The wine world needs to recognise the growing demand and desire for representation from black consumers
There are, apparently, 67 black-owned wine brands in South Africa and a similar number in the US. True, that’s only a microscopic 3% and 0.01%, respectively, of the wine produced in those countries, but still, who knew? I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t.Advertisementnull
Yet had I taken the trouble to look at what’s going on, there’s a whole raft of Instagram accounts and organisations representing young black wine professionals and wine lovers, including The Black Cellar Club and SA POC at the Table in South Africa and The Hue Society, Black Girls Wine and Black Wine Professionals, launched just this week and fronted by wine writer Julia Coney, in the US. (Interestingly, the accounts are largely female.)
There are still numerous cringemaking stories of customers summoning white colleagues in preference to a black sommelier, and of the casual stereotyping of black tastes in wine. As Tahiirah Habibi of @sippingsocialite, and founder of Hue, puts it: “The fact that you as a white woman can enjoy a glass of moscato without a thought versus me as a black woman automatically being labelled ‘ghetto’ for the same thing – we are constantly battling one thing or another.”
This is not, of course, to say that the industry has done nothing to address inequality over the years, particularly in South Africa, where winery-sponsored projects that contribute to the education, housing and medical care of the families of cellar hands and vineyard workers are commonplace. Bursaries are now available to black students to study winemaking and viticulture through organisations such as the Cape Winemaker’s Guild Protégé Program (in South Africa, all people of colour are referred to as black), and several people of colour are now represented in the winemaking teams of some larger wineries. But, given that 90% of the population is of colour, that still doesn’t look particularly impressive.Advertisementnull
The majority black-owned company Adama Wines, part of the Bosman Adama group, is a model of its kind, entirely staffed and 30% owned by women, including general manager Praisy Dlamini, consultant winemaker Natasha Williams, who also works for the sister brand Bosman Family Vineyards, and viticulturalist Ruth Faro. Its Fairtrade wines are available in the Co-op in the UK, but Adama is still something of an exception. Look at other wine websites, and it often seems that they are more concerned to showcase their sustainability and biodiversity credentials than the diversity of their human ones. Tahiirah Habibi again: “It is time for the wine industry to stop taking safe stances in order to keep its primarily white audience comfortable.”
It’s clear that many things need to change. In South Africa, education is key, because many people of colour do not come from a wine-drinking background. “I came from a beer-drinking community and only learned the value of wine when I started my career,” says Berene Sauls, who makes a beautifully ethereal pinot noir under her own label, Tesselaarsdal (available from Swig for £39.50). “Before that, I knew nothing about wine other than that it was used during apartheid as an oppressive measure to pay labourers on farms. In the public schools, where most black and coloured kids go, physics and maths are not a priority. The wine industry needs to do career days to get across the message that agriculture is not poor people getting paid with wine.” Sauls, who has just bought her own vineyard, has ambitions to change that, starting in her own town. “When I’m in a position to, I want to sponsor two or three people from my community to study and share the contacts I was given, to give them the help they need.”Advertisementnull
For Zimbabwe-born Tinashe Nyamudoka, former head sommelier at one of South Africa’s famous restaurants, Test Kitchen, and who left to concentrate on his own brand, Kumusha, black ownership is critical. “The industry needs new voices in wine, a new approach. If you’re speaking as a black person about other brands, you won’t be heard.” Not that it’s necessarily easy as a brand owner. “Getting into distribution, getting into retail, that’s where most black-owned wineries are struggling, but I’m getting seven or eight messages a day, so I know there’s a market there.”
For Brenae Royal, the young vineyard manager of Gallo’s Monte Rosso Vineyard, from which the very polished Louis Martini Napa Cabernet (£39.50 Great Wine Co, 15%) draws its fruit, it’s a question of finding a sympathetic and supportive mentor, which she herself found in Gallo’s current head of winemaking, Debbie Juergenson. “When she started out, she was one of the only women winemakers here, so by the time I came along, she had already faced many of the challenges that I now face as a result of being one of the only women, and women of colour, in my part of the business.”
Despite her senior role, Royal still gets mistaken for the secretary in meetings: “I’ve come to terms with the fact that someone will be ignorant or think it’s funny to question my title or authority,” she tells me. “If a black person wants to get into senior winemaking or viticulture roles, they need to be prepared to work for it. You do not just start at the top, because there is a lack of representation there. But the industry can help by recruiting, hiring, retaining and promoting black people when the opportunity presents itself.”Advertisementnull
It’s hard to find wine made by black winemakers that come within the price range that I normally recommend: that said, Nyamudoka’s Kumusha wines, along with Ntsiki Biyela of Aslina’s, are available through African Wines in the Hague, should you want to seek them out.
I hope, if I write a similar piece in 12 months’ time, that the situation will have changed. It’s not just statues that are toppling these days, but the infrastructure and assumptions of institutions that have been too slow to react to inequality and injustice. It’s not just up to producers, but to importers and retailers, too, to recognise the growing demand and desire for representation from black consumers. The wine world needs an equivalent of the Nearest & Jack advancement initiative that the whiskey brands Jack Daniels and Nearest Green have come up with to improve access for African Americans to the distilling industry. The gatekeepers need to open the gates.
And, sometimes, things can move surprisingly fast. As I finished this piece, there was news that the Court of Master Sommeliers had finally abandoned the humiliating use of the term “master” when addressing its members, and that one of the the more high-profile, black-owned brands in the US, La Fête du Rosé, will shortly become available in London, via Deliveroo. It’s made in Provence, but the company is owned by a black entrepreneur, Donae Burston, a former brand ambassador for Moët et Chandon. It’s a start.
Article by Fiona Beckett