Catalina Azcarraga was working at a wine bar in Oakland, California, on a night when Ikimi Dubose-Woodson walked in. The world was still on fire—the pandemic was raging on, and people across America were grappling with the aftermath of 2020’s racial and civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Racial equality, equity, and social justice were still big topics for most industries, and wine was no different. Many organizations centered on diversity and inclusion sprung up in the wake of all the protests, and Azcarraga immediately recognized Dubose-Woodson as the woman from Instagram helping Black and Brown people advance in wine.
“I was pouring glasses at this bar, but my heart was set on wine production. I dreamed of going to France or Spain to work a harvest, but I didn’t know where to begin with that kind of thing. Ikimi told me, ‘You need to apply to my program tonight,’” recalls Azcarraga.
Dubose-Woodson launched The Roots Fund in 2020 along with wine industry giants like Carlton McCoy Jr., MS, the cofounder of Demeine Estates and CEO of five historic Napa Valley wineries, and The Hue Society founder Tahiirah Habibi. Vintus marketing manager Santosh Varghese and Jeremy Seysses, the owner and winemaker at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, serve as board members. The nonprofit was created to help develop a pathway for people of color in wine by providing financial and educational support, mentorship, and job placement opportunities. Since its inception, The Roots Fund has raised over a half-million dollars and granted more than 100 scholarships to people across the U.S.
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Initially, Azcarraga was hesitant to apply. “I was trying not to make a fuss. Keep myself small, sneak in through the cracks, be invisible, and work my way up. But Roots Fund is not like that at all,” says Azcarraga. “They tell you, ‘Stand up to be counted. You deserve to be here just as much as anyone else. This place is made for you.’ And that was the energy I needed to launch into the next phase of my career.”
Azcarraga applied, won the scholarship, and learned she was selected to spend a harvest working in Burgundy at Domaine Duroché in Gevrey-Chambertin. The opportunity turned out to be more than just a dream come true, but rather a defining experience that provided Azcarraga with the tools, resources, and access to learn about winemaking in a way she’s sure will continue to impact her career and production style for years. “That experience abroad and having the chance to taste different wines of the world only fueled my fire for winemaking,” Azcarraga says.
Over the last three years, many DEI organizations have newly launched or expanded their efforts to create more career pathways for Black, Brown, and other historically underrepresented people in the wine industry. To get insight into their real-world impact on the wine sector, SevenFifty Daily spoke to the professionals of color who have gained access to new careers and found community through these groups.
It’s All About Access
In 2022, the Wine Market Council, in collaboration with EthniFacts, released a two-part study examining the cultural wine barriers Black American and Hispanic consumers faced. Some of the most notable points uncovered in the findings included comments from study subjects surrounding representation in the wine workforce and the high barriers to entry. Interviewees wanted wine to be more accessible. They wanted to see more people who looked like them interacting with wine, and more importantly, they wanted to see a more diverse scope of people owning wineries and brands or holding jobs and positions of influence within the industry.
Groups like The Roots Fund—in addition to Wine Unify, The Hue Society, Lift Collective, and others— aim to deliver on those fronts by creating an inclusive ecosystem built on empowerment and advocacy.
“Returning to this industry, I wanted to do something impactful. I wanted to help open doors and create pathways of success for folks who look like so many people not represented in the wine industry right now,” says Alicia Towns Franken, the executive director of Wine Unify.
A former wine director at Grill 23 in Boston, Towns Franken was one of the few Black women wine professionals in her city when she left the wine industry in 2002 to raise her children. Wine Unify cofounder DLynn Proctor convinced her to return in 2020. With Proctor and fellow Wine Unify cofounders Martin Reyes, MW, and Mary Margaret McCamic, MW, Towns Franken wanted to create access for students looking for an entrance into wine, whether professionally or in hopes of expanding their interest and knowledge as consumers. To date, Wine Unify has handed out more than 145 awards, which cover the costs of recipients’ Wine and Spirits Education Trust credentials.
“Being involved in Wine Unify has given me the confidence to move forward in my wine journey,” says Leo Braddock, a 2021 Wine Unify recipient. “Knowing that people in high-level positions in your industry have your back and can help provide you with access to events and tastings and resources makes it easier to approach some intimidating places.”
