Essay

What Being an Ally Really Means

How the drinks industry can move from words to actions when it comes to supporting POC drinks professionals 

Illustration by Jeff Quinn.

Since George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, my inbox has been flooded with messages of solidarity from people all across the drinks industry. “I see you and hear you” is easy to believe right now, while everyone has a front-row seat in the theater to view how Black people are treated in America.

But neither seeing nor hearing involves action. The collective industry response, which ranged from silence, awkward responses, and black squares on Instagram feeds to some genuine pledges of support and action-backed commitments to change, made one thing painfully clear: Though there is a huge difference between being an ally in word and an ally in deed, few people are aware of which one they are. 

As a Black woman with a full-time career in the tech industry, I am all too familiar with Black professionals being underrepresented. I was drawn to wine initially by my love of food, and through my work as a wine educator and blogger, I soon saw that the drinks industry was no different. I—along with many of my Black colleagues—recognize what real inclusion looks and feels like, and understand what the industry needs to do to get there. 

Speak Up—and Support Your Statement with Action

Across the drinks industry, the radio silence was deafening even as nationwide protests began in response to Floyd’s murder. As of May 31—nearly a full week later—Tank Winery was one of the first non-Black owned wine companies to make a statement clearly voicing its support of the Black community. 

The initial silence signaled that the drinks industry was unwilling or afraid to segue from the status quo to acknowledge the harm being done to the Black community. 

There were some that posted messages that did more harm than good. I watched in horror as multiple people and organizations in the wine industry put out messages on social media that were either cold and legal, phony, hollow, or obviously geared to a white audience. Responses like this continue to make the Black community feel ignored and marginalized in our industry. 

If you do get the messaging wrong, listen to the feedback coming your way instead of getting hyper-defensive or ignoring criticism. Part of being an ally is accepting that you have a lot to learn and may not get it right the first time. Listen to feedback and make changes. For example, L’Oreal USA’s initial message on June 3 received immediate backlash for not acknowledging that the company has been accused of fostering a culture of white supremacy and employee discrimination as recently as 2017. “We appreciate and thank you for the call for transparency across the beauty industry regarding employee demographics,” the company stated in a June 5 Instagram post, and it then shared specific employment data. The company’s transparency and action plan demonstrate an acknowledgment of prior issues and a clear commitment to doing better.

One of the few wine businesses that got it right was bicoastal wine shop Verve Wine (where I work part time as a member of the sales team, though I do not advise its social media). Its messaging on Instagram and Facebook, as well as in internal company communications, clearly conveyed its opposition to systemic racism. The company then made donations to the NAACP and Black Visions Collective. Many wine brands, including Veuve Clicquot, Antica Terra, and Möet USA, also responded resolutely, delivering clear and impactful messaging, and then followed up with donation pledges. 

Attention Influencers: Call Out Racism and Be Willing to Sacrifice Followers

The wine influencer community, which is mostly made up of white women, needs to take a look in the mirror. Though many shared messages of support and solidarity, a few with very large followings posted messages proclaiming, “All Lives Matter”—a statement that dismisses the specific injustices being perpetrated against the Black community. As a group, while they may not be Amy Coopers (the unprovoked white woman who called the cops on a Black man bird- watching in New York City’s Central Park), their fear of offending followers and their failure to call out racist behavior makes them complicit. 

Influencers have tremendous power to drive change if they are willing to accept that it might cost them a few followers or potential paid work from brands. In recent days, a number of wine influencers have made steps toward truly being anti-racist allies. Very popular influencers with large followings such as Cristie Norman, Jaclyn Misch, Sarah Tracey, and Elle Rodriguez have promised to ask wine and spirits brands to state their position on #BlackLivesMatter and their commitment to diversity before agreeing to work with them. There has also been an intentional effort to highlight Black wine professionals, influencers, writers, bloggers, and content creators. 

But only time will tell if this is a temporary flux or lasting change. Real allyship requires continued actions—especially after the news cycle moves on. “The sudden hypervisibility of Blackness on social media comes with a heightened sense of skepticism from many Black influencers and creators as it blatantly showcases the laziness of the masses,” says Shanika Hillocks, a freelance writer and influencer marketing manager. “Pressing a ‘follow’ button from behind a screen does not solve an industry’s intersectionality problem.” A fair and inclusive influencer campaign involves brands and companies engaging with Black influencers consistently and compensating them fairly for their work, she adds. 

