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  • 07 February 2021
  • People and Inspiration

Wine's Diversity Activists

A fight for diversity and equality is long overdue in the wine world. Despite all the hardships it brought, 2020 saw leaps taken in the right direction. We hope that this article, which outlines the efforts by so many, will serve as a positive resource for change and inspiration.  

Mags Janjo, co-founder of https://bamewineprofessionals.co.uk/

Surveys are a crucial first step in outlining the need for action. In the UK, where LITTLEWINE is based, a Diversity Survey—pioneered by Mags Janjo, Gus Gluck & Jancis Robinson—reported that 86% of respondents identified as white. In the USA, in a survey carried out by SevenFifty Daily, 85% of respondents identified as white, with only 2% identifying as Black.  

Only 3% of respondents to the UK trade survey felt things are “fine as they are” with regard to diversity in the UK wine trade. But for too long, the hugely weighted seesaw of white people in wine have been (whether they realise it or not) sitting in their own comfort zone, otherwise known as their white privilege. 

The tragic and beyond unjust murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, combined with the confinement brought about by the coronavirus, meant that many began to research and educate themselves on ethnic and racial inequality in an unprecedented manner. Questions that felt awkward to ask were asked, and uncomfortable discussions were had. The result? A flood of honest, personal and harrowing accounts were published outlining the gravity of racism in the wine trade. 

One of the crucial topics raised was the fact that racism exists in many forms; obviously the outward, hair-raising and grotesque form as seen in TV documentaries led by the Louis Theroux characters of the world; but it also exists in much subtler forms, which can be just as hurtful, psychologically draining and damaging.

The first step in working towards a more inclusive future is the recognition of the following:

Gatekeeping

The practice whereby key industry figures guard their metaphorical doors. Instead of helping to break down doors for others from less privileged positions and backgrounds, they keep the door ajar only for them and for a certain, small group of ‘chosen’ people. These are often people that look like them; ie. white, whether consciously or via unconscious bias. It is rife in the wine industry. 

Gaslighting 

This is psychological manipulation. It exists in various formats. Most commonly, the perpetrator downplays the extent to which the victim has been emotionally hurt by an event or comment. The manipulator may question the victim’s memory of the event (or even invent things that didn’t happen) to the extent where the victim begins to doubt themselves. Being on the receiving end of gaslighting causes a lot of psychological trauma, low self-esteem, and in some cases the person in question may even begin to believe that they have been in the wrong, or somehow deserve the abuse. 

Microaggressions 

These are hurtful, damaging comments, statements or actions that are either indirect, subtle or unintentional, which discriminate against members of a marginalized group. For decades, underrepresented minorities in the world of wine have been subject to these comments in often acute doses. And for decades, white people have been oblivious to them, blinded by their own privilege. 

Imagine walking into a tasting room where nobody looks like you. You’re perhaps the only Black person, and people aren’t friendly. In some cases, they’re outright rude or inappropriate. Unfortunately, this is a familiar scenario to many Black members of the wine trade. Justin Trabue [whose own story you can read here] says, 

"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.

Justin Trabue, photograph by Eric Deshawn Lerma

“I don’t see colour” is a microaggression used often by white people. They might think it’s a way of phrasing that they aren’t racist, but in fact, it fails to acknowledge racial discrimination. In SommCon's seminar in July, “Unheard Voices in Wine,” which featured an all Black panel, Lia Jones explained,

“When you say you don’t see color, what that means to a Black person is yes - we agree that you don’t see color. We don’t see color on your board of directors, amongst your employees, your panelists, or in your judging competitions. But this - this is a panel full of color.” 

With pioneers like Lia speaking up, around the world others began to take action, too. In Glasgow, Suz O’Neill approached Harpers in June to ask why nothing had yet been published on the matter of racial inequality in the wine industry. She was invited to write a piece, and then also decided to start an Instagram page - Vinclusive - to grow a network of people in the drinks industry looking for ways to instigate positive change. As a white woman, she was aware that it was also up to white people to work towards a more inclusive future. Now, regular online Zoom meetings are held to provide a safe space for questions, honest discussions and networking.

