Is Natural Wine Only for White People?

Is natural wine only for white people? Over the last few years, I’ve been having this discussion with an array of people, mostly women and non-binary folks. While there are men who seemed concerned about the white male exclusivity that rules some natural wine circles, as a whole, men — white men — seemed less interested in actually doing anything about it. Honestly, a lot seem like they couldn’t care less. Others pay lip service and say the ‘right things,’ such as “I want to be part of the solution,” but when it comes to walking the walk, they have been mostly absent. For example, in early March, right before shelter in place took hold in the Bay Area, WINeFare co-organized The Price of Admission, a workshop on dismantling discrimination and eliminating sexual assault in natural wine. Of 40 participants, only ten were men.

My primary purpose in writing this is to call attention to white supremacy in natural wine. Still, this subject cannot be spoken about in a vacuum, as it is an issue that is tied to gender and class. This is going to require some attention, not just because of the length but also because I’m asking people to take a good hard and, I’m sure, uncomfortable look at something many of us revere. My intention is not to attack anyone, but I’m not going to sugar coat this subject matter either.

OK, let me re-ask the question: Is natural wine only for white people?

First, let’s widen this discussion, is wine only for white people? For decades, I’ve heard people say that the wine industry in the United States is mostly white because wine comes from European cultures, and as most white Americans have European heritage, it is part of our ancestral background or upbringing. My ancestors came from Eastern and Central Europe. While I clearly remember Manischewitz going around the table during Passover, my grandparents drank schnapps and, occasionally, brandy. As a child of the ’70s, I vividly remember adults drinking Screwdrivers and Tequila Sunrises, not wine. Wine is something I got into on my own, first as a hobby, then as a career. Up until the later part of the 19th century, the percentage of European immigrants who came from “wine-drinking cultures” was proportionally small. England, Ireland, Germany and other northern European countries — for the most part, non-wine producing countries — made up the bulk of our white population. The influx of immigrants from Southern Europe, Italy in particular, accounted for wine drinking becoming more popular in the United States a century ago. But now people from all ethnic backgrounds drink wine. Attributing the preponderance of white people working in the wine industry to a specific cultural experience rings false.

What is true is that it is a socioeconomic issue. Wine is a luxury item. While there is a romantic image of peasants (in European countries) guzzling local wine with pride, historically, in the United States, wine is identified with bourgeois and aristocratic pursuits, and the American middle and upper classes are very white. Beer is the drink of the working class. I think this is less true now than in the past, but also, as someone who works in the wine industry, I can’t say that for sure, as my vantage point is skewed.

While most Americans now spend a little over $10 on a bottle of wine, they are buying wine in supermarkets, large chain stores, corner markets, and discounters, none of which sell much in natural wines. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bottle of wine that sells for under $15 in many wine shops. I have friends and family members who rarely spend more than $20. What people refer to as “fine wine,” a term that is at best ambiguous, is a niche market. Double that for natural wine. Natural wine is not more expensive than conventional wines, but if you buy wine from a natural wine shop, you should be prepared to spend at least $20 on a bottle. For those who work in the wine industry, that is not stratospherically expensive. Yet, even before the Coronavirus pandemic, many folks were economically struggling, with non-whites being disproportionately impacted by gentrification and stagnant wages.

Wine mirrors American society in certain respects. Knowing about wine buys you cultural capital. People who can wax poetic about Burgundy’s grand crus, or, in the natural wine world, rattle off a list of 0/0 wines from Catalonia, are ‘in the know.’ A little knowledge can go a long way towards gaining acceptance in various wine circles, especially if you fit in in other ways. Buying wine, hanging out at natural wine bars/shops, and traveling to wine regions will make people take you seriously, but all of these things require money. Here, I’m referring to both consumers and professionals, but let’s talk about those who start their own wine businesses.

