Since 2020, countless businesses—in the wine industry and others—have pledged to drive more equity and diversity with their work, primarily in response to national calls for greater protection of Black lives. Two and a half years later, many articles attest that few businesses have delivered on their promises. Were some of these promises empty, used to manage public perception with no plans to execute? Certainly. But I’d also like to believe that some of them were made with earnest intention to follow through, but roadblocks presented themselves.
My husband Jon and I started Legend Imports in 2020, after returning from living in Australia for three years. Though we’d always considered ourselves progressive when it comes to the environment, labor, diversity, and equity, living in Australia for an extended period instilled in us a feeling that it’s possible for society to operate in a more enlightened way. Though Australia is by no means perfect, there are universal rights—like healthcare, vacation time, and a livable wage—that are too often missing in the United States.
We took the responsibility of starting a company seriously: if we were going to invest copious amounts of our time, money, and energy in a business, we wanted to make sure it was contributing to a better world, even in a small way. When we launched our company, we also announced a value statement and a pledge to release annual accountability reports to reflect on what we’d been able to accomplish.
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Within six months of being in business, a friend introduced us to Pamela Busch, who runs a nonprofit called The Vinguard, an organization that has been “solely focused on fighting oppression in the wine industry through education and representation,” says Busch. The Vinguard was in the process of revising the WINE (Wine Industry Equity) Pledge, which outlines how businesses and individuals in the wine industry can be more equitable, safe, and environmentally responsible.
The WINE Pledge has been a valuable resource for our company to organize our values, articulate and implement goals, and hold ourselves accountable; I am now a member of The Vinguard’s board of directors as well. The WINE Pledge is both a document and a commitment: it serves as a roadmap for helping businesses to hone their environmental and social justice-oriented goals, but it also asks its signatories to submit and report on those goals. To date, 62 businesses have signed the pledge.
The idea is to set a short-term, medium-term, and long-term goal, and then add new ones every year—favoring sustained progress with ongoing assessment over immediate action with zero accountability. To highlight how the WINE Pledge helps wine businesses deliver on their individual goals, I spoke to three companies about their progress—and outlined our progress with Legend as well.
When California’s Bay Grape, a retailer and wine bar with locations in Oakland and Napa, signed the WINE Pledge, they aspired to donate their space and time to host one event that benefits and promotes underrepresented groups within the wine industry per quarter at each location; incorporate existing annual DEI training programs into routine onboarding training for all new employees, in addition to an annual refresher course; and to replace a significant portion of packaging waste (especially glass) with reusable wine packaging and storage.
Bay Grape’s co-owner Stevie Stacionis reports that the team has succeeded in achieving part or all of these goals, but she acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy. Discussing the second goal of incorporating DEI training programs, Stacionis concedes that “bigger projects like this tend to get back-burnered when you’re constantly just trying to stay properly staffed, get the floors mopped on a regular basis, make sure insurance and permits and licenses are up to date, and just keep afloat.” But it is a goal that she is actively working on implementing into their 24-hour, owner-led training regimen.
The other two goals Bay Grape has achieved, though they are part of an ongoing process that needs to be adapted in order to be sustainable. Stacionis succeeded in holding quarterly events to promote underrepresented groups in the wine industry last year, as well as implementing reusable packaging into each store location, but acknowledges that both were huge undertakings—bigger than she anticipated. “I have to rest a bit knowing that we are still pursuing the end goal,” she says, “and I need to find the balance of being patient and practical with that while also insisting on progress.”
Stacionis echoes here a theme of the pledge: endurance. It isn’t about quick wins, but rather, sustained and incremental change.
Jaime Hiraishi (who is also a member of the Vinguard’s board of directors) and Sarah Garand, the owners of Wine Down wine bar in San Francisco, aimed to have at least 75 percent of wine club selections and 35 percent of the full bar menu made by typically underrepresented populations; share a part (ideally at least one percent) of monthly sales to causes the team cares about; incorporate discussion of implicit bias, privilege, and race into onboarding and training; and formalize a profit-sharing partnership with the team and promote from within.
The Wine Down team immediately set about implementing all of these goals. “Over the last year,” says Hiraishi, “we incorporated our Equity Pledge goals into our monthly KPIs and monitored them closely.” Wine Down exceeded their shorter-term goals every month, so much so that they’ve become an integral part of their regular business practices. “They’re standard operating procedure now,” she says.
