Editor’s Note: This article was co-written by the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum’s creator, Maryam Ahmed, and advisor, Elaine Chukan Brown

“Our goal is to make ourselves obsolete,” says Miguel de Leon, co-founder of the Open Wine Forum and general manager and wine director at the New York City restaurants Pinch Chinese and Jeepney, “so that organizations like these don’t have to exist anymore.” 

It’s a sentiment shared by the leaders of 10 organizations focused on diversity in the wine industry, who convened on Aug. 10 for the inaugural Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum. This forum was created this resource to bring together organizations with a core commitment to equitable access within the wine industry. 

The virtual event welcomed the following organizations: Assemblage Symposium, Bâtonnage Forum, Bâtonnage Mentorship Program (2021), Black Wine Professionals, Juneteenth Saber Celebration, Open Wine Forum, The Hue Society, The Roots Fund, Wine Empowered, and Wine Unify. The industry advisors for the inaugural forum were Tonya Pitts, a San Francisco-based sommelier and consultant, and Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy, president and CEO of Napa’s Heitz Cellar, who co-founded The Roots Fund and serves on the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas Diversity Committee. The Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum will take place biannually by invitation. The forum also acts as a resource for the wine community and those who want to support the work of these organizations.

HOW THE FORUM STARTED

While discussions of equity in wine are not new, never before have these conversations been so pervasive. With the eruption of the #MeToo movement a few years ago, numerous women in wine events cropped up across the United States. But in the atmosphere of 2020, discussions of gender justice are no longer enough. 

Programs focused on creating opportunities for women are important, and such efforts should continue. But when we are working to create equity in wine, efforts directed only at women fail to see the intersectional nature of genuine equity. Diversity must be foundational to such efforts. These considerations include race or ethnicity, class, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and non-binary genders.

As more and more groups, initiatives, and funds dedicated to diversity come to the forefront of our industry, we have an opportunity to work together to more quickly effect change. If we are all in tune with each group’s efforts, we can more clearly convey our work to others and create long-term sustainability for these organizations. It also makes sharing our purpose with a broader audience easier. 

The majority of this first meeting of the forum was focused on listening to how each of the organizations work and what they intend to accomplish. Leaders of each group were invited to present their mission and leadership structure, as well as the needs and challenges they face in reaching their goals. While the format of the forum will evolve, for this initial gathering it was important for the group to better understand each effort, build opportunities to collaborate, and work on ways we can hold each other accountable moving forward. 

GET TO KNOW THE ORGANIZATIONS

Organizations participating in the forum work in different capacities. Collectively, they are solving the problem of access to education by providing scholarship opportunities and free classes, while also creating mentorship programs and opening the way to job opportunities and placements across all sectors of the industry. The goal is ultimately to increase diversity at the top levels of the industry as well.

“Our mission is to inspire professional growth and with that in mind, we hope to diversify the upper tiers of our industry,” says Amy Zhou, vice president of Wine Empowered, and a partner and general manager at the Michelin-starred Cote in New York City. 

For some, it is about directing efforts for specific racial groups. “I wasn’t seeing Black wine professionals included in different opportunities,” says Julia Coney, consultant and contributing editor at VinePair. “Too often, I was being told ‘I don’t know any Black wine professionals.’ So I created a database,” called Black Wine Professionals. The database leaves little excuse for employers to exclude Black talent when making hiring decisions and recruiting for educational trips, tasting events, and other professional gatherings.

In terms of understanding the landscape of diversity organizations, Black Wine Professionals and The Hue Society both focus on opportunities and events for Black people. The Roots Fund is focused on Black and Indigenous peoples.

Wine Unify, Wine Empowered, and Open Wine Forum include race as integral to their efforts, while defining their core mission more broadly to include historically marginalized groups in general. All three focus centrally on education efforts. Open Wine Forum has partnered with distribution networks throughout North America to create online educational opportunities that include attendees from multiple cities around the country and some in Canada. Wine Empowered started as an in-person educational program in New York City and is now working to create online opportunities. Wine Unify offers scholarships for WSET-based wine education, and mentorship programs with wine industry leaders as well. Their programs include offerings for those new to wine, as well as another level of award for those already in the industry seeking professional development through education.

