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Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute launches new inclusion effort

Sonoma State University on Tuesday said it is launching an inclusion program as part of its Wine Business Institute to help further diversify a sector that is largely white.

The institute, which is part of the School of Business and Economics, has been able to start its Inclusive Excellence Program thanks to almost $1 million in funding from local wine companies.

“This is a holistic approach,” said Ray Johnson, executive director of the Wine Business Institute. The university has previously worked with the industry to fund scholarships for those from underrepresented backgrounds, but the new effort will also emphasize internships and mentoring programs to help such students be able to reach executive-level careers within the wine industry.

“These students will then have a greater platform from which to launch the next step in their career,” Johnson said of the effort.

The outreach comes as the sector has been under increased scrutiny in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests to increase diversity. SSU has worked with the Association of African American Vintners in the recent effort, including funding scholarships for two students for the fall semester, said Lou Garcia, owner of the Stover Oaks wine brand and vice president of AAAV. One recipient is an African-American woman and the other is Chinese-American woman, Garcia said.

“They are going to need a lot more than a scholarship. They are going to need support to get in the industry and to stay in there and to learn. That’s going to be the key. There are enough folks out there of color and other folks who want to help,” Garcia said.

The funding for the new effort comes from such sources as the Foley Family Charitable Foundation, Kistler Vineyards, Charles Woodson Intercept Wines, and O’Neill Vintners & Distillers.

“Fostering a more inclusive, supportive, and diverse industry is vital to the health and sustainability of our communities and businesses, and we are pleased to play a role in creating brighter opportunities for the next generation of industry leaders,” said Courtney Foley, second-generation vintner for Chalk Hill Winery, in a statement.

Diversity statistics are rare in the wine industry, though fewer than 1% of U.S. wineries are owned by African Americans. Most, like Garcia, got into the sector after success in other businesses. Anisya Fritz of Lynmar Estate in Sebastopol is working with the Wine Business Institute in conducting a survey of diversity of inclusion within the Sonoma County wine industry, Johnson said.“We can get to some of those numbers … and have a better understanding,” he said of the survey.

The changes over the past 18 months with outreach and highlighting diversity within the wine community have been noticeable, said Andrea Smalling, vice president of marketing and sales at WineDirect, a direct-to-consumer business for wineries based in American Canyon. Smalling, who is Black, has worked in the sector since the mid-1990s, including at Constellation Brands and Treasury Wine Estates. She spent seven years as chief marketing officer with Foley Family Wines.

“I’ve seen massive changes,” Smalling said. “I started in the wine industry in 1994 … it wasn’t like I wasn’t welcome. It wasn’t a negative thing. But it wasn’t until the last 18 months that I saw this groundswell.”

Such changes include the appointment of Carlton McCoy as chief executive officer at the fabled Heitz Cellar in the Napa Valley, making him one of the rare Black heads of a North Coast winery that his family does not own. There also have been efforts by E. & J. Gallo Winery, the country’s largest wine company, to publicly highlight its diverse workforce.

“Everyone is looking for opportunities to add diversity and that is just great,” Smalling said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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