The organization sent him to work a harvest at Dusted Valley in Washington State, where he fell in love with fruit from the Rocks District and realized his dream to be a winemaker. Braddock’s assigned mentor, sommelier and winemaker André Hueston Mack, was among the many influences that led to his decision to uproot from Louisville, Kentucky, to make wine in the Walla Walla region of Washington.
“It’s a group that gives a damn about elevating people and will put you in a position to succeed. They have the tools to surround you with what you need to ensure you’re successful,” says Braddock.
Amy Wright, an inaugural Roots Fund scholar and WSET diploma candidate, has changed jobs twice in retail since connecting with her mentor Christy Frank, the founder of Copake Wine Works and Hamlet Hound Cocktails.
“The first job Christy helped me with tripled my salary, and then the second job she put me on to doubled that salary. I went from making $20 working on the floor in retail to now being the director of sales for the Urban Grape in Boston,” says Wright. While having the knowledge and expertise of a diploma candidate helped Wright seal the deal, she says there’s no doubt that the connections made through The Roots Fund have played a pivotal role. “Just simply being in certain rooms, having somebody to vouch for you, is so valuable,” says Wright.
Azcarraga, who now works in production at Dutton-Goldfield Winery in Sonoma, California, agrees that she would never have had access to top production roles without The Roots Fund. “What it did was open every single door I didn’t even know I would ever be able to walk through. They gave me so much access to help bridge the gaps that I had no other way of bridging,” says Azcarraga.
Building Community in Wine
Beyond offering resources to help people of color excel professionally and educationally in wine, organizations are helping foster a community of people who can relate to one another.
“What does it look like to be nurtured? That’s one of the great things that comes with being in a community with people who look like you and understand what you’re going through because they’ve endured it too,” says Habibi, the founder of the Hue Society, an organization that champions Black and Brown voices and experiences within the wine industry, while simultaneously providing fellowship and educational support for people of color looking to advance in wine.
It’s crucial for underrepresented people to feel safe when navigating the unfamiliar, and organizations focused on diversity and inclusion have helped create comfortable environments for students to learn and grow amongst their peers in an industry that’s long been dominated by white men. Not to mention, these groups have given people the chance to make some new lifelong friends.
“It’s been awesome having friends in wine and having people to study with or just grab a glass with,” says Braddock. “I get excited to see some of the accomplishments the people I came in with have made, and it’s uplifting to see classes behind us be announced as the foundation grows.”
The beauty of the community really shows in the willingness to pay it forward, and many of those who have benefited from the services of DEI-based wine programs feel a responsibility to help the incoming cohorts. “I tell people all the time: My DMs are open. If you want my number, you can have my number. We’re not in this alone, and that’s the value in being a part of this community,” says Wright.
Charting the Path Forward
“I see a lot more Black people, which I love. I see us taking up space and being unapologetic about it. We’re finding our voice and making our way in this industry,” says Habibi. That said, plenty more needs to be done for a more diverse and inclusive wine industry in the future.
Now that race relations aren’t dominating the news cycle, some companies are falling short of their promises. Data surrounding DEI efforts in the wine industry is hard to come by—which itself signals a need for further progress—but the overall state of DEI positions across corporations makes it clear that industries are lacking. Corporate DEI roles were up 55 percent in 2020, but by 2022, the attrition rate for those jobs was down to 33 percent, according to an NBC report. One survey found that white people accounted for 76.1 percent of the remaining chief diversity roles. Meanwhile, another report released earlier this year found that venture capital for Black entrepreneurs had fallen some 45 percent.
“I think for some people it was a brown check, and then they were done,” says Towns Franken. “But there are some people who are still really committed to the work, and it’s my job to remind people of what they said they were going to do.”
Holding sponsors and companies accountable is a top priority. But in the interim, Towns Franken says that Wine Unify is working on creating more access for its recipients, whether by helping students secure tours in Piedmont, Italy, and other notable wine regions or getting them into high profile events like the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. “There’s just work to be done, and we just have to keep at it. Ideally, we hope that organizations like ours are no longer needed at some point because there’s no longer a lack of diversity in the industry,” says Towns Franken.
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Janice Williams is a New York City-based freelance writer covering wine and spirits. Certified WSET Level II, her work has been featured in print and online publications, including Newsweek, Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Uproxx, and Thrillist, among others. You can follow her work on Instagram @browngirldrinkswine and website janicewilliams.net.