Event-focused organizations like Bâtonnage Forum and Assemblage Symposium were founded for women in the wine industry but also seek to expand opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and women of color. These organizations strive to strike a balance, pushing forward on social justice issues while bringing along those newer to such work. Both organizations are currently working to expand offerings beyond their original annual events.

Events like the Juneteenth Saber Celebration were developed to recognize the needs and interests of a specific community (in this case, Black Americans) while also celebrating their experience and expertise, and inviting allies from other groups to quietly witness the program. The founders of the Juneteenth Saber Celebration are also developing additional events to occur through the rest of the year.  

NEXT STEPS FOR THE INDUSTRY 

For wine professionals used to the former status quo, these shifts in focus can feel like exclusion. But leaders of these organizations clarify that creating equity for underrepresented groups doesn’t mean others are unwelcome. “Priority is not exclusion,” says de Leon.

As the organizations presented, one challenge in particular stood out: the need for more leaders to step forward. 

In many cases, people are leading multiple groups, often also unpaid. As just one example, Tahiirah Habibi, founder of The Hue Society, co-founded The Roots Fund and is also working on initiatives in other aspects of the industry.

“The fact that there are people here in this forum involved in multiple initiatives that we’ve talked about today speaks volumes about the need to expand the group that’s working on this,” says Priya French, an organizer of the Bâtonnage Forum’s mentorship program, launching in 2021, and winemaker at Napa’s Signorello Estate. “There’s a need for more people.” 

The long-term success of these groups depends upon their founders finding additional support, while also building eventual succession plans for leadership of the organizations. It’s a reminder that the genuine success of these programs depends on the rest of the wine industry and its supporters joining the effort. 

Founders are looking for community support from the wine industry. Contact these organizations directly! At the same time, be prepared to support the particular needs founders already know they have rather than attempting to create new solutions. Doing so respects the expertise these leaders carry in not only their own organizations’ efforts but also the state of the communities with which they engage. Each organization has a website that offers opportunities to reach them directly or donate. Additionally, the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum will offer a website (available in September) as a central resource for the community to learn more about these initiatives.

Industry members, companies, and groups can become part of these changes through active collaboration, volunteering, offering financial sponsorship, and by making overt commitments at both a personal and professional level to establishing equity. Such commitments will require truly welcoming diversity, allowing for improvement over time, and ongoing learning about how to redress missteps and hold ourselves accountable. Missteps will happen. But, most importantly, industry members need to get started, and do the work to establish equity anyway.

The benefits are significant for the wine industry. By bringing educational, experiential, and job opportunities in wine to more people, these groups are expanding wine’s audience. “People assume that because these organizations exist, the work is done,” says McCoy, “but in my mind the work is just beginning. It is incredibly important that we maintain the momentum.” 

While the rest of the wine industry catches up to these efforts, some of these organizations are finding ways to work together. “I was quite surprised that there was less overlap between the goals and efforts of the organizations than I anticipated. Each of these groups have slightly different missions,” says Katie Canfield, co-director of Bâtonnage Forum and partner at the Sonoma-based PR and marketing firm O’Donnell Lane. This presents an opportunity for groups to collaborate or combine projects that could serve more than one organization. 

“This is a generational shift,” says Martin Reyes, co-founder of Wine Unify and principal at the global wine consultancy Reyes Wine Group. It is about shifting the balance to create an industry of mutual respect that genuinely values diversity at all levels and across all sectors of the industry. 

“We are changing people’s lives,” says Roxy Narvaez, co-founder of the Juneteenth Saber Celebration, and a wine educator and immigration advocate. 

Industry advisor Pitts summarized a key point as the forum concluded: “Finally, after all these years.”