I fell in love with wine when I was in college in California. Good wine was easy to find, and it was easy to steal away to Paso Robles or drive up to Santa Barbara to visit wineries. When I graduated with a degree in engineering from Harvey Mudd College in Southern California, I contemplated going to graduate school for winemaking. Instead, I jumped into the wine industry, becoming a certified sommelier. I developed wine lists at James Beard Award-winning restaurants and worked as a sommelier at an establishment with three Michelin stars in Chicago. But after five years of working in wine, the nerd in me won out and I decided to go back to school for winemaking.
Never one to go for the easy option, I decided on a master’s degree in wine science at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, which I completed in 2019. By this time, I’d worked two harvests in New Zealand and had a diverse group of mentors and peers.
New Zealand’s diversity may surprise those who have never been. The U.S. is lauded as a country of immigrants, but in New Zealand it often feels like everyone just got here. My cohort at the university hailed from Australia, South Africa, India, China, and the Philippines. My WSET tasting group was made up of people from the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand. When my friends and I get together, almost every continent is represented. Our common language is English, but French, Spanish, and Italian are also spoken.
My Kiwi mentors are a mix of women and men, but regardless of their backgrounds and identities, they’ve always been supportive of me. They’ve shared their knowledge freely without ego or preconditions. Most importantly, they’ve listened to me, whether I’ve agreed with their opinions or not. If I dissent, it’s not the end of the world. We chat about it, learn something, and move on.
While studying, I worked as a cellar hand at a nearby winery. I’d gained practical experience but was itching to work a harvest in California. So I approached a small winery that I admired in Sonoma about harvest positions, and was accepted. In taking the role, I expected that I’d be treated with the same dignity and professionalism that I’d experienced abroad. I was wrong.
A RUDE AWAKENING
When I arrived, I was shocked.
I’ve never seen a city as monochromatic as Healdsburg in all my life. In the span of three months, I only saw 10 black people. That’s not an estimate; I counted. One was another intern, six were tourists, and three worked at the Napa tasting room of Brown Estate, one of the few Black-owned wineries in the region.
Where is everyone? Did I miss the memo?
According to the 2019 U.S. Census estimates, about 4 percent of Sonoma’s residents are Black, compared to more than 13 percent nationwide. But it wasn’t only people who look like me who were conspicuously absent; it was all people of color.
I saw a few POC around town but I was surprised at how few Latinx people I saw out and about. Sonoma has a high percentage of people from the Latinx community — 27.3 percent compared to 18.5 percent nationally — yet I only saw them when they were taking their kids to and from school, or in the grocery store. They were not shopping in boutiques, sitting at bars, or dining at restaurants. The town’s lack of diversity almost felt deliberate.
It was creepy.
Luckily, the family I was staying with was warm and welcoming. So, I shook off the bad vibes and tried to get acclimated. On a few occasions, I went to a dive bar that was highly recommended to me by wine industry veterans. When I went in with white interns, we drew a few stares, but I was able to relax and enjoy myself. When I went by myself? It was a totally different story. The bartenders were cordial, but a couple of the patrons scrutinized my every move, which made me feel anxious, and as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. It was hard to enjoy my beer, and I never went back.
There was another bar down the street that was far more welcoming — it had a big “NO BIGOTS ALLOWED” sign above its bar, and indeed offered a more hospitable atmosphere. I remember wondering: Why did anyone bother sending me to the other bar if there were more welcoming spaces for POC? The answer is simple: My white colleagues don’t think about it, and they may not even realize that racial bias exists in such an establishment. There are so few BIPOC in the industry that diversity and inclusion training likely isn’t high on the agenda at most bars — or frankly in most parts of the wine industry.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
On my first day when I was completing my new-hire paperwork, the winemaker told me, “We aren’t going to make you sign an NDA like other wineries. But just know that we won’t say anything bad about you if you don’t say anything bad about us.”
That struck me as problematic. It’s difficult to bring awareness to and solve a problem if you’re never supposed to talk about it in the first place. There is this belief among some in wine that the industry has made strides in recognizing and moving toward racial equity, and doesn’t need to do anything further. However, one look at the diversity statistics shows that that simply isn’t the case. Tough conversations are the only way to get to a better place.
