfriend who was supposed to pick me up from an oil change that was supposed to be $35, and instead was $150 dollars. I had to pay all this money - my voice was still growing; it wasn’t as powerful as it is today; and it crushed me. Black people do that all the time. We actively go to places that we know appreciate and respect us, but sometimes it means we have to pay all this unnecessary money.
LITTLEWINE: And take loads of time out of your day...
LITTLEWINE: We’re just so sorry that you have to experience all of that. It's just really s&^t.
JUSTIN: I’ll end with one really cool thing: Your favourite healer is still healing. Do yourself and do them a favour; move them from their pedestal and pray for them as well as honour their humanity and their spiritual gifts. Allow them to grow as a person as well. Manage expectations, and don’t interrupt your own peace, because you have to be able to find peace, but don’t hide in your peace. A lot of people on my feed say, “peace and love only,” but peace and love only will make no change.
Change starts with radical action. Keep up with injustices and dismantle racism daily. Are you uncomfortable? That's good. Just because the media isn't distressing does not mean our communities have justice. Sign petitions, make calls, write emails, letters, hire Black people, pay Black people. If you're truly invested in anti-racism and collective Black liberation, put your money where your mouth is. Defund the police, arrest the murderers who killed all of these people throughout the years. There’s just so much. It starts with us.
LITTLEWINE: Yes. There is so much wrong in the world. The wine world can drastically improve.
JUSTIN: Yes, let’s shatter that glass, right?
LITTLEWINE: Yes. It’s so inspiring listening to you and getting to meet you - we only hope it can be in person someday soon - so we can hang out and drink wine!
JUSTIN: Yes! I can’t wait, we’ll have a bonfire at my house. We can hang out with my little rat babies [side note: Justin has the cutest pet rats, and we got to meet them on Zoom]
LITTLEWINE: TOO excited! Speaking of rat babies and bonfires, what do you like to do when you’re not working?
JUSTIN: I love horror movies; I love drinking wine - I know that’s still wine related but going out and drinking wine and chilling with people is different to working in wine. I love to cook - I’m not going to lie, I’ve been really depressed during all of this, but I didn’t realise it until I noticed that I hadn’t cooked for two weeks. Cooking is one of my loves. It’s one of my passions. It makes me feel good. It’s generational; my mom does, my family does; if you want to learn about African American cooking and Black cooking, I recommend you buy Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin. It’s one of my favourites - on Juneteenth, all of the recipes I made were inspired by that book. That's a great transition to segue into buying Black, and continuing to buy Black.
LITTLEWINE: We’re on it - can’t wait to get the book and to keep supporting Black businesses.
JUSTIN: Yes, and don’t just buy Black now - Black people will keep creating more art. Continue to buy their work. My friend, Eric Deshawn Lerma, is a Black, Latinx, Queer person and they’re really sweet. They’ve just started their own photography business.
LITTLEWINE: Amazing, thank you. Please put us in touch with Eric; we’d love to see their work. And thank you for your time, Justin, it was a pleasure to e-meet you, and we can’t wait to meet you sometime in the future.
JUSTIN: Of course - it's always a great day to dismantle racism. It's been a great day to meet you as well, Christina, I look forward to chatting again soon.