Via these sessions, we were introduced to Anoushica Matthews, who works in wine sales at Liberty Wines in London. She told us her wine story:

Anoushica Matthews

While working at the River Cafe as a waitress, Emily O’Hare - the sommelier at the time - encouraged Anoushica when they were tasting wine together, giving her confidence with her palate. When they went on a company trip to Tuscany together, she became smitten. She remembers, 

“All of a sudden it just sort of snapped in my mind. I fell in love and thought - this is what I need to do. So, I got back to the River Cafe, Emily taught me WSET Level 2 and 3, and I began doing some junior sommelier shifts. Then, I saw Liberty Wines had an apprenticeship scheme.”

The apprenticeship offered the WSET Diploma, an opportunity to work in every area of the business, and two vintages. It sounded perfect. She applied and got the apprenticeship - a great achievement as nothing else in this vein is offered in the UK wine trade. She decided to pursue the sales avenue, and today she manages sales in South London which she loves. 

The lack of diversity in the industry became increasingly apparent to her. She remembers, 

“At my Diploma graduation, when I realised I was the only Brown person in the room, it just hit me. As an apprentice I had sort of been running around doing various jobs, a lot out in the trade. There’d be times at external tastings where people wouldn’t realise why I was there, and would second guess my knowledge, and then as I progressed, I started to notice more of it. Sometime is was like I had two personalities - my wine personality and my out-of-wine personality. I began to ask myself, why I am not confident being my authentic self? Is it to fit in, as I’m in an industry where there isn’t much representation of people who look like me?” 

She wanted to do something to open the door to the wine world; to make it more inviting and more friendly. She says,

“The natural wine world is more on the fun, young side, but there’s a lack of diversity there too. It can be very white and at times just as pretentious. I’m really into music as well - R&B and hip-hop, and I wanted to create something that bridged the gap. I wanted something that would be like a relaxed house party, while learning about wine in an informal setting - for people who like wine but don’t necessarily know a lot about wine.”

Her company, Sweet Spice, was born in 2019 as a POC led wine events platform to address this conversation in the industry. COVID or no COVID, the events run either physically at the Prince of Peckham, or online via Zoom. Speakers such as sommeliers Audrey Annoh-Antwi and Cha McCoy have presented wines, and the community is growing. Next, she’ll be launching an online wine shop listing wines made by Black winemakers and Winemakers of Colour, as well as wines loved and recommended by the Sweet Spice speakers. 

She’s excited about the future, saying,

“It’s been really cool to connect to more people with this shared goal. At one stage it felt a bit lonely, now it feels exciting and with so much support around.”

Tahiirah Habibi

In Florida, Tahiirah Habibi has had similar feelings. Having worked as a sommelier for many years, she has been subject to many injustices. One hotel offered her a job as a sommelier, then backtracked, asking her to trial as a bartender first, which she firmly declined (she got her sommelier position re-offered). She has also experienced second-guessing from customers many times, saying,

“At its core, wine is really about trust. It’s about people and it’s about trust. What the wine industry is telling us is that you don’t trust us - as Black people - to handle it. If I’m the sommelier, and I’m coming to your table and you send me away - if I have to prove something to you - that’s gross. I worked on a floor for many years and it’s a very common thing. I was talking to a girl that I mentor in Atlanta, and the same thing is still happening to her. It’s been eight years since I worked on the floor - we’re in 2020 now - but it’s still happening.”

She was frustrated, and didn’t want other people experiencing similar situations to feel alone. She wanted to build a community:

“My work is about uplifting people and creating a community. From there, we can start going into the economic aspects: how do we fight? Not meaning fight back, but how do we educate ourselves? How do we grow? How do we learn? How do we consume through our own experiences? And not necessarily the very uncomfortable space that we live in - having to assimilate or code switch into something else. That’s what the Hue Society society is based on. It's really about love and being centered within ourselves. From there, you can do anything, but when you're consistently the only one in a room, you don't feel like that room belongs to you. I think that’s unfair, so I changed it.”  

And change it she has. Not only is the Hue Society a thriving community of wine lovers, but Tahiirah also co-founded The Roots Fund together with Ikimi Dubose and Carlton McCoy Jr. It’s a non-profit that was created to empower the Black, Indigenous and LatinX community by providing resources and financial support through educational scholarships, wine education, mentorship and job placement. Their recent ‘Rooted in France’ scholarship will grant an HBCU bachelor’s degree student with a masters degree from the prestigious Burgundy School of Business - two years of living in France, travelling through wine country and studying all aspects of wine management. 

Wine Unify was also established to provide educational opportunities to underrepresented minorities: 19 mentees have recently been provided with WSET Level One courses and mentorship. Black Wine Professionals also launched, and has partnered with Champagne Laurent-Perrier USA to provide five scholarships to the Wine Scholar Guild’s Champagne Master-Level certification. 