This can result in performative interactions. I was proudly told by an industry veteran I worked with that he “voted for Obama and listens to NPR.” In his mind, and those of other liberal white people I’ve talked to, there’s a belief that they’re not contributing to the problems of racial inequities in the industry; that they’re exempt from doing the work to address unconscious biases that might exist. It’s as if any discussion to the contrary will fracture the internal narrative they have about themselves, their friends, and their community. When that dissonance happens, they tend to shut down and get defensive instead of continuing the conversation. That leads to a standstill where no progress can happen.
SOWING THE SEEDS OF DOUBT
After our first week, I went to an intern party along with the winemakers from my winery. I was excited to meet people and to network, but it was a big disappointment. I was the only Black person there, but I was long used to that from my time in New Zealand. There are not a lot of Black people there, either, but my race never impacted how I was treated there.
I wasn’t used to this:
“Where are you from?” someone would ask me.
“I’m from Chicago, but I live in New Zealand,” I’d say.
The person would furrow their brow. “New Zealand?”
“Yep,” I’d say. “I went there for my master’s in enology and work as an assistant winemaker down there.”
“Uh huh,” they’d say, and excuse themself.
It seemed to me that most people thought I was making up my history. They didn’t believe that I had gotten my master’s degree, that I lived in New Zealand, or that I used to be a sommelier.
Later, I overheard a white female winemaker whispering to one of the winemakers I worked with:
“If she’s from New Zealand, why doesn’t she have an accent — and why is she Black?”
I stepped right up and interjected, “Because I’m an expat.”
“Oh, right … I guess that makes sense,” she said.
FIELDING UNCONSCIOUS BIASES
All the grapes that came through the winery were hand-sorted, which meant we were in for long days at the sorting table. We were all told up front that we’d get a slot each day to play whatever music we wanted while we sorted grapes.
“And I mean whatever you want. We had this girl last year, who’d only play pop music. And a couple years back, we had this guy who’d play the filthiest hardcore rap,” one of the winemakers said.
“Ha! Well, you won’t be getting a lot of pop out of me,” I said.
We both laughed and I thought that’d be the end of it, but it wasn’t.
Every other day for the first two weeks of sorting they reminded me that I could play “whatever music I wanted.” I think they thought I was listening to things they wanted to hear, but I’m into all kinds of things. Punk and rock are my go-tos if I’ve got work to do. They reminded me of the rap intern so much, I kept thinking: If you want to hear rap so bad, then play it yourself.
Typically, it was just me and a team of guys working the sorting table. When you’re hand-sorting fruit for six-plus hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks on end, it’s preferable to work alongside people you can carry a conversation with. It’s absolute torture when every conversation is full of bias and microaggressions.
The person leading most of these conversations was an industry veteran. I’d been looking forward to learning from him. But it was clear that he already had our conversations outlined in his mind, as if on autopilot, and wasn’t looking for my input — or for a real discussion.
A typical conversation would go something like:
“We had a little powdery mildew this year on a couple rows in this block so keep an eye out for it. What kinds of things do you see in New Zealand, Diana?” he’d ask.
“We see powdery but a big issue for us is sour rot,” I’d say.
He’d talk over me. “Yea botrytis is something we deal with here too in certain years. We counter it by – ”
I’d interject. “…I said sour rot. We get botrytis too, but more often than not it’s sour rot.”
He’d say: “It’s easy to confuse the two and a common mistake. You see botrytis damages the cells and then bacteria come in and do the rest. That’s what you’re getting.”
“OK,” I’d say, knowing full well that the issue wasn’t that cut and dried.
For context, sour rot is caused by bacteria that find their way into split or damaged grapes. Botrytis is a fungus that can indeed cause cracks in grapes that allow the bacteria in. We had a fair bit of rain right before the 2018 harvest I worked in New Zealand, which caused the grapes to split and sour rot quickly took hold in our Chardonnay grapes. I remember the rains; I walked through the vineyards weekly and saw the grapes swell, retreat, swell, retreat, swell, and then split.
I harvested them and cut out the soft discolored berries. I sorted what was left in the winery with my peers to ensure no rot remained. I saw this phenomena in our student vineyard, the one I worked at, and other vineyards on the island. When I asked Kiwi winemakers what it was, they explained the complexities of sour rot, why it had affected this vintage, what to do about it in the vineyard, and how to keep it from spoiling the wine. That’s all to say: I was there. It was sour rot.
Yet the industry veteran wasn’t interested in hearing any of this. And while he had years of professional experience on me, it was insulting and demoralizing to have him dismiss my personal experience out of hand, as if I lacked the capacity to comprehend the difference between sour rot and botrytis. After a few sessions like this, it became apparent that he wasn’t interested in having actual discussions. I stopped investing energy in these conversations. They were a waste of energy and only upset me.
