Method: First wine exposition in an undisclosed major US city --
a pricey yet hard-earned splurge in order to access the VIP tasting room.
Subject: Kindly read the full comment. Please.
A year ago, I decided to transition out of a stressful career in healthcare to a career in the wine industry. It’s something I've always been interested in not only as a wine drinker but as an academic at heart. The vast and varied regions and the artistic blend of terroir and talent have always fascinated me beyond mere beverage trivia.
I discovered the (undisclosed) Wine Expo in the later pages of Kevin Zraly's latest edition of his famed Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. Being well into my wine theory studies, and feeling a little overwhelmed, but determined, I thought," How wonderful. What a great opportunity to experience the many wines I have studied over the past several months. What a terrific way to tie things together and perhaps socialize with experts in the industry."
I arrived to the expo thrilled to attend and excited for the day ahead. I reviewed the relevant chapters in the Wine Bible the night before so that I could be well informed on the regions of the seminars I was to attend. I dressed in my smartest clothes, entered the foyer to the Grand Hall - along with an already impressive crowd of attendants and found my way to the first registration line that appeared to have the shortest wait. I casually watched as others ahead of me registered - making sure my tickets were out and ready to be scanned (don't want to hold up anyone behind me) then I stepped up - smiling - to the woman wearing the pink volunteer shirt and barely parted my lips to say "Good morning. Are you the person to whom I should give my ticket for the event?"
I say "barely parted my lips" because before I could get out the words, this person who'd seemed so helpful and polite to the attendants before me, quickly and dryly quipped, "this line is for VIP attendants." She did not greet me, she did not ask for my tickets. She did not ask if I was a VIP attendant. I was shocked. Why on earth would she think I could not have been a VIP attendant? What about me made that so implausible? I turned around, checked that I was not confused, read the signs and replied, "Yes, I know. Here is my ticket." She then said it again - as if I must have misheard her - and pointed to the line that she assumed I belonged in saying "over there. You need to go over there." It was as if she did not bother to listen to my reply. This time I held up my ticket and said, "Am I in the wrong line? I have VIP tickets." She quickly apologized, directed me to the booth with the Riedel glasses and told me to "be sure you get your swag bag." I don't know for sure, but something in her expression seemed shocked by her mistake.
I approached the VIP table to secure my swag. I saw a woman hand a large purple bag and secure a bright pink wrist band on the couple ahead of me. I waited patiently as she schmoozed a bit and answered - courteously - all their questions. When it was my turn, I stepped up, forcing a smile. I wasn't going to assume anything about episode #1, but just try to start over and have fun. As politely and gently as I could, I said to the woman, "hello, I'm here to attend the wine tasting." Without checking my ticket, without asking if I was a VIP, without doing anything except looking in my face, the woman curtly replied, "this line is for VIP only." Oh my goodness (!) I thought. Was the couple ahead of me treated this way? No they were not. Nor the wave of people behind me. Now, I was careful to pay attention to that. I really wanted to be wrong. I looked up at the letters 'VIP' on the sign in front of me to confirm I was not mistaken then presented my ticket to her and said, "yes, I know. Here is my VIP ticket." She diverted her glare to the floor, whispered a speedy apology, then resumed a normal tone as she handed me a big purple bag and a wine glass. Two of the volunteers behind her - witnesses to this rudeness - sheepishly placed the pink wrist band on my wrist and verbally directed me to the VIP coat check.
I entered the Grand Hall. I made an immediate right through the door, noted the sign that said "VIP coat check" then headed in that direction. There was no one else in line, so I felt, perhaps, things would go much smoother for me now. As I entered the VIP section, a woman - dressed in all black (security guard?) - extended her arm towards me as a gesture to halt my progression and said, "this area is for VIP only". Recall that by now, I am carrying a large, Crayola-purple swag bag and wearing a bright pink wrist band. Without looking beyond my face or even politely inquiring as to whether or not I could actually be a VIP attendant, I was, for the 3rd time, assumed to be out of place.
Day 1 was a lovely wine tasting experience. What a terrific opportunity for a novice like me. Despite the lump in my throat and underlying sadness that had settled into the pit of my stomach, I was feeling somewhat distracted by the vendors and their amazing liquid offerings. I was so impressed with the presentation. That evening in my hotel, I'd come to terms with what seemed to be an unfortunate reality of this kind of event, had a warm bath and tucked myself in. I was determined not to let my Day 1 introduction spoil a priceless learning opportunity for me.
Day 2, Sunday. Wrist band? Check. Purple swag bag? Check. I approached the VIP coat check in full VIP attire and a brand-new coat to check for the day. I'd almost forgotten the moments that begun my first day until the woman said to me, "you can't come over here, your coat check is all the way down there." I must admit, I was speechless for a few seconds. I asked (without a smile this time), "Is this VIP coat check?" She said, "yes, but general coat check is on the other end." Now with a wrinkled brow and assuring that my wristband and purple bag are in full view, I replied "So... there will be no special VIP coat check today. Is that what you're saying?" She seemed a bit impatient now and answered "yes, there is VIP coat check, but you have to have special access to use it". Now the knot in my throat has returned, the tears are just barely restrained behind my eyes and my chest is feeling quite hot. As calmly as I could, I said, "Yes, I know. I am a VIP attendant." She instantly, hopped to an apology, became sickeningly polite and helpful then behaved in that familiar way that people behave when they are less sorry and more afraid of the consequences.
Episodes #1-3 occurred within 30 minutes of my first day at the Expo. Instead of feeling like a guest at your event, I felt like I was being regarded as some random black woman in dirty sweatpants who jogged in off the street trying to score a free case of 40s to take back to the hood. Hurt doesn't even begin to describe the way I felt. Devastated. This was, by far, the most rapid-fire succession of public discrimination I've even know. I hesitate to use the more inflammatory word. Really, I do. It's so divisive and instantly draws people to the defensive. I don't mean to put you in that position. Perhaps, it was coincidence that the offending staff were all white, the people in line ahead of me and behind me were white (as were ~97% of the participants) and I am black. But 3 times in 30 minutes? And again, for good measure, the second day, too? Was that in case I misunderstood the message from day 1. It was like a billboard had been constructed for me that read:
I did not actually cry until the drive home tonight. It all came flooding back like a punch in the gut. Clearly, your team needs to be re-educated. Not only that, but an attitude adjustment is certainly in order.
I will not relinquish my right to pursue a career in the wine industry because of this situation. I will however, remember to brace myself - at least for a while - before skipping into another wine expo with nothing but a good time on my mind.
I ask, but would never really expect, that you read this letter to your staff. The offending persons were regular volunteers and a couple of them seemed to be volunteer supervisors. What a horrible example!
I really, really want to attend next year, but my eyes fill with tears as I think about it now. I will instead, just move on. Maybe I'll try California's expo next year. I heard it was pretty good, too.