People say that wine is a rich kid’s business. This is not entirely true, but it is not false either. In an industry with low margins, hefty competition, and high costs in places such as the Bay Area or New York, you need a lot of working capital to help you get through the first few years. Where does that capital come from? Often, financial capital comes from having savings, family money, access to loans or investment. Many people spend years toiling away in restaurants, sales and production so they can save and start their own business, but I also want to draw attention to people who worked in industries where they made a lot of money and then decided they wanted to open a wine business without working their way up. Everyone should have an opportunity to pursue their dreams and change careers. However, time and time again, I’ve witnessed entitled white men who come into the industry and think that because they have a lot of money to spend, and they drink with the so-called gatekeepers, that they deserve the same respect as those who’ve paid their dues in the industry.

As for family money, I’ve been privy to conversations where one white male disparages another white male for his family giving him money to start a business without realizing that by being a white male, he has a lot of privileges non-whites and women do not. I’ve been lucky enough to receive family help at times during my career. I also realize that this is a privilege, not an entitlement. Having family resources is nothing to be ashamed of, but those of us who benefit should see it as our responsibility to help those in the business who are not as fortunate. We also need to realize that, for the most part, white families are in a better position to help their children and siblings start any business. Even if they do not make a direct financial contribution, they can help provide access to capital by way of their networks, putting up collateral and co-signing loans.

Then, there is employment. Working in a natural wine venue brings you cred: cultural and social capital. Once you are in, you get to drink with others in the natural wine scene, which leads to business, travel, and networking opportunities, which beget more opportunities. There are more chances to taste and expand your knowledge. Even if you do not work in the wine industry, knowing people who do affords you social capital. In wine, social capital is often predicated on drinking. In this respect, it’s not that different from playing golf. For many, it’s something that you do to get ahead. But social capital goes beyond late-night partying. Who you know has to do with who you meet at natural wine fairs in Europe, being part of a scene, and talking to the right people.

Social capital also leads to jobs. Here’s the question: how do natural wine business owners hire people, and whom do they hire? Rarely do you see a help-wanted sign or Craig’s List advertisement for a position at a natural wine bar, shop or distributor. It’s word of mouth, which is based on networks of who knows who, with overlapping professional/social circles that skew white male.

Does this mean that women aren’t hired? In some places, no, in others, yes. Does this mean that people of color aren’t hired? In some venues, yes, in others, maybe not. Is it willful sexism or racism? I feel I can speak more honestly to the former: Yes, some male-owned natural wine venues in the Bay Area have an appalling record when it comes to employment, promotion, and treatment of women. But, I’ve said a lot about this. I don’t think I can rightfully say that anyone I know deliberately does not hire non-white people, but admittedly, I have my blind spots when it comes to race, so I may very well be wrong.

I can say that all white people are guilty of implicit bias. I also know that non-whites continuously experience microaggressions that impact their daily lives in ways that white people cannot comprehend. This may very well filter into who applies for jobs and who gets hired. Natural wine business owners need to go beyond their professional and social circles and actively offer employment opportunities to those who are not white. Pointing to the one black person who works here or the Latinx person there does not cut it. There needs to be a conscious effort to provide space for non-whites in natural wine businesses, not tokenism that makes you look woke.

Implicit bias is different from overt racism, but let’s not kid ourselves and say there is not any willful racism in natural wine circles. Carrying the wines of a winemaker who publicly made racist statements is an endorsement of racism. Doing business with the importer who brings in these wines is tacitly accepting racism. We need to start having these discussions. If a non-white person knew that a specific venue carries wines made by a winemaker who made disgusting racist comments, such as these by Fulvio Bressan and Martino Manetti of Montevertine, do you think they would feel particularly welcome in that shop? Should anyone want to patronize that business?