Offer Black Wine Professionals a Seat at the Table

Many wine industry friends have reached out to me asking simple questions like, “Should I say Black or African American?” If you truly don’t know the answer, that is a fair question. But companies cannot rely on “phoning a Black friend” every time they need to craft a message. If companies actually had Black professionals on their staff, they would have in-house expertise driving open discussions on how to authentically communicate and convey their support in a genuine way to the community they are addressing. 

Some businesses continue to profess the same excuse: “We would love to hire more Black people, but we don’t know where to find them.” Now, a new initiative is disrupting that false narrative. Washington, D.C.-based wine writer Julia Coney is in the process of creating Black Wine Professionals, a database featuring Black professionals in the wine industry. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that Black wine professionals in the drinks business have endless stories of being denied professional opportunities and advancement. “We know that without relevant experience, POC (people of color) have far fewer opportunities for professional growth,” says Philippe André, the U.S. ambassador for Champagne Charles Heidsieck. “Many times, if we are not overqualified and highly recommended for a role, we are most likely not getting a call back after an interview.” 

He recalls being referred for a high-profile role representing a luxury spirit brand that targets affluent POC as private clients. Despite André’s experience, he did not get the job. “After my interview with the U.S. brand director, the employee that referred me was told that [the company] ‘didn’t want dreadlocks to be the face of their brand,’” adds André. 

Organizations that employ Black professionals—in marketing, legal, board, and publicity positions—could also avoid being unintentionally offensive. Roederer managing director Frédéric Rouzaud’s racist comment in The Economist in 2006 about the hip-hop community and Cristal Champagne and the creation of Forty Ounce Wines, a clear appropriation of black culture with negative stereotypes, are just two of many examples.  

Companies then must also support their Black employees with mentorship programs and by fostering inclusive workplace cultures. “Create spaces that are comfortable for your employees,” says St. Louis-based sommelier Alisha Blackwell-Calvert. “Racist restaurant owners, managers, suppliers, and distributor owners and sales reps need to be called out for their abusive language and microaggressions. Do not be afraid to speak up and say that racism will not be tolerated. I perform my job at my fullest potential knowing I am respected and treated equally within a space.” 

It’s also critical that POC have the appropriate places and people to turn to with issues of discrimination. “Throughout my professional career, I have been subjected to multiple instances of racial bias and discrimination,” says André. “When I found the courage to present the issue to my management [at a previous employer], it was either dismissed or, in most cases, the discrimination came from upper-level management itself, creating a narrative that this was not their problem.” He was forced to either become complacent or risk the future of his career with legal action. 

In the end, being an ally indeed comes down to will and sacrifice. Many people know what they can do to make a difference, but they’re weighing the risk that taking action may pose to the career or business they’ve worked hard to build. Yet that’s actually shortsighted and bad business: According to a 2017 Boston Consulting Group study, companies with diverse teams are more innovative and produce 19 percent more revenue.  

Enacting change is not easy. The wine industry is still dominated by many elite gatekeepers who do not appear to place high value on creating a more diverse and inclusive community. This exclusivity is being challenged right now, as industry professionals pledge support and solidarity. But being an ally and an anti-racist requires intentional action. Sharing support from the sidelines simply isn’t enough. Not this time. 

Shakera Jones of BlackGirlsDineToo—a blog and social media space—serves as a guide to the wonderful world of high-end food and wine. Her writing, welcoming teaching style, and warm personality allow people to learn about wine and cuisine no matter their knowledge or experience. Hosting bi-weekly virtual “tastings,” she explores grapes and regions while breaking down the intimidating barriers often associated with fine wine. Her goal is to promote and support diversity and inclusion efforts for women and other underrepresented groups in the culinary and fine wine industries, a need she identified from her own experiences exploring her passion for food, wine, and culture. A tech professional by day and wine student by night, she is currently studying to obtain certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Wine Scholar Guild’s Spanish Wine Scholar program.

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