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Black vintners getting broader support in making industry more diverse

In the Association of African American Vintners, the number of members who are not Black has been growing, revealing an intent by a broader group of people to champion diversity in the industry.

“I’m sure 99.9% of people believe that the Association of African American Vintners only has Black members, but that’s not the case,” vintner Mac McDonald of Windsor’s Vision Cellars said. “These (non-Black) members see a need to improve the relationships with different people in the wine industry. I think it’s a great thing.”

Nearly two decades after McDonald founded AAAV, fewer than 60 wineries in the country are operated by African Americans, according to Statista. A handful are in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, out of hundreds.

Founded in 2002, the association has nearly 125 members, more than 40% who are not Black. In 2019 the association decided wineries don’t need to be owned by people of color to become members as long as they support diversity and inclusion. Membership fees range from $40 to $500 (aaavintners.org).

Non-Black members say they want to hear from African American winemakers directly about the issues they face in the industry so they can help create opportunities for them.

“Based on the Black Lives Matter movement, more and more people are reaching out to us to inquire about memberships and how they can support the organization,” said Lou Garcia, vice president and treasurer. “We have a growing number of people who are also reaching out with scholarship money and while we don’t track it, I’m guessing it comes from a very diverse group of people.”

In 2019 the association’s scholarship fund was $2,400. In 2020 it jumped to $13,000 and so far this year it’s at $38,000 and growing.

McDonald said he’s not fond of Black History Month because people shouldn’t be focusing on the triumphs of Blacks for just 28 days in February.

“We should be celebrating diversity 365 days a year,” the vintner said. “I’m proud of who I am and what I look like, but I look the same 365 days a year.”

Progress toward more diversity in the industry, McDonald said, is a day-to-day endeavor. Here are four non-African American wine professionals, all AAAV members, who want to promote diversity in the industry.

Prema Behan, general manager and co-founder of Sonoma’s Three Sticks and Head High wines

“The wine industry is predominantly white and that’s no secret,” Behan said. “It’s important to speak up about our participation so that other white vintners take note and join the conversation.”

Price Family Vineyards & Estates, which owns Three Sticks and Head High, became a professional/industry member of Association of African American Vintners last year.

“There are too few people of color working in the wine industry,” Behan said. “There are too few people of color in our tasting rooms and too few occasions where people of color come to our hospitality events. All wineries should ask ourselves what we are doing or not doing that created this situation. We should ask the AAAV and other organizations these questions so we can improve.”

Becoming a member, Behan said, is one small step toward correcting the imbalances in the industry.

“We strongly believe that there can be no real social justice without economic opportunity,” she said. “It’s important for our industry that we support one another and bring awareness regarding issues of disparity and inequality. … The question we should be asking is ‘How do we get more wineries and vineyards to make this a priority?’”

Theresa Heredia of Healdsburg’s Gary Farrell Winery

“I recognize that my skin color, education, training and experience have allowed me to gain access that other individuals don’t have,” Heredia said. “I have a voice and a certain set of privileges that I earned along the way. … I would very much like to help break down the barriers that make it difficult for people of color and different socioeconomic backgrounds to gain access to the wine industry. I would like to help them earn some of these privileges.”

The winery became a professional/industry member of AAAV this year. Heredia said by participating with the association and the new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee at the Sonoma County Vintners, she’s determined to make a difference.

“People are too afraid to talk about racial and socio-economic issues,” Heredia said. “There’s a giant wall and we need to break down the wall by recognizing our own privileges and understanding that others don’t share them. By showing empathy and not being tone-deaf. By seeing color and not pretending it doesn’t exist.”

Heidi Scheid of Monterey’s Scheid Family Wines

Scheid said she joined the AAAV to learn more about diversity and inclusion. “As a woman, my lens has been about why aren’t more females in leadership positions?”

Scheid Family Wines became a winery member of AAAV in 2020.

“I’ve attended a lot of industry functions during my 28 years in the wine industry,” Scheid said. “I’ve often been the only woman in meetings and at events. I never had to wait in line for the bathroom but it was also a bit isolating.”

The vintner said having a sense of belonging in the wine industry is important.

“There’s no doubt that a diverse industry is a better and stronger industry,” Scheid said. “To the extent that we as an industry aren’t open-eyed about our biases and that we have barriers in place that impede a more diverse workforce, that needs to change.”

Rodney Tipton of Lodi’s Acquiesce

“When I learned of AAAV and its mission, I saw a good fit and hoped we could work together,” Tipton said. “After just two discussions, I think we can have a strong long-term partnership.”

Acquiesce became a winery member this year.

Tipton recently founded the Lodi Appellation Inclusion Collective with eight wineries, growers and other professionals in Lodi to increase diversity in the appellation. The collective is offering scholarships aimed at people of color for immersive enrichment trips to the region with direct hands-on learning experiences.

“We know that the best way for our programs to be effective is to work with organizations with that same focus,” Tipton said. “With all that’s been published as of late, it should be clear to anyone who’s paying attention that there’s an imbalance of diversity in the industry.”

The vintner referred to the work of Julia Coney’s Black Wine Professionals, the Roots Fund and Wine Unify. Coney is a Washington, D.C.,- and Houston, Texas- based wine writer, educator and consultant. Her website offers scholarships and highlights African American wine professionals thriving in the industry. The Roots Fund, headquartered in Connecticut, is a nonprofit organization that also works out of Napa. It raises money for scholarships to help Black and Native American people thrive in the wine industry. Finally, Wine Unify, based in Napa, is an organization that mentors both newcomers of color and those in the field.

“I’m convinced AAAV and others like it can absolutely accomplish greater good for the industry and that, in turn, would have a broader reach in society,” Tipton said. “More diversity translates to new and interesting perspectives which can help the industry grow and improve its vocabulary with consumers. After all, wine and food bring people together.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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