In the UK, Mags Janjo is working towards creating an apprenticeship opportunity for people of BAME (the UK term for Black, Asian and minority ethnicities) backgrounds looking to enter the world of wine. Together with Jancis Robinson, he created www.bamewineprofessionals.co.uk - which provides readers with the opportunity to contact UK-based wine professionals from BAME backgrounds. It also publishes opportunities, such as the Champagne Louis Roederer £2000 travel bursary and one-year mentorship with Jancis Robinson herself, which was awarded to wine writer Aleesha Hansel.

Simonne Mitchelson, photograph by Eric Deshawn Lerma

Simonne Mitchelson, young winemaker and viticulturist, grew up in Michigan. She moved to New Zealand when she was 17, went to university there, and when she was studying she worked in a fine dining restaurant. It was there that she was introduced to the world of wine, receiving a lot of support from people who became mentor figures. She recalls,

“That’s when I started realizing that there’s a lot of history, culture, tradition, art and science around wine. There are a lot of hands that go into the final bottle, and I’m so grateful to be able to taste the fruits of all their labor - literally.” 

She contemplated working at a winery to learn more and reached out to StonyRidge on Waiheke Island. They were very welcoming and told her that if she could figure out a way to get to the island every day, she had a job. So, Simonne got the ferry every morning and worked throughout harvest with the head and assistant winemakers. She loved every minute, and was smitten and knew she wanted to work in vineyards and cellars. The next year, she moved back to the US - this time to California. She first worked for Poseidon Vineyard & Obsidian Ridge. While working there, she had her second ‘Aha!’ moment; this time with a bottle of Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. She was put in touch with the general manager and assistant winemaker, and got her dream job working for them. Next, she became General Manager at Zotovich, where she worked for two years, leaving at the end of July to pursue her own winemaking dream; commencing with one and a half tons of Syrah from Rancho Arroyo Grande. She has been farming the parcel with her boyfriend since the beginning of 2020. The wine was fermented naturally, with 40% whole cluster and no additions. It’s just the beginnings of what will become her own label, to be joined by an orange wine and two wines from her home state of Michigan.  

Following the racial injustices occurring in the US, Simonne and Justin Trabue launched a very successful fundraiser for their local grassroots organisation, RACE Matters SLO, but soon decided that they wanted to do something to directly impact the wine community, too. Simonne explains, 

“Justin and I talk a lot about sustainability. We had a lot of people emailing us and asking us what they could do, but mainly with regards to donating money. We were looking really to create impact in the wine industry, where we are. The best route to do so is through education. Cal Poly University has the largest enology and viticulture program in the country, but less than 1% of students are Black.” 

So, she reached out to a couple of friends who work in education for advice, and began to compile a mission statement outlining the impact that a scholarship could have on the university and community. She spoke directly with Cal Poly, who immediately championed it and thought it was a great idea. 

“Many wineries in the area have said that they want to see diversity in the industry, that they want it to be more inclusive, and that they want there to be equity in the Black community. So, this is a way for the community to actually show that they want to create impact.”  

The response has been incredible, and they raised well above $200K. It will provide a full Master’s degree scholarship; either in winemaking and viticulture, wine business, agriculture or food and environmental sciences. It is important to her that future students don’t see wine as limited to the cellars or vineyards. She explains,

“There's so many different things that you can do in wine; things that don’t involve production or wearing Blundstones. You can be a chemist, or an event planner, that's all within your bandwidth in this industry as well.”

It will become a long-term initiative, and Simonne hopes that it will inspire other universities - both in wine, agriculture and beyond - to follow suit.

“Hopefully it will become like a pilot program. I wanted to make it simple enough so that it's easily replicated by other universities; not just for wine and viticulture but also for hospitality, or marketing, or business.”  

The Central Coast in itself has a population of less than 6% Black people, and has historically not been the most welcoming to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Accounts of racism have also been documented at Cal Poly. Hence, Simonne and Justin are continuing work with Cal Poly to ensure that a safe environment is created for scholars. 

While Simonne’s experience as a whole in the wine industry has been a very positive one, she has experienced hurtful comments and has had her voice misrepresented. She says, 

“It is integral to recognise that this ugliness does exist in our industry. When I talk about it to friends in the industry - who I’ve never talked to about it before - they’re really shocked because they work with me, and have had no idea it’s been happening. A very big part of privilege is to not have to see it.

