It starts out innocently enough. I’m at dinner with friends. The waitress comes to ask what we’d like to drink. I place my drink order: whiskey neat. That’s when the waitress leans in and asks if I wouldn’t prefer something sweeter, like maybe a Moscato, or a Sauvignon Blanc. I politely decline and continue on with my conversation.
Part of me is outraged. But a part of me is not even surprised.
As an ethnic woman, I can’t help but notice that whenever I’m at a restaurant or a beverage retailer, I am immediately directed toward the sweeter, lighter-bodied beverages. Very rarely am I offered full-bodied beverages like my non-ethnic and/or male counterparts.
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As a person working in retail in the beverage industry, I am even less surprised. Gender and racial profiling are rampant in the industry. It all makes me wonder: Was my waitress being sexist, or even a racist? Or was she just following the dictates of marketing? If research shows that women or African Americans gravitate toward sweet drinks, is it a crime to try to push those drinks on these populations?
It absolutely is, says Keith Beavers, a former co-owner of Alphabet City Wine Company and resident VinePair wine geek. “You as a wine merchant have one job: to treat every person who walks into your store as an individual,” Beavers says. “That means that even if it’s true that 90 percent of a certain kind of person likes this one wine, we can never assume that that’s a generality.”
And yet, this happens all the time. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sales reps say, ‘The black folk love this,’” about a sweet wine, says Beavers, shaking his head.
Other friends in the drinks industry, whether fellow retailers, servers, or bartenders, confirm this. They are instructed to push products to certain groups, sometimes in an effort to move inventory. They also confirmed my own experiences: Businesses have a limited, misinformed mindset toward specific customers — especially people of color.
“Whenever a group of (ethnic) women comes in, I’ve been instructed to use bottom-shelf booze,” a bartender/barback in the service industry who I’ll call Rick admitted to me recently (he asked not to be named). But Rick did not disagree with these instructions; on the contrary, he, too, held these customers with a certain contempt. “Their only mission is to get wasted,” he told me. “As far as I know, they’ve never been able to tell the difference. Their only concern is how good I look and how fruity the drink tastes.”
Rick’s instructions, par for the course in the industry, may come from a (misguided) place of marketing. According to NPR, African Americans are three times more likely to drink Moscato than any other table wine. And a recent study from Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute showed that blacks liked sparkling wines more than whites. But the same study showed that all the racial groups profiled enjoyed different white wines equally: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and – wait for it – Muscat. All four groups were also in agreement when it came down to considering the price and brand of their wine purchases, though whites spent the least on wine by the glass.
Despite all this, the study concludes that African Americans “enjoy Zinfandel, sparkling wine and using wine for romantic occasions,” and that wine sellers should rely on research (conducted elsewhere, presumably) showing that “African Americans respond better to advertising that includes African American musicians or artists.”
Not only does this mindset rely heavily on unfortunate stereotypes; it’s bad marketing, too. As someone who works in retail I can attest to the fact that this kind of marketing will cause you to lose customers. No one wants to see the same message over and over again. It becomes nauseating.
And yet, wine sellers seem incapable of thinking of black consumers in any other way. Back in 2003, Reneé Rowe, the president of the nonprofit African American Wine Tasting Society, complained that the wine industry was ignoring black consumers. ”What I am trying to get the wine industry to understand is simply that no one’s really paid any attention to us,” she told The Times. ”We are a small portion of the market, but at the same time they are beginning to run out of their typical consumers.”
And things haven’t progressed much since then. Last year, sisters and winemakers Andrea and Robin McBride complained to VinePair about the ignorance that causes companies to market to blacks in a way that is “kind of hood,” as Robin put it. “There’s this perception that all people of color drink sweet wine,” Andrea told VinePair. “But if you have first-time wine drinkers, it doesn’t matter if they are white or Chinese or black— you start drinking sweet.”
And that’s where you stay if waitresses keep trying to sell you Nikki Minaj’s Moscato because of the color of your skin.
Limiting marketing of adult beverages to certain groups leads to missed opportunities for the business and the consumer, respectively. It should be about genuinely trying to understand and reach out to consumers in a way that doesn’t come off as hokey or oversimplified. I have never purchased a product simply because Snoop Dogg was the front man.
The bottom line is that wines, liqueurs and spirits have no gender, nor do they see color. Why push the Appletini my way just because you believe that I’m genetically predisposed to liking all things sweet and pretty? I know plenty of straight males who prefer bubbles & pink sweets. Sexual and racial hierarchies have no seat at the table when it comes to happy hour. Those things take up space, and I need room for my whiskey neat.