Black lives in wine should matter now more than ever

More than any other drinks category, wine has long had an issue with diversity. For long-standing wine commentator Chris Losh, the Black Lives Matter movement has engendered a strong sense of deja-vu.

I have enormous respect for Jancis Robinson, as a writer, a taster, a possessor of vast amounts of knowledge and someone who works far more diligently and takes her job far more seriously than most journalists I know – this one included. 

Yet, I've never thought of her as particularly radical or inflammatory in outlook. So, to hear that one of her columns in the Financial Times had to have the below-the-line comments suspended was surprising, to say the least.

The problem was a piece Robinson had written suggesting that black people were under-represented in the world of wine. She had profiled a number of critics, journalists, sommeliers, winemakers et al of colour to get their take on the situation and issued a clarion call for change.

This, I would have thought, wasn't all that controversial. By pretty much any criteria you wish to use, non-white people in general, but black people in particular, are pretty thin on the ground across the wine trade. You'd expect people to think that maybe this ought to change. Apparently not.

Proving that possessing an FT subscription is no proof of logic, emotional intelligence or a belief in the power of facts, readers dismissed the article as, among other things, "weaponised hand-wringing" and "Marxist claptrap". 

Helpfully, in the name of 'balance', some suggested running pieces on 'why there aren't more white minicab drivers', 'why the FT should do more to ensure more Muslims are represented in winemaking' and even (and I can't believe I'm writing this) how white people were 'woefully underrepresented' in the slave trade. I know: 'Fatuous' doesn't even begin to cover it.

The world of wine is a very white space

Racism takes many different forms and has different levels of severity. For every white supremacist hilariously caught on social media trumpeting his 'superior jeans' at a BLM protest, there are thousands of examples of terribly polite customers asking the black head sommelier if they could please send over their boss. 

This scenario, to be fair, isn't limited to black people. Any sommelier who is not white, male and middle-aged has probably had the same request.

The clear implication is that "you don't belong here".

But, the demeaning premise behind the question – that in some way you're not up to doing this job – must be doubly poisonous for people of colour because proportionally there are so few of them in the wine world. The clear implication is that "you don't belong here".

Tellingly, in hospitality, lack of diversity is far more of an issue for wine than it is for spirits. Where the great global bar capitals have bartenders of every ethnicity, wine remains far more monochromatic. When (white) US sommelier Richard Betts resigned from the Court of Master Sommeliers he called it a "very white, very privileged wine programme". Meanwhile, sommelier Tahiirah Habibi, founder of the Hue Society, describes the wine world as "a very, very white space".

Depressingly, they're right. I go to wine tastings in London all the time (or used to, pre-coronavirus). Outside, the streets are teeming with every ethnicity under the sun. Once through the doors, however, it's an almost-exclusively white world.

It's a pattern that seems to be repeated with depressing regularity in all countries where black people are not the majority. Even in South Africa, only half the members of their Sommelier Association are non-white. Sure, this is progress, but it's still way under-representative of the country's ethnic split.

The questions, perhaps, are not whether non-white (though especially black) people are under-represented in the wine trade – they are – but why, and what can be done about it?

Part of wine's problem is its insularity. Yes, it's a complex subject, and that can form a barrier to newcomers. But, wine – as many commentators besides myself have remarked regularly – is also an industry that likes to talk to itself rather too much. 

Wine might see itself as a friendly and convivial place where anyone is accepted once they've proved their knowledge, but its lack of diversity suggests something rather different: a cosy network of the like-minded, safely insulated from those who aren't perceived to fit in.

Whether the walls behind which the wine trade is sheltering have been consciously constructed by it, or whether the trade is simply not helping outsiders to scale them, doesn't matter. The end result – exclusion – is the same.

How can the world of wine address the imbalance?

I have genuinely had conversations with people across the industry who have attempted to explain away the lack of ethnic diversity within wine as being due to it "not being part of their culture". Strangely, lack of immersion in something since birth doesn't seem to have stopped white people enjoying black music down the years. Either a broadening of horizons only works in one direction, then, or the wine trade needs to face up to the fact that it really hasn't done enough to shift the dial on this issue.

In the US, the NFL introduced the Rooney Rule, stating that a black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) person has to be interviewed for every head coach or GM job. The measure was designed to address the imbalance between a sport that was 70% non-white at playing level, and almost exclusively white at management level. 

Wine's problem, though, is not so much advancing the black talent that it has, but attracting BAME people into the industry in the first place.

Earlier this week, Garrett Oliver, the hugely-talented (black) author and brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery launched a foundation to fund brewing and distilling scholarships "predominantly [for] people of colour". "Barriers to success in these industries have never been solely financial," he tweeted. "No-one needs to walk this path alone."

It's a key point. This isn't just about money or 'culture', it's about a sense of belonging, which means that there's a need for the trade to nurture and support new arrivals once they're there. Properly structured and administered mentorship schemes look like a must.

Wine needs not just new faces, but new ideas.

The wine world might also want to rethink some of the rules, regulations and standard practises that it holds so dear. Sacred cows need to be examined carefully and, if necessary, turned into hamburgers. 

There's a great scene in the recent film Uncorked where the (black) wine-mad Elijah explains wine styles to a girl he likes by comparing them to hip-hop artists. It's fresh, funny and, frankly, a lot more meaningful than the 'medium-plus acidity, medium-minus tannin' rigmarole he has to go through as part of his Master Sommelier training.

Wine needs not just new faces, but new ideas - and it can only pull in a new audience by widening the net. This should be seen not just as a long-overdue commitment to an under-represented group, but also an opportunity to open the windows and let in some fresh air.

One of the first columns I wrote for just-drinks getting on for 20 years ago was bemoaning the lack of ethnic diversity in the industry. I've returned to the theme several times since then. Maybe now, the rise of 'Black Lives Matter' will force the wine trade worldwide to ask itself whether it's really done enough down the years to address this issue, conclude that it hasn't and action meaningful change.

It would, after all, be a terrible, terrible indictment of the world of wine if we were still writing these articles in 20 years' time.

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