She has found it difficult to recount the same hurtful instances again and again, and indeed in doing so, it has triggered other memories that are tough to cope with. She explains,

“It hurts to bring it up. I feel like some people are asking us to prove that there is racism. I can’t forget what’s happened, but when people ask me to recall it - specifically in order to believe me - I can’t do that anymore. If those people don’t believe it by now, they’re never going to. In the last few months, there has been a real reckoning happening. Justin, myself, and other Black professionals who have given our voices to the DNI movement, have to recall trauma so that other BIPOC can simply be believed. I can only speak for myself, but I need media who are requesting that we recall our trauma for their publications be sensitive to the fact that this incites incredible mental anguish. We’re moving forward. At the beginning, we were talking about racial disparity - and we still are, that’s still at the core of it - but here we are, talking about progress; about equity, action and sustainability. That’s really how the conversation has changed. ” 

And next up, she is working with Justin on a project called Natural Action. News to follow shortly; we can't wait to see what this Power Duo does next.

Curly Haslam-Coates

Curly Haslam-Coates, wine and spirits educator, activist and marketing and tourism specialist, is based in Tasmania. She explains that the movement has been slow in Australia as a whole:

“There’s definitely the element of people being afraid to approach the topic; not wanting to say the wrong thing, or not knowing what they can do. Julia Coney summed it up months ago by saying that conversations will be uncomfortable. We have to be brave enough to just say, is that okay? Is that not okay? It all feels weird but we need to have those really awkward conversations, because we can’t get entirely in each other’s heads.”

She also emphasises that change doesn’t have to involve grand gestures.

“It can literally be as simple as sharing a picture where all of the people around the table aren’t white. People just need to start thinking: hang on. Everybody looks the same, maybe we should do something about that.”

She explains that in Australia, one of the difficulties is that the production side – working in wineries – is considered the most prestigious element of the wine world. Thus, it’s not only a matter of diversifying the very white industry, but also showing that other branches of the wine world are equally as important and valuable.

“I have to spend a lot of time saying to people that I get paid because I spend my time selling wines or helping people with their knowledge so that they can sell wines. I do find that a lot of my professional development has had to be outside of Australia because there’s very limited options for me here. So, I want to change that. There’s lots of talent, and lots of people who don’t fit into the traditional roles.”

To tackle the issue of diversity and inclusivity in Australia and New Zealand, Curly is working to set up a nonprofit association that is both consumer and trade facing. The goal is to create a central place for consumers to come to discover more about wine events and opportunities, as well as a professional segment which will be membership based, with the goal to offer mentorship, education, marketing degrees and options to learn more about production.

“It will provide professional support from an individual level, so that each person can continue to grow. The minute they start off with a course, they will immediately feel part of this world.”

Although she is optimistic, hopeful and determined, it’s not been easy. She says,

“Every now and then I do have a bit of a meltdown about it. It’s emotionally and psychologically really rough going, but I also know at this point I need to be a bit of a sacrificial lamb because I have the luxury of having a much wider professional network outside of Australia. It’s been tough because there are definitely some people here that are resistant to addressing anything to do with diversity.”

The Acknowledgement of Country is crucial, not just in Australia but in New Zealand, the US, and any countries in which the Indigenous Peoples had their land stolen from them. The utilization and normalization of the indigenous names, such as lutruwita for Tasmania, is an important step. In addition, it’s important to acknowledge that it was an invasion, resulting in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, as opposed to what was originally described as a handover.  Furthermore, white Australians must stop seeing Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with alcohol as a monolith. Indeed, historic Indigenous fermentation practices have been documented for centuries, as outlined by Vladimir Jiranek in this article. Curly says,

“White Australia can be racist when it comes to Aboriginal alcohol. It’s wrong to cut off Indigenous People from the opportunity to learn about biochemistry or to go and work at a winery. The opportunity to understand and develop a different relationship with wine is so important.”

