Select field communications and strategies of integration no. 25: Dear San Francisco Chronicle

version française

I live in France. I love living in France. I love the way the air breathes differently here and I don't always wake up feeling hypoxic under the weight of my skin. On most days, I can just forget and live. The people are overall friendly and hard-working. Life in the city is too vulnerable and hectic to care who sits next to you on a bus. There is no multi-media stream of tense debates about the limits of my humanity. As far as I know, my presence doesn't trigger fury, shame, fear or annoyance. I can buy a fucking baguette without being black while buying a baguette. There is, however, one environment where invisibility is taxing. Not because I want to be seen as a representative of a color but because I want to be seen beyond the tone of my flesh as a competent and capable individual.

In the five years since I entered this profession, I have never personally met a single French black wine professional anywhere in the entire country. I have identified one – maybe two - French persons of color - in remote areas - who seem to be surviving what I can only imagine is an uphill climb in a downhill windstorm. I am fairly certain one of them is no longer in the industry. As I've discovered in my travels between several wine producing nations, the issue of visibility is not limited to the American wine community. Monoculturalism is perhaps a factor in the lack of diversity in some countries, though, this is not as valid an argument for America or the UK. Major wine markets have pushed for so long to expand their profits but I have to wonder if the reward of aggressive expansion is blowing back a bit. As the profile of wine drinkers and wine professionals evolves, the discouragement to engage in an industry that works so hard to globalize its image is bewildering.

This article, about the American wine industry, missed the mark for me by focusing on the semantics of aroma descriptors and not the fundamental contributors to the homogeneity that is the law of the credible and esteemed wine world. The evidence and impact of these laws is much deeper than wine descriptors. The "language of wine" argument is easy to dispel. It is the low hanging hot topic meant to exemplify racism in wine.

Of course wine analysis must include a common vernacular. In many industries, it is the only way participants express and understand one another in a specialized environment. Wine, medicine, informatics, design -- all employ some sort of a professional lingo. Certainly, it needs to be precise enough to understand and flexible enough to evolve as the industry and the world change. That said, expanding the tasting vocabulary to include purple flowers from Africa or spices from the Caribbean does not even come close to addressing the heart of the matter if there are few if any professionals of color on the tasting panel, in the classroom, at the exposition or in any room anywhere a wine event, course or job is taking place. I mean, if only people who love brioche are righting the rules, then brioche it is! This seems reasonable to me.

In five years, I have never met a single French black wine professional in France. Should the inclusion conversation ever cross the Atlantic, I hope it will be substantive and not shallow. I hope it will be led by an array of voices who know what it is like and not just voices that can only imagine. In America, I believe the industry is terribly loyal to elitist traditions that serve to perpetuate the myth of superior and inferior humans. The American wine industry clutches these values despite the threat of extinction because to truly diversify means to validate both our commonalities and our variations in culture, style and taste. By comparison, it seems that the French wine industry is cemented in a Snow-White dream of 1000 years - peaceful, beautiful, noble and serene. There seems to be a profound lack of awareness that people of color could ever possess an intellectual curiosity about wine and want to nurture that curiosity into a scholastic or professional pursuit. It seems the industry is so insolated that to initiate conversation about diversity would merely result in elementary responses like "There are not many French black wine professionals because French blacks are not that interested in wine" or "It is not their tradition" or "If they want to study wine where are they? Not at the schools, not in the classrooms". Stereotypes, assumptions, and the status quo make for the weakest excuses when it comes to willful unawareness. In America, unawareness does not consider as prominently in the excuses for exclusivity.

In France, I suspect it is the only thing that exists. American movements have a way of waving across the ocean though not always taking hold. Perhaps their own contradictions are to blame. Big wine companies and powerful wine cliques (non-diversified highly influential organizations) love to shout out toothless solidarity statements by posting them on Instagram. As a result, “awareness” peaks in February and during times of social unrest. Afterwards, these declarations freefall past the ground level of every day life into the dark abyss of topics that no longer trend. As I see it, the most powerful forces in the wine industry are so high-brow, so far from "woke", that diversity and inclusion are likely viewed as a demolition rather than an enrichment of professional standards. Even worse, inclusion may be viewed as a threat to the integrity of the entire industry or a rejecting of the provenance of a particular style of wine. The contrast between the message and the meaning is truly mesmerizing. Having traversed these few years through the French wine minefield I can say, unlike the many humiliations I have faced in the American wine world, I have never known a single explosion in France. Not because I was careful, but because no matter where I go or what I do in the industry, I am always invisible.