Oda Family Marani
Far beyond the Bay Area, the Pledge even has some international signees: Keto Ninidze signed the pledge for her winery Oda Family Marani in Samegrelo, Georgia. Her goals were to train the staff on how to create a safe space at the winery and restaurant for people of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, cultural beliefs, and abilities; finalize her book about her wine experience, where she tries to figure out the female gaze of viticulture and winemaking in her culture; continue adjusting the winery’s infrastructure, including completing the restroom equipment, to better serve those with disabilities; and to mentor someone looking for social media or ecommerce guidance, or create a free course.
Ninidze notes that Georgia is “rather conservative and still a very patriarchal society,” so enacting these goals was at times neither safe nor easy. But she enforced strict policies in her winery to ensure that staff was respectful of anyone who walked in the door, and she has been regularly speaking with her staff and others to raise awareness on issues of equity in her community.
The book spoken of in her second goal is finished and in the editorial process. She hopes it will show Georgian wine culture beyond the patriarchy, beyond the main region of Kakheti, and beyond the “old Soviet paradigm of industrial wineries serving the Russian market.” It’s called Apocryphal Toasts, and it will most likely be translated into English when it’s published later in the year. Keto’s fourth goal was also engaged: she worked with several female entrepreneurs in the last year to help write project proposals and develop business interests. One of her mentees even succeeded in a grant competition.
The third goal was not completed in 2022, but Ninidze hopes to finish adjusting the infrastructure of the winery for the requirements of inclusive tourism this spring. She cites financial challenges stemming from the war in Ukraine, remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic crisis in Georgia as the reasons she was unable to complete this goal, but is still committed to getting it done. Ninidze acknowledges the WINE Pledge in encouraging her “to reflect on what worked and what has to still be done.”
As for me, the goals for my own company Legend Imports, in order from short- to long-term, were to make our social media more accessible to blind and low-vision communities; add two wineries to the portfolio owned by Indigenous Australians or people of color; and to become a fair-trade certified business. We have made good progress on the first two goals. Making our social media more accessible largely consists of providing image descriptions for our Instagram posts—a simple fix that we hope can have a big impact. There are a few other good guidelines to follow like minimizing strings of emojis and capitalizing new words in hashtags, which makes a difference to those using readers. We now have a LGBTQ+ and Asian Australian-owned winery in our portfolio, as well as one of Australia’s few Indigenous-owned wineries—good wine and good people who are improving representation for marginalized communities in Australia (and who have made the fabric of our business more complex, thoughtful, and diverse).
On our third goal, we had to pivot: we realized that a fair-trade certification for an importer would rely on our producers doing most of the work (which we didn’t want to ask of them, nor could we ensure completion). So we have changed this big-picture goal to becoming a B Corp-certified business. We are relatively early in the process, but look forward to digging in more in 2023. While these goals may be small compared to what needs to happen to ensure a more equitable industry, we are in this for the long haul, and hope to continuously change and grow forward.
Though the Pledge currently operates to provide the framework and accountability for goals like these, its long-term success will depend on its evolution—the Pledge has goals of its own. This includes stepping more outside the colonial and white supremacist mindsets that frame this work as checking boxes off a list; instead, this should be viewed as a complete paradigm shift —one that encourages businesses to embrace this work not only for how it benefits others, but for how it makes their own structures (and the industry at large) more vibrant, intelligent, and successful.
With the Pledge, The Vinguard wants to make this work more accessible for everyone. We continue to ask ourselves questions like: How can we provide information and services to individuals and businesses who want to embark on this work, to make sustained effort more feasible? Are we doing the emotional work of interrogating our own biases and approaches, and are we creating a space that accounts for others doing the same? And, how can we encourage a greater contingent to join in on the work, in whatever way they can? A handful of companies achieving goals is great, but when that work multiplies—and that paradigm shift occurs across an industry—real progress is made.
Jaime Hiraishi echoes a similar sentiment, and sees an industry where lots of small goals add up to a bigger sum: “We’re a small wine bar, but the changes we made because of our goals around the Pledge have been significant. We imagine a day when the rest of the industry does the same.”
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Jane Lopes is a sommelier, importer, and author. She co-founded and currently runs her own Australian wine import company, Legend Imports.