Jeff Segal (photograph by Lauren Segal)

Domestique Wine, based in DC, was founded by Jeff Segal and Guilhaume Gerard, to provide the people of DC with the same natural wines that Jeff had fallen in love with while living and working in New York and San Francisco. Their first hires were Eric Moorer and Rebekah Pineda, both of whom came on as founding managers and have run the shop since day one. Jeff says,

“Our goal in hiring was to bring a different energy to Domestique. Most wine retail is boring, safe, and aimed at a narrow customer base. Eric and Rebekah both came directly from the restaurant world and brought that energy - the kinetic energy - of a buzzing floor with them. For once, a high-profile wine shop wasn't going to be run by two white dudes, instead, a Black man and a Brown woman who really knew their s&^t would be the first faces that people encountered. And even though we now have more than 10 employees, we're a majority POC staff with (still) majority POC management. These things matter to us and always will. They're bigger than wine, they're bigger than sulphur use.”

They have actively been shaping the language of wine through their events. In 2019, they hosted a panel featuring Jon Bonne and Lee Campbell called ‘Sweet/Dry.’ It was centred around the perceptions of the terms (and others) in wine. Jeff says,

“We don't want people to feel like their taste defines them. We also want them to realize that taste is also a construct, one that's constantly shifting. Wine language has done a terrible job evolving to match its audience and we try to really focus on language as a tool for building a more inclusive (but also just a more exciting) industry.”

Rebekah adds,

“I just finished Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. It's brilliant and argues that the major issues facing equality in our world are related to caste/the ever-present impact of "class." It's seen in many ways in wine: how language is used (sweet/dry, see above) to denote class and, ultimately, its connection to taste. Or how the natural wine world thinks it's the exception to this rule because of its connection to values, more women in the industry, and a bit more diversity yet rarely has open discussion about access. Why isn’t there a natural wine store in Harlem? Natural wine may be culturally more accepting but is typically more expensive too.”

Eric & Rebeka

The shop is located on a busy corner in one of the city’s oldest and most-established Black neighbourhoods. Rebeka explains that this has definitely shaped their learning, saying,

“I think we've been forced to really see class and its connection to race because of our location. We, as a primarily Black and POC staff, have had to acknowledge our own privilege and face the issues of class (or caste) in the industry... We’ve very purposely tried to articulate issues that we see (lack of Black, POC, and women in positions of power, tired and obsolete wine language, barriers to entry for consumers) and found concrete ways to address them, like the Major Taylor fellowship.”

They actively create the diversity that they want to see come through the store by placing accessible bottles at the front of the shop, by celebrating ideas and language that, as Rebeka says, “break the canon/vocabulary that was built by one small slice of the wine world. We make mistakes, things get messy, but we aren't afraid to discuss real issues in our industry and we aren't about the coded bullshit language.”

In August, they launched a fellowship, which saw sommelier Kayla Mensah join them to work at Domestique. They had also partnered with like-minded companies to organise as in-depth and valuable an experience as possible for their fellow. It included stages with Streetsense, one of the country's best restaurant design firms which has done impressive work around economic opportunity, and Bad Saint, Komi, and 2AMYS, some of their favourite restaurants in DC. Rebeka says,

“We wanted to provide a similar launching pad to the opportunity that Eric and I were given a few years ago. The idea came about after watching the consistent lack of diversity in the natural wine world. We took our entire staff to a hip portfolio tasting in New York pre-COVID and even there, in one of the most diverse wine markets in the world, you could see that our staff stood out a bit. Then the George Floyd protests began, and we wanted a way to help address issues of inclusion and equality within our own little world. That's how the Major Taylor fellowship came about. Naming it after him seemed like a perfect fit because of the cycling connections and his own history fighting for these very same things over a hundred years ago.”

They received many applications from people from around the country (and even from outside the US too). Rebeka says,

“It filled us with hope and joy to see people with such passion and talent who were so excited by this opportunity. That part was also striking; that so many people this talented were still searching for their "big break." We plan to continue the fellowship and make it an ongoing thing and have encouraged previous applicants to apply again!”

Kayla Mensah, Domestique Wine Fellow 2020

In Burgundy, Becky and Paul Wasserman, who manage one of the world’s most renowned portfolios of winemakers, also don’t feel enough is being done. Becky says,

“Since I was at the lycee in New York I’ve been very conscious of equality. It has been a part of my life since I was about 16 years old. We thought we all had done so brilliantly when the schools were integrated in the States. We marched, and we thought we’d made great progress, but evidently it’s not so. We wanted to do something other than just talk about it. Black Lives Matter. Do something. Therefore, the idea of the scholarship evolved.”  

