Posted: Jun 30, 2020
Since the death of George Floyd, people have come together in solidarity protesting, campaigning, donating and more in the name of ending the systemic racism found within the fabric of our society. Seen and unseen, many industries are riddled with inequality, along with an evident lack of diversity. Beyond monetary transactions, a crucial way to support Black-owned businesses is to listen to the experts in their fields who are changing the status quo—leaders who seek ways to make sustained, meaningful change within their wheelhouse.
We spoke to three Black wine experts on their journeys within the industry. From confronting and overcoming social biases and racial injustice to amplifying Black voices on matters of race, representation, and inclusion in every aspect of the wine world, here is what they had to say.
Theodora Lee, Owner and Vintner, Theopolis Vineyards
What initially got you interested in the wine industry and what was the catalyst in turning that into a career?
My interest in the wine industry began when I moved to California in the 1980s. When I began practicing law in the 80s, if I needed a law firm partner to review a legal document, I would drive it to that partner’s weekend home. While the partner reviewed the brief, I would be invited to stay for dinner, fine wine, and could walk the vineyards. I envisioned owning my own vineyard, which would allow me to combine my love for farming and the outdoors, and become a grape farmer. I fell in love with the wine lifestyle—great wine, great food, and being out in the vineyard.
My dream of being a grape farmer came to reality in 2003 when I planted 5 acres of grapes. Initially, I sold my Petite Sirah to Carlisle Winery, Halcon Vineyards and a few other premium wineries. I was quite content simply being a grower. Then, in 2012, an ill-timed rain fell during harvest and I rushed to pick my grapes at 23 brix. The buyer at that time (no longer Carlisle) had contracted for grapes at 25 Brix, so they rejected the entire lot.
Faced with no one willing to purchase fruit at a lower Brix level at the last minute, I decided to have my fruit custom-crushed. I then bartered to get the wine produced. Specifically, I gave the winemaker half of my harvest for free, if, in turn, he would process the other half and make my wines. So, that 2012 vintage was bottled in 2014.
Fortunately, my 2012 Petite Sirah received a gold medal from Sunset Magazine and soon thereafter, Theopolis Vineyards was underway. Since then, we have consistently produced 90 + point, Best in Class, Double Gold, and Gold Medal wines.
What types of barriers have you experienced due to race and how did you move past them? What’s your advice to others who may be experiencing the same things?
Well, unfortunately, racism exists in every facet of society, and the wine industry is no exception. The wine industry is a white male-dominated one. I have faced barriers to finding distributors and getting my wines in high-end restaurants and wine bars. However, as a lawyer, I have been fortunate enough to overcome many of these barriers by having my law firm partners introduce me to restaurant and bar owners, and that introduction has facilitated me overcoming those hurdles.
I am happy to state that our wines are carried in some of the finest restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. I believe in hard work and grit and I never give up. My advice to others is that you must be persistent, persevere, and keep going until you get what you deserve. Even though I produce award-winning wines, distributors still reject doing business with me.
Recently, one distributor told me he questioned the marketability of one of my varietals. Despite consistent rejection, I keep pounding the pavement. Earlier this year, Southern Glazer's, a premier beverage distributor for world-class wines, picked up our wines for distribution in Florida thanks to the demands of a prominent Florida Restaurant Group. So, as mentioned above, you must be like a dog with a bone and keep pushing.
The number of Black winemakers, winery owners, and professionals is comparatively low. What do you think wine companies can be doing better to raise awareness and amplify Black voices in the industry?
To compact racism in the industry, we need to build cultural bridges and have a candid conversation about race. We must confront passive racism, educate everyone about Black history, and create diverse and inclusive environments that stand against racism. Wine companies, like every major company in America, need to revisit their anti-discrimination and harassment policies to reiterate a Zero tolerance, train employees, and establish a strategic diversity and inclusion initiative.
Currently, there has been an outpouring of support for Black winemakers, Black winery owners and Black wine professionals. Let’s hope this outpouring of support can be sustained, and is not just a moment, but a momentum. To raise awareness and amplify these Black voices, there must be continued exposure and financial support.
For example, Cooper's Hawk has established a Scholarship for Black American Wine Professionals. The scholarship is designed to assist Black Americans who are passionate about pursuing a career in the wine industry. Also, larger wineries and other wine businesses should support the Association of African American Vintners.
A major issue in the wine world is the lack of diversity. Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, is that oftentimes even when diversity quotas are met the foundation and support system to help people of color isn’t sufficient enough to ensure lasting success in the industry. What needs to change?
I believe outreach is the key to diversity in the wine industry. Indeed, there are many highly qualified wine professionals available. However, what is the industry doing to uplift and connect with those highly qualified professionals? Perhaps, the industry should consider the Rooney Rule, which is a National Football League policy that requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It is an example of affirmative action, even though there is no hiring quota or hiring preference given to minorities, only an interviewing quota.
When it comes to inclusivity in both tasting rooms and the industry side of things, Black people, particularly Black women, are marginalized. If there was one thing that you could set the record straight on, what would that be?
As a Black woman who owns her own winery, when I show up to trade shows or to restaurants or distributors to pitch my wines, most people assume I work for the winery. When I tell them I am Theodora Lee, the owner and vintner of Theopolis Vineyards, they are shocked. However, I persevere and the award-winning wines speak for themselves.
To set the record straight, I want everyone to understand that Black women are the backbone of the Black community and were key contributors to the civil rights movement, and will be critical in creating a diverse and inclusive environment in this and every industry. We will not be denied. We are leaders and deserve a seat at the table.
By Chelsea Davis
June 30, 2020
Source and complete article: Forbes.com
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