The summer of 2020 was a tipping point for diversity in the wine industry. Organizations supporting BIPOC wine professionals were few and far between. At the same time, the voices needing amplifying didn’t have much in the form of a platform to represent themselves — at least, not outside of social media.
Following the murder of George Floyd, a wave of strong adversaries began baby-stepping their way to diversifying talent, customers, and partners. The creation of new organizations also brought together leaders to further strengthen the cause.
Three years later, how much progress has actually been made? We talked to three Black wine professionals who weigh in on the state of representation, access, and community in the wine industry.
Looking Back at 2020 with 20/20 Hindsight
For organizations working to diversify the industry, 2020 could have served as a moment to build momentum with surging funds and participation in their groups. However, many organizations hadn’t existed then, with most focusing less on the numbers and more on their potential impact.
New organizations, like Wine Unify, convened established wine professionals in 2020 to address newer professionals’ concerns about representation in the industry. Wine Unify is an organization founded by SOMM film alumn and sommelier D’Lynn Proctor, Masters of Wine Martin Reyes and Mary Margaret McCamic. Also, it includes titans in the industry like Tonya Pitts.
“Martin Reyes and D’Lynn Proctor reached out to me about this project that they had which was starting as a non-profit and entailed mentorship, which I had been doing already,” says Pitts. “It really hit home as Martin was talking about the project. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and there’s a feeling of loneliness of being the only one in the room. There are certain conversations you can have in the room that other people don’t understand. There was no one looking out for people of color, to have that kind of kinship, so it’s really important.”
With over 30 years of experience in the wine world, Pitts has seen it all. 2020 was more about a change in perspective for her.
“There were already people like me in the world, but now we’re more connected than before. It changed the playing field,” she adds. “You’re still seeing people who want to get into the industry, but you see now that people who are already professionals are pivoting and coming up with something other than the occupation they have now.”
Other organizations, like The Hue Society, were founded years before the summer of 2020 and already committed to doing the work many started during the pandemic. Tahiirah Habibi and her team were ready when the moment came.
“I’ve been consistent. My message has always been the same from the beginning. It just became more widely and broadly accepted because 2020 made everything a fad,” Habibi says. “I’m grateful for that. It’s reaching more people, and more people are opening their eyes.”
Habibi started working on her community-focused organization in 2015 and founded The Hue Society in 2017. For her, the surge in organizations, funding, and attention has led to some unintended downsides.
“I think it’s oversaturated at this point. I feel like collaboration and collective unity is the key to moving forward. When you have resources spread out among a bunch of organizations who all want credit, it becomes interesting,” she shares. “But, I don’t really focus on other people. I focus on my lane and what I created.”
In addition to her own organization, Habibi was also instrumental in founding The Roots Fund, led by Executive Director Ikimu Dubose-Woodson. For Dubose-Woodson, 2020 was a fleeting moment for her donors and potential supporters.
“It has absolutely changed in that timeframe. Giving is down, as the economy has suffered, but the need remains the same. The overall interest in getting into wine by communities of color is massive in the marketing and media space versus sommeliers,” she said. “All that being said, there is still an immense amount of work to be done. Two years ago, we had a vision of making a small impact. Now we see the community we are building and the lasting change we have already created. This is just the beginning.”
All of the women agree on the renewed commitment to diversifying the industry. Importantly though, they and their respective organizations take a different approach to the path forward.
Focusing on Access and Education
For Pitts, Wine Unify is the organization she wishes was around to provide education and help her own career. That’s why she and the leadership are so passionate about it.
“I wish there was something like this when I was coming up. A long time ago, there was a program to get more people certified, and someone put my name in, and I was invited. And it’s because of that, that I’m sitting here today. I was given access that way.”
As Pitts explains, Wine Unify’s focus on education and access is how we go from 2020 to reaching our goals. Giving people a clear path forward allows them to find success.
“The fact that someone is offering you an opportunity to do that [wine education] gratis, that’s huge. It removes so many barriers,” she says. “When you have that, it creates more opportunities for people. It creates access. Access, mentorship, and support.”
A Commitment to Community
For Habibi, it’s all about community. Her goals are clear and decisive, even if that means leaving a little on the table.
“When you’re trying to make change, you’re going to give up things. Sometimes you have to walk away from money, from people, from organizations. You have to know who you are and what your mission is. Sometimes you have to take the stairs while others take the elevator, but when you get to the top, your legs will be stronger.”
She acknowledges the value of education but has her focus set on a different place.
“I think they [education and community] have a place. The Hue Society is about humanity, making other people see our humanity, and [making sure] you are feeling your own humanity. We can get caught up in these things, chasing certifications.”
Further, Habibi commits to not only bringing people together but creating a space where that togetherness can come with safety and authenticity.
“We’re not going to change the systems today or tomorrow. But chipping away at the idea that you have to be somebody else to be successful is one of my main goals. Authenticity is love, and when you love yourself, there’s not much people can do to take that away. The power of collectively putting that love together — that’s so powerful. There needs to be a community where people can go and feel safe.”
What’s Next for Diversity in Wine
When asked how change comes, Dubose-Woodson says, “by ‘doing the work’. And not just by us or all the amazing organizations out there like us. We need more partnerships amongst organizations in this space, sharing our ideas and resources to benefit the community. Everyone needs to hold the industry accountable for taking part in the hard work too.”
Dubose-Woodson stresses that long meetings and extensive strategy plans aren’t effective. Instead, “it’s time to start within your teams, educating and putting actionable goals in place that can start right away.”