The social justice movement that sprang up in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd has brought attention to inequality that has been unchecked for far too long in countless industries and institutions, including the wine industry. Less than 1% of the approximately 1,500 wineries in the US are Black-owned, according to the Association of African American Vintners, and people of color are underrepresented in the industry overall.
The past few years have given rise to initiatives aimed at correcting these inequalities, and 65% of Black wine business owners said their businesses have directly benefited from industry diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, according to the “Terroir Noir: 2023 Study of Black Wine Entrepreneurs” conducted by wine business researcher Dr. Monique Bell. However, about half of respondents are neutral or disagree with the statement that the wine industry is taking meaningful action to increase inclusion for Black wine entrepreneurs and professionals. Respondents cited limited funding as the main barrier to Black wine entrepreneurs’ business success, followed by distribution challenges.
Addressing inequity in the wine world
For wine professionals who have been working toward a more inclusive industry since long before 2020, these challenges are nothing new.
“Diversity was never an issue in the wine industry except for the people who were marginalized. It was not until the racial awakening during the pandemic that the rest of the wine industry took notice. We’ve seen fractional improvement in the last three years, but it is very slow movement,” said Angela McCrae, executive director of the AAAV and founder of the media group Uncorked & Cultured.
The AAAV has existed since 2002, but for nearly two decades it was “virtually unknown as an organization,” McCrae said. The recent surge of DEI initiatives in the wine industry has brought more attention to the association and and led to its participation in events such as the Texas Sommelier Conference, Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America’s annual conference and the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor.
Having a presence at these types of industry events has given the AAAV a platform to discuss the changes that need to be made in the wine industry and the work it has been doing to open doors for Black winemakers over the last 21 years.
Strengthening the industry by sharing customers’ values
Customer experience is a crucial part of the effort to make the wine industry more inclusive, and wine sellers can create environments that allow people to engage with wine in an accessible way.
“A lot of retailers think that the key to selling more BIPOC-owned or -produced products is to simply put more of them on the shelves, but in reality the work starts with building a thoughtful and conscientious customer base,” said TJ Douglas, founder and CEO of Drink Progressively Group.
Douglas and his wife, Hadley, founded their Massachusetts wine store, The Urban Grape, in 2010. Rather than organize wines by varietal or region, the shop shelves them based on their body using a system the Douglases invented called the Progressive Scale.
“It naturally follows that we’ve attracted customers who are willing to look outside of the traditionally stocked brands. It also means that we’ve attracted a younger clientele that wants to put their money towards brands that reflect their values or how they see themselves in the world,” Douglas said.
Twenty percent of the store’s sales come from brands owned by people of color, and Douglas said he and his team “work hard to engage with new and previously underrepresented drinkers and to help them engage with interesting stories and producers.”
“There are a lot of people that don’t feel welcome in the wine space, and if the industry could find ways to welcome them in, all of these trends would naturally reverse themselves,” Douglas said.
McCrae also pointed to the demand for wines from diverse producers, noting that “customers and retailers are looking for new, exciting wines from people who share their ideals, so it’s up to buyers and distributors to be intentional in learning about BIPOC suppliers and making space for them on the shelf and in the boardroom.”
Building a more inclusive future
While strides have been made toward making the wine industry more diverse and inclusive, the ultimate success of these efforts depends largely on continuing the work that has ramped up over the past few years.
“I find the biggest challenges with advancing DEI inequities in the wine industry are inconsistency, lack of authentic intention and a one-and-done approach,” McCrae said.
“In 2021, so many corporations and well-meaning allies pledged billions of dollars committing to closing the gap on racial disparities for Black entrepreneurs and making their businesses more diverse. However, as time forgets, so does the effort.”
The “Terroir Noir” report also underscored the importance of continued effort, suggesting that “industry, government and trade associations should continue to provide financial and distribution support, and maintain or enhance current diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.”
Douglas said real change will only happen when people start “holding their peers in the wine industry accountable for the lack of forward progression in diversifying the industry.”
“The blueprint is there,” he said, referring to how the number of women working in the wine industry has increased over the past 15 years.
“Companies just have to give more than lip service and actually dig in and do the work of diversifying their workforces, portfolios and customer bases.”