I agree that winemakers who make horrific comments should be given another chance if there is an honest effort to right the ship. But in both of these cases, it’s been years since the incidents, and I do not know of any attempts on either of their parts to examine their behavior and provide meaningful redress. Basically, the issue went away, and some natural wine venues continue to carry their wines. Others don’t but continue to do business with their importers. Perhaps most consumers are not aware of these winemakers’ egregious behavior, but if the shop knows, should it not, in a field that places so much emphasis on transparency, let the public know if a natural wine also happens to be made by a known bigot? The same could be said for sexual predators. It’s pretty easy. I see asterisks that indicate if wines are 0/0. How about an x next to wines made by unrepentant racists and rapists?

Let’s move to the vineyards. California’s wine industry survives on the backs of our Latinx immigrant community. Just check out a vineyard during harvest time and see who’s picking. Yet there are very few Latinx people making wine. I’ve never worked production, so I don’t know the dynamics surrounding it as well as I know retail or on-premise. However, I’ve spoken to enough people to realize that there is a general attitude regarding vineyard labor as transient, with their value limited to how fast they can pick. What if winemakers and growers took more of an interest in Latinx vineyard workers and instead of treating them as chattel, made an investment in their potential? I often wonder if those who work harvest ever have a chance to try the wines made from grapes they pick. Do they not deserve to have as much of a personal connection to the fruits of their labor as the winemaker, the distributor that sells it, and the buyer who offers it to their customers?

This leads me back to the question, is natural wine only for white people? No. Unequivocally no. Natural wine is for everyone.

That is the ideal, even if the current reality is different. How can we create this change? I’m trying to do my part by transitioning The Vinguard into a 501c3 whose mission to create a Green New Deal in the wine industry that uplifts marginalized communities. Anyone who wants to help me in this endeavor or just have a conversation should let me know. Hit me up at pamela@thevinguard. While I try to do my part to push conversations about social justice, I’m just one person doing my best to come up with a remedy when there is so much institutional, cultural, implicit and overt racism. This requires a movement, which finally, we are starting to see. We live in a country built on the backs of enslaved black people, stolen land, and resources from the native population. This exploitation has continued throughout the history of Asian and Latinx immigrants. While many in natural wine circles are horrified by this white American blight, they have also benefitted from a system that privileges white people, especially but not exclusively men, from middle- and upper-class socioeconomic backgrounds over others. We have a responsibility to right the wrongs and change the system, not just make anti-racist/anti-sexist statements on Instagram or think that our work is done by signing the Equity Pledge.

On the contrary, our work is only beginning. Yes, the Equity Pledge is a first step, but the important work comes in the follow up that everyone who signed the pledge should be prepared to do. This is about being a decent human being. That’s it. And don’t expect a thank you. Just do your part.

Natural wine is expanding. More non-whites, women and gender non-conforming people are getting into it, both professionally and as consumers. Because of its noble aspirations, we have an opportunity to make natural wine a model for anti-racism, inclusion, and belonging. We need to look at our hiring practices and stop hiring young white dudes just because they look the part, say the right things, and will party with you into the wee hours.

Let’s create training programs for marginalized communities who are interested in learning about natural wine. We need to stop selling wines made by bigots and put their importers on notice that if they continue to work with these producers that we will boycott their entire portfolio. At the same time, let’s do our best to support businesses that are taking meaningful steps to end discrimination. We need to see the potential in vineyard workers, value their work, and create opportunities for advancement. White women need to stop thinking about sexism through a myopic prism and realize that we cannot address one form of discrimination and not others. Not least, we need to take a good long look at how cultural and social factors perpetuate a system of white supremacy, even in natural wine. This is going to require everyone’s efforts, regardless of skin color, gender, sexuality, age or ablelism, and we all have to be part of the solution. In the way that I hold myself to a higher standard than I hold other people, I also hold natural wine to a different standard than the rest of the wine industry. We can, should and must do better.

So let’s take our anger and sadness about racism and start by changing the world in our own little corner of natural wine. We can do this. Natural wine is for everyone.

In solidary and peace,

Pamela Busch

Executive Director, The Vinguard,

Founder, WINeFare.

Suggested Reading:

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

How To Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi

Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

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