I almost missed Black History Month this year. I do something – read a book, watch a film, read some articles – to commemorate the rich heritage and contributions of my fellow brown folks of African descent. This year has been a little different. This year, I’ve been absorbed in the study of booze.
Since early November, I’ve been a student in the Intensive Sommelier Training program at the International Culinary Center in New York City (at which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve been employed for nearly 8 years). The program–led by Master Sommelier Scott Carney, a badass in his own right–is designed to offer students an introduction to the world of wine, beer, spirits, and service in preparation for the Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier exam and a beginner-level job in the wine business.
I’m in class three evenings per week, tasting an average of 8 wines each night. It’s well, intensive. And friggin’ fabulous. Scott, along with his roster of Master Sommeliers including Wayne Belding, Christopher Bates, Laura Williamson, Kathy Morgan, and Alex LaPratt, have introduced me to a crazy new world of grapes, chateaux, neuroscience, scandals, and lawsuits. Hell, just a few months ago, someone stole nearly $300K in wine from an internationally renowned restaurant – an outright caper! My classmates are fascinating and altogether brilliant. This class – as a microcosm of what the wine world seems to be – is a ginormous Pinterest hole. Can you blame me for getting lost? Everybody should take this class. It’s cool.
And then it hit me. Everybody is not taking this class. While not the only brown person, I am the only African-American in my class. What gives? Wine is delicious.
I searched both my memory and group photos of classes past, and have seen only a smattering of African-Americans. It got me thinking about how wine and spirits are marketed to people of color in general, and African-Americans in particular. In the professional literature (e.g, Somm Journal, Decanter, Imbibe, Wine Advocate) which granted, I’m just starting to explore, there’s been some buzz about how Millennials are bringing diversity to the wine world, but much of that buzz seems related to tastes and styles than actual people.
As it turns out, there have been Africans and African-Americans in the wine business for years, I but they’re not widely known. It is easier to find articles about Black chefs who are not Marcus Samuelsson than it is to find one about Black winemakers and sommeliers, and that’s saying something.
I Googled and found a few articles, sparsely and infrequently published, about the “changing face of wine,” and two associations, the Association of African American Vintners, and the African American Wine Tasting Society. There were also some articles about hip hop culture embracing wine (especially international varieties) and some rappers starting labels, such as the True Wine Connoisseurs Sadat X and Will Tell, L’il Jon and Nelly. Forbes recently reported on Jay-Z’s association with Armand de Brignac Champagne, and apparently there’s been a Moscato boom. I missed it, but then again, I haven’t bought a rap album since “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”
What each of these articles had in common is a stated desire to make wine relatable, enjoyable, and let’s face it, profitable, for everyone. What several of these articles seem to rely on, however, is the position of hip-hop personalities as primary wine ambassadors for African Americans. They beg the question, what other avenues are there for bringing wine to communities of color? Are there other personalities we can learn about? Where can I, as a fledgling wine student, learn about what other folks like me are doing? Where can I read about Tom Bullock? Or, Thomas Price, Carlton McCoy, and Victoria Coleman? Don’t get me wrong. like Brand Nubian and Jay-Z, but I’d like to read more about these other folks, too. As I study to take the Certified Sommelier exam next month, I wonder if maybe I’m not the only one. I wonder too, how many African Americans are sitting for the exam.