The world of wine is storied and vast but also very much steeped in an old-guard mentality that has led to systematic issues, with organizations like the Court of Master Sommeliers currently under scrutiny for charges of sexual misconduct and lack of diversity. Additionally, in response to the recent acts of injustice against Black and Asian lives in the U.S., consumers are intentionally seeking out businesses that clearly reflect their values for inclusivity and equality.
After recognizing that the wine industry is largely white and mostly male, what can restaurants do to start changing the paradigm?
“The first approach is trying to create awareness among young people of color that this is a career path you can go down,” says Longevity Wines owner and winemaker Phil Long, who also serves as president of the Association of African American Vintners (aaav).
Restaurant owners and beverage directors can begin raising awareness by serving minority-made wines and educating customers about the origins of said wines. “It’s really about creating awareness that we actually do exist,” Long says.
Including wines like Long’s own white label, which is distributed nationally, not only lets people of color see themselves reflected on the menu, but it also appeals to the vast majority of consumers. Looking back over her more than 20 years in the beverage industry, Deborah Brenner, founder and CEO of Women of the Vine & Spirits, has found that customers are curious and quick to support minority-led initiatives.
“The consumer really enjoys learning about products from bartenders,” she says. When she worked in restaurants, Brenner says she made the effort to curate a wine list and source spirits that she could introduce to customers as women- and minority-owned. “Every time the customers would come in, they’d ask, ‘Deb, what’s new?’” she says.
Just as restaurant leaders wish to show their values through the products they source, so too do customers strive to be conscious buyers.
“I think that people today are really making an effort to ask, ‘How can I better support companies and products that share my values of diversity and equity?’” Brenner says. “‘How can I spend my money to support Black-owned companies, women-owned companies, and veteran-owned companies?’”
Restaurants can also play a role in bridging the gap between customers and minority-produced wines. But Long says operators should know that it will take effort since there aren’t that many minority-led labels. To curate a top-quality list featuring a diverse mix of producers, beverage leaders need to do their research.
Thankfully, organizations like the AAAV and Women of the Vine & Spirits provide lists of wine labels on their sites that fit within their missions for diversity, equity, and inclusion. These associations are always looking for ways to make access to this knowledge easier for industry professionals.
After curating a strong selection, the next step is to promote the mission behind the menu, leaders say.
“When we have partners of color, we make sure that that is a talking point so people understand that inclusivity is very important to us,” says Gene Zimmerman, director of beverage at four-unit restaurant Sixty Vines and two-unit Mexican Sugar. “I am a big proponent of family-owned and operated wineries, people who farm sustainably and responsibly, give back to their communities, and treat their employees well.”
That passion is typically reflected in how the producers make wine, Zimmerman adds. It’s easy for him to get excited about and share these products with customers.
It is also important for Sixty Vines to offer exceptional, knock-your-socks-off wines at affordable prices so customers of all walks of life can come in and discover the beauty of a good glass of wine. “That is a piece of the inclusion: wines for the people,” Zimmerman says.
Another way restaurants can foster a sense of diversity and inclusion is by making sure that they hire people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and beyond.
“We need to recognize that restaurant goers are very diverse, and they’re going to be more apt to dine in and frequent a restaurant that has diversity,” Brenner says. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are proven statistically [to be] good for business. When you have diverse people in your talent pool, you’re solving problems by looking at things differently.”
And in crises like the current pandemic, having a variety of voices is all the more important; diversity breeds innovation and resiliency through differing perspectives and collaboration.
In terms of hiring practices, Brenner recommends restaurants take a close look at how they are writing job descriptions and where they are promoting openings, “so you’re not just attracting the same people,” she says.
Restaurants of all sizes can become involved with associations like AAAV and Women of the Vine & Spirits. Through these collaborations, they can help fund scholarships that provide industry experience and mentorship to traditionally underrepresented groups. After all, these organizations not only offer career paths forward for people of color and women, they also provide a support system of peers and leaders that look like them in an industry that often does not.