Paul adds,

“It had been bugging me for a while that it was a certain group of people - mostly white, mostly men - who always got these sponsored trips. But, you know, you get busy and you don’t do anything about it because you’re busy and you’re comfortable. But what Covid did to us, and I believe to most of the world, was that it made us stop and think. And there are moments in life that are extremely important. This is one of them. If enough people get together and effect change, we can effect change.”

They will introduce a trip for People of Colour to Burgundy. It will be a week of discovery, from Sunday until Friday afternoon, with tutored tastings, geology talks, winemaker dinners and with accommodation provided. Paul says,

“What I remember from my first trips is that they are incredibly empowering. It’s not just a trip. It gives you a little medal on your chest and you can start to be more credible. We realised we have to do this!”

On the winemaking front itself, at California's Les Lunes winery, Shaunt Oungoulian says, 

“Diego and I have both had a very good amount of privilege. We thought, “we’re not racist - it’s not like we go to KKK rallies,” but quickly we realised that we need to be more proactive and to do better in terms of being inclusive and promoting diversity. It can even be something as simple as making people aware that they can reach out or ask for help.”

Diego & Shaunt

So, by putting out an Instagram post they did exactly that – it was an open statement; extending an ear to listen and a helping hand. Having set up a winery themselves, they are aware of all the steps needed to do so, and are well aware that it can be a daunting procedure, explaining,

“When it comes to things like getting an alcohol licence, I went down to the office in downtown Oakland. It’s close to the police station, and in the office they have all this antique drug stuff and it’s not exactly the most welcoming place. That’s where you have to go to get information, and there’s no need to go there. So if for example we can just say, here’s the form, let me help you fill it out, that helps!”

They have been corresponding with 20 people. Initially, they sent a questionnaire of sorts to the respondents, and since have been organising online Zoom meetings to be able to better structure their advice, and to find other people from the industry who will also be able to help.  

Many companies explain that they don’t have people from diverse backgrounds apply for the roles they are advertising. This is a common problem, often due to the fact that they are advertising to their own echo chamber, perhaps without realising it. Jobs boards within the industry are great for those already in the industry (most of whom are white), but that doesn’t address potential candidates who don’t already work in wine. 

What can be done about this? Advertising via universities is a great start, but this already disadvantages those who do not go to university; namely people from underprivileged backgrounds. So, another option is to advertise and promote the wine industry to schools and to communities. 

Christopher Renfro

Through Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra, we met Christopher Renfro of the Two Eighty Project [you can read our full feature on Christopher here] ; an amazing exploration into environmental farming for social equality. He is a man on an inspiring and very tangible mission. He is currently setting up an educational viticulture program for the people that live in the neighbouring housing project to the vineyard. As well as working to educate and uplift his local community, he also wants to eventually help incarcerated people. He says,

“Incarcerated people should still have a good quality of life and learn in a restorative way, so that when they come out they can be productive - both for themselves, and for society. I’d like to be able to create viticultural programs in prisons. One day, I’d love to have my own land and be able to hire people that were formerly incarcerated, and then help them to get their own properties.”

Londoner Chloe Gounder-Forbes, founder of Joy Of Bao, has worked in wine and hospitality in London for twenty years. She notes that she’s experienced the hospitality world to be more inclusive and diverse than the wine world, saying,

“I feel like the hospitality industry is the only industry I can see that’s inclusive of everyone. As long as you’re willing to work, you’re part of a team and a family straightaway. The wine trade does not reflect that.”

She was bitten by the wine bug when working at a delhi in Fulham in her early 20s, where two women would come to sell her wine for their selection, and teach her about them. She says,

“I became really interested in cheese, and that led me to wine. At 23, I realised I couldn’t tell you the difference between Malbec or Merlot. Those two ladies could see that I was interested and would take the time to explain everything to me. I have a memory like a sponge, so when you tell me something, I’ll remember it forever. It’s a huge topic, and just like with jazz, you fall down the rabbit hole. I personally made an active effort to learn as much as I could from then on – it took me ten years of self-teaching, reading books and going to tastings and taking notes before I had the confidence to take on a wine job.”

She went on to manage the wine bar ‘WC’ in Clapham, and quickly became renowned for her exciting ever-evolving list of lesser-known varieties. For a list of 12 wines that changed every couple of weeks, she worked with eight suppliers. She laughs, noting that it was a logistical nightmare and made her life a lot harder, but she wasn’t about to make any compromises on what she wanted on that list. Soon after, she launched her own restaurant, Platform One, in Dulwich. It was a launch platform for start-up chefs who would have residencies there, and learn about the business side from Chloe. It became equally famous for its wine list, and for her personal and fun way of serving wine – she would pair the same dishes with different wines from one table to the next and watch customers engage with one another over the differences.

