In December 2017, Cote Korean Steakhouse in New York City began offering wine classes to employees. The pupils for the course, overseen by director of beverage Victoria James, ran the gamut from dishwashers to managers. Soon it became evident that the classes had become a catalyst for career advancement within the restaurant.
A year later, James, along with Cote wine team members Amy Zhou and Cynthia Cheng, formed the nonprofit Wine Empowered to offer tuition-free education to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students and women. The inaugural semester started in early 2020, but the pandemic abruptly halted the program.
This month, courses will relaunch with a class of a dozen students. Guests will include experts from across the country, such as Carlton McCoy Jr., chief executive officer of Heitz Cellar, and Cheron Cowan, beverage director at Craft in Manhattan — two Black wine professionals in an industry with an underwhelming track record for including people of color.
Former Wine Empowered students including Kenneth Crum, who runs the beverage program at Air’s Champagne Parlor and Tokyo Record Bar in New York, have used these free classes as a springboard for their careers.
In the Boston area, Alicia Towns Franken has also been working to cultivate diversity in the industry. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Towns Franken, who’d been working part time as a wine consultant, returned to the industry full time. Her friend DLynn Proctor — a master sommelier known for his role in the Somm series of documentaries — asked her to serve as executive director of Wine Unify, a California-based nonprofit he co-founded to provide resources and mentorship for BIPOC wine professionals. The organization is funded by donations from sources that range from the private sector to wineries and magazines.
Towns Franken is part of a growing contingent of BIPOC wine professionals and top sommeliers across the country who are volunteering time and expertise to help other people of color advance their wine careers. “Getting that call from DLynn gave me hope and a mission,” says Towns Franken, who’s mother to two interracial children. “I felt like I needed to come back to help.”
Almost 100 BIPOC mentees have participated in the Wine Unify program so far, ranging from restaurant workers looking to deepen their wine knowledge to seniors finding a passion for it late in life. Luminaries in the BIPOC wine world — including André Hueston Mack of Maison Noir Wines; Julia Coney, founder of the Black Wine Professionals; and Tonya Pitts, the wine director at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco — have signed on to provide one-on-one mentoring, embracing a holistic approach to education beyond classroom theory.
In addition to providing financial assistance for sommelier accreditation, Wine Unify also offers support for incidentals that can be prohibitively expensive, including proper stemware, trade periodicals and wine gift cards that encourage cohorts to taste together remotely. According to Towns Franken, diploma students often require a multiyear commitment, and the foundation’s financial support can be as much as $15,000 per person.
The lack of BIPOC representation in the industry is a wide-reaching problem. A 2019 report published by SevenFiftyDaily determined that only 16% of 3,100 wine and spirits industry professionals surveyed were people of color, with just 2% of respondents identifying as Black. There are some signs of progress in recent years, though. The 2022 class of the Court of Master Sommeliers, an international organization dedicated to wine service standards, was the most diverse in the court’s 40-plus-year history.
Vincent Morrow, the wine director at Press restaurant in Napa Valley, is one of four Black master sommeliers in the US. As chair of the court’s diversity committee, he’s spearheading efforts to offer its introductory wine course for free to BIPOC students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country, starting with Virginia State later this year. “There’s so much more of an opportunity to meet people where they are here,” Morrow says, “and meet them younger.”
Alumni of the Wine Unify program are already thriving. Tahlia Suggs passed her Level 1 WSET exam, a globally recognized sommelier accreditation, with the nonprofit’s support and was awarded a yearlong paid apprenticeship at Silver Oak Vineyards. She relocated to Sonoma, California, from Philadelphia last summer to begin working at the vineyard, part of an immersive program that focuses on wine production, business and marketing. Suggs has also been assisting other BIPOC wine professionals and offering community support to fellow transplants. “Being that there isn’t as much diversity within Sonoma,” she says, “it’s really important that those who come out here to broaden their horizons in their career are able to still feel comfortable in this place.”
Towns Franken stresses that the community-building aspect of these diversity programs is almost as important as the educational component. “There are so many people in this program who’ve said, ‘I didn’t know this was possible.’ There are people who didn’t even know people like me existed,” she says.
Morrow, who studied wine business administration and marketing at Sonoma State University, agrees. “I wish I would’ve had someone like me come to my school and teach classes like this,” he says. Morrow and his colleagues on the Court of Master Sommeliers’ diversity committee know change won’t happen on its own. “You can’t just say you want [the industry] to be more diverse,” he says, “but then do nothing to impact the people coming up in the industry.”
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