Whenever I noticed something was out of place or a task unfinished, I’d correct it if I could and move on. It’s harvest, it’s busy, we’re all working long hours. Mistakes happen, and no one’s infallible. However, whenever the managers found something wrong, they’d always ask me about it first.
Dirty punch-down shaft? Diana, were you on punchdowns last night?
Barrel room temperature control left turned off? Diana, did you do fermentation checks this morning?
Labels put on the wrong side of a barrel? Diana, did [supervisor] show you how to properly label barrels?
Fork-lift not charged? Diana…?
I will not pretend that I didn’t make mistakes. I’m human, I absolutely did. But I sure as hell didn’t make all of them.
I had never been blamed for so many errors in any other job I’d had. There were times when my denial wasn’t believed, and I had to point to work-order signatures to clear my name. This was distressing because it implied that they truly believed I was incapable of doing anything correctly. I take immense pride in everything I do, and I strive to avoid making the same error twice.
I can’t say with certainty why they constantly blamed me, but as the only harvest intern of color, the only female harvest intern, and the only American intern they’d had in years, I was the one who was continually singled out.
ASKING FOR HELP
After several weeks of microaggressions, false accusations, and gaslighting, I began to question myself, and the expertise I’d built over multiple harvests and a stint as an assistant winemaker. I raised my concerns with the winemaker, who listened, paused for a moment, and told me: “I don’t know why you and those guys never hit it off. I hear what you’re saying, and I’ll talk to them about it, but I’m sure that wasn’t their intent. Look, I’ve been doing this for a while now. Whenever something challenging comes at me, I keep going. Harvest is never going to be easy, but you’ve got to just keep moving forward no matter what. That’s what winemaking is: Making it happen no matter what.”
On some level, I get that, but if the only way to “make it happen” is by sacrificing my dignity and self-respect? No thanks. I’m good.
I love making wine, but keeping my head down and plowing ahead accomplishes nothing other than making it harder for the next BIPOC employee. Furthermore, the idea that I’m supposed to ignore what’s happening and take it because it’s harvest isn’t just offensive, it’s also a false choice. The last time I looked, addressing employee concerns doesn’t negatively impact wine quality. It’s called unconscious bias for a reason, and if we don’t bring awareness to it and have conversation out in the open, nothing will change in our industry.
By this point, it was late October and I’d been at the Sonoma winery since August. I started questioning if even I wanted to make wine anymore. Maybe I could get a job as a lab tech instead? I knew that if I continued on, I’d lose my passion for wine. We’d finished processing our last lot of fruit earlier that week, and they said they wanted to go down from three interns to two. I’d seen what I’d wanted to see and felt that I’d suffered more than enough. So I volunteered to leave.
In my seven years in the industry, I’ve met dozens of winemakers as a sommelier and burgeoning winemaker. I’ve traveled around the globe. I’ve had deep engaging conversations with many legends in the business, and they’ve actually listened and engaged with me instead of anticipating or imagining what I’d say. I knew what I’d just experienced in Sonoma wasn’t normal everywhere — it was just the norm there.
But how many POC don’t? How many do one harvest, have a bad time, and then swear off the entire wine industry? How many Robert Mondavis have we lost? How many Paul Drapers or Heidi Barretts has the industry turned off through its intolerance? How many budding scientists who were interested in researching smoke taint? How many up-and-coming engineers with innovative viticulture solutions?
That’s what made me want to share my experience. My hope is that it will educate allies and wineries — especially smaller companies — on how they can be more inclusive and check their unconscious biases. My hope is that it will empower domestic and foreign POC to advocate for themselves should they be faced with similar situations. That this essay encourages them to ask questions in their interviews beyond the varieties produced and the winemaking philosophy of the places they’d like to work. That vintners and winemakers start questioning their unconscious biases and ask how they can support their interns and BIPOC staff.
I need to make one thing very clear: I love California. I’ve had too many good memories there to count. It’s where I discovered my love of wine and came of age. It’s where I thought I’d cut my teeth and carve out a name for myself as a winemaker. Instead, after harvest, I packed up my things and loaded up my car. I turned the key in the ignition and headed East on I-80 as fast as my Honda would take me. While I’d completed this cross-country journey back to Chicago several times before, that was the first time I left questioning whether I’d ever be back.