On May 3 and 4, professionals gathered at Abbey Road Farm in Carlton, Oregon, for a wine seminar centered not around tasting or learning to craft better wine, but on putting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging front and center in the wine industry.
Assemblage amplifies the voices of women, BIPOC individuals, people who identify as LBGTQIA+, those with disabilities, and others who are underrepresented in the wine industry. “The first year, we came out of the gate as a women in wine event,” said Rachel Adams, the founder and executive director of Assemblage, which was first held in January 2020. “The events of the last two years have made it so obvious that this work has to be taken up by everyone in the community,” which led to an expansion in the speakers and topics covered.
The sessions held at the 2022 symposium—the first one held since 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the 2021 event—featured speakers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives and included more tactical discussions, such as how to become an accomplice in DEI work, to more inspirational sessions designed to help people find their place in the industry, no matter their personal history. But throughout the two-day gathering, speakers emphasized the tremendous strength to be found in diversity, noting that workers should be focused on that “rather than worrying about fitting into a mold that [they] don’t need to worry about fitting into,” says Adams.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning Daily Dispatch newsletter—delivered to your inbox every week.
Working Outside an Outdated Rulebook
Creating a more inclusive wine industry starts with acknowledging the exclusionary norms that persist in wine culture. This was underscored in the “Decolonizing the Palate” session held by Miguel de Léon, a writer and the wine director of Pinch Chinese in New York City, and Alice M. Achayo, the Boston-based consultant and founder of The Wine Linguist, which provided a critical analysis of the Eurocentrism of wine descriptions and the “rules” around wine and food pairing. As an example, de Léon highlighted the notion that red wine shouldn’t be paired with spicy food because the wine makes the dish seem “too spicy.” “Too spicy for who?” he posited. For people accustomed to lots of spice in their foods, accentuating the heat may be a positive experience.
Discussions about wine often center on whiteness—describing the experiences and desires of white individuals as “right” and all other experiences as “wrong.” This is echoed in the practice of calling certain spices and fruit “exotic,” Achayo pointed out. Again, the question is: to whom are things like mango, lychee, cumin, or five-spice “exotic”? Certainly not people who grew up regularly eating those foods as part of their culture. Adjusting the language around food, food pairings, and wine descriptors is essential to bring more people into the wine community.
“There are so many people who feel like wine’s not for them because they don’t have the right palate or the right vocabulary or the budget, and that wine is only for certain people,” said Rania Zayyat, the wine director at Bufalina in Austin, Texas, and the founder of Lift Collective, which advocates for equity and inclusion in the wine industry. Conversations like these are needed to “help people realize there’s a place for them and we want them in the industry.”
Recalibrating Mindsets Around Work
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many wine industry workers—particularly those in the hospitality sector—struggled to accept the idea that work does not determine self-worth. “After spending two years in so much uncertainty and pain and loss that the hospitality and restaurant industries have gone through, I think that’s a really hopeful message about showing up as who we are rather than what we do,” said Adams. “That’s one of the most valuable things we can offer each other in the wine industry.”
In the panel “Pandemic Lessons on Work and Self-Care,” Zayyat noted that the previous view of work-life balance, which involved keeping personal and work lives completely separate, revealed itself to be unsustainable over the last two years. “[It] makes us dismiss a lot of who we are authentically if we can’t show up acknowledging the things that are happening in our communities, with our health, and with the things that are affecting our loved ones,” she said.
Rather, self-care is necessary for productivity. Speakers pointed to the drain of spending many hours on sociaI media; Instagram in particular was called both a blessing and a curse—something that feels obligatory for both growing a business and being active in social change work, but a piece of technology that also has the hefty side effect of damaging comparative thinking and the perpetuating of false narratives of health, wealth, and wholeness, as Adams recapped.
To combat that, panelists recommended a renewed focus on nurturing in-person relationships, urging attendees to get off social media and into their communities when feeling lost, isolated, or down. Many noted that wine businesses should reimagine how to mobilize the industry without relying so heavily on social media to do it for them.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to self-care, and panelists urged industry members to follow their personal recipes for happiness, noting that saying “no” to things can be worthwhile if it allows people to say yes to what really fuels them.
Enacting Continuous Action and Improvement
Many companies vowed to implement diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) plans in 2020, but what happens after these programs are put in place? In the “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access: What’s Next?” panel, de Léon proposed an idea centering around the Six Sigma management philosophy of continuous self-reflection and self-improvement, using the familiar DEIA acronym and taking it a step further. Firms looking for their next step should add “decentering whiteness” to their work on the diversity pillar of DEIA. E becomes about “engaging with the people you want to continue to bring in,” he added. “[I is] not just inclusion, but incorporation of those folks and their belief system. [A is] not just about access, it’s about action.”
Action was a theme underscored by Maryam Ahmed, the founder of Maryam + Company, which provides a range of services including project management and a diversity in wine leadership forum, with her accountability, communication, and transparency (ACT) framework for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging work. The philosophy relies on accountability, which requires that individuals take ownership of their thoughts, beliefs, and behavior to put themselves in a position for change, and community, which is about sharing personal needs, supporting the needs of others, and ensuring your actions and words match in order to avoid performative behavior. “Transparency welcomes people into the process of what you’re trying to accomplish, whether that’s personally or in your company,” said Ahmed.
Though ACT is an acronym, it serves the dual purpose of reminding people that they need to, well, act. “We’re at an important moment in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and creating the wine community we want to create,” emphasizes Ahmed. In other words, wine professionals shouldn’t sit back and expect others to do this important work.
A session called “Moving from Ally to Accomplice” acknowledged that people often allow the fear of saying or doing something wrong to hold them back from taking action towards change. Remy Drabkin, the owner of Remy Wines in Dayton, Oregon, implored people not to let it. “Messing up is part of this journey,” she said.
And even though winemaking was not the focus of the Assemblage symposium, Drabkin couldn’t resist bringing that idea into an analogy. “DEI is kind of like making great wine,” she said. “You have to learn how to do it, you have to practice your techniques, and you have to be selective in those practices—and sometimes you’ll still make a flawed wine. And as you know, you can’t actually hide those flaws. So, it’s really your choice. Do you learn how to do it better next time … and learn from your mistakes? Or are you happy with a subpar product?”
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.