Chloe Gounder-Forbes

It was when going to tastings and meeting others from the industry that she noticed the significant lack of diversity:

“When I got into this world, I realised it’s a very white world - and a very male world. There are some winemakers who haven’t responded as well to me as other people, I’ve definitely felt that. Even at the hipster ones I still get a few funny looks from a few people, but in London we’re lucky, we don’t see a huge amount of racism. I visited South Africa four years ago (my mum was born in Durban) and went to visit a couple of winemakers whose wines I was selling in my restaurant at the time, Platform One. It was no problem going to see them, but when I was reaching out to other winemakers it wasn’t a great success. I really noticed that.”

It made her reflect on why there aren’t more People of Colour in the industry. She explains that having gone to James Allen’s Girls’ School, where she was one of only a few People of Colour, she’d been used to being in that position from a young age. While at school, she discovered that she was talented at fencing. She says,

“When I fenced back in the early 90s, I can promise you that I didn’t see another Black person. That’s also a very white world, so I’m used to being the only one. So for me, it isn’t scary, but for other people that might be a hard barrier to breach. And wine is a small world that can be very cliquey.”

Throughout her career, she notes that she has only ever had one person speak to her about the topic of the lack of diversity in wine. That person was Canadian Michael Palij MW, founder of Wine Traders. We reached out to him, and had a frank conversation about not just a lack of diversity, but the prominence of bigotry in the UK. When he joined the UK wine trade at the end of the 80s, he was asked where he went to school. As his peers couldn’t place his accent, and didn’t know anything about the school system in Canada, he was then asked about his parents’ careers. He had never experienced anything like this in Canada, where success is considered success, regardless of job or class status. That continues today. In the aforementioned UK survey, it was also noted that several people felt discriminated against for not having gone to certain elite schools; indeed having been asked in job interviews which high school they went to.  

Chloe's previous restaurant, Platform One, involved a mentorship scheme for young chefs, so Chloe is already well versed in the field of business mentorship. Having met a woman on day release in Camberwell last year who was working for a charity, she  - like Christopher - has also begun to think about a future mentorship scheme for incarcerated women. 

The opportunities are endless. In London, Blackbook Winery has been taking steps forward with a similar urban goal in mind; to reach out to their local community to introduce people from diverse backgrounds to the idea of life as a winemaker in the city. They recently met with local MP Marsha de Cordova to discuss ideas further, and hope to connect to local schools and colleges down the line. 

In Galicia, Spain, Laura Lorenzo and her partner, Alvaro, produce wines under their label Daterra. They met Mamadou, from Senegal, in 2019. Lamine, his nephew, arrived a few months later in winter. Laura says,

“By religion, Mamadou and Lamine do not consume alcohol. But they have felt comfortable and love their jobs in a place where skin colour is not looked at, but a place that looks at them through their heart. This is how we are in Manzaneda, that's how we are at Daterra.”

She explains that it is an immensely complex process for the people of Senegal to get across to Spain:

“The people of Africa, the Black population, are harmed by the politics and by mafia businesses. This is the way it is because the legal system harms them. To get to Spain from Senegal in a boat it costs between €1000-3000. The same people do not have the possibility to arrive on a plane for €500. Companies are prevented from offering a legal employment contract until they can prove that they have been here for three years. The government is responsible... how can someone spend three years out of work? It is impossible. It leaves them open to exploitation, illegality, in short it defines their invisibility... and there are businesses that take advantage.”

She is also exasperated that so many white people in the country do not acknowledge the work of the migrant population:

“There are many migrants in Spain and the agriculture in this country exists thanks to them, but they do not appear in the photos, they do not exist for documenting, everything is a lie. We owe them a lot, and we are the same, we are people. As I cannot change the laws or this miserable world, I change my life, I change my house, and in Daterra we are the same. Each one has a function and each person who is part of Daterra is the same, because I exist if you exist. Alone I am nobody.”

It's a message to inspire all of us.

Uplifting, supporting, employing and introducing People of Colour to the world of wine is crucial. The stagnant wine world needs to change, and the time is now. Change cannot happen overnight; we must all work continuously and collectively, step by step, in order to ensure our combined future is brighter.

 

By LITTLEWINE Co-founder Christina Rasmussen

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