Breaking Out of The Glass Box

Your Wine Glass Ceiling is My Wine Glass Box. An Open Letter to Karen MacNeil and the Wine Industry. By Julia Coney

In preparing for this post, I looked at the myriad of articles published in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the commitments made by different entities within the wine industry. While individual token achievements can be spotlighted, the structural racism permeating the wine industry has not changed. All one has to do is look at the Board of Directors for any distributor, wine region, or other wine-related organization to see that these boards are not inclusive. Leadership is not given away quickly, and if the position is not directly related to selling wine, you will be hard-pressed to find an inclusive atmosphere. Equally, the largest Black-owned wineries have less than stellar records regarding personnel in positions that are unrelated to the face of the company or came from nepotism. Most of the established Black-owned wineries are with large distributors with little BIPOC throughout their organizations. Many brands that enjoy the most significant revenues from the BIPOC community have little outreach to support them these communities in their time of need; some of these brands have even expressed displeasure with Black people drinking their wines in the past. More importantly, most of these brands are high in sugar, adding to the already high health risk in the communities of color, who are the brand’s biggest supporters. (Shout out to Tiquette Bramlett, the President of Oregon’s Compris Vineyard and, in April 2021, became the first Black woman in the country hired to lead a winery and sits on Oregon’s Wine Industry Board). I am not naive to believe these circumstances will change overnight or even at all. I can also say my pocketbook has benefited from many of these brands as a salesperson. If recent history has taught us anything working within the system does not bring about lasting change.

Are We Sure The Walls Are Made Of Glass?

The Black Lives Matter Movement fueled the recognition in the wine industry of its own systemic problems and led many to speak out with a desire to create an inclusive atmosphere. Including my employer at the time, by the way, which in full disclosure, their desire for an inclusive atmosphere did not stop the from trying to let go of the only two Black people who have ever worked on-premise division at the start of the Covid 19 Pandemic, which included myself. Coincidence, I’ll let you decide.

Less Than Magic

When I lost my position as a Wine Specialist during the Covid-19 Pandemic’s beginning, many other wine distributors and importers cut bait with their on-premise sales teams despite record profits off-premise. Suddenly, the millions of dollars of revenue brought in over the years by individuals like myself did not warrant our employers taking a financial hit for a short time. As Childish Gambino says, “This is America!” I am under no delusion about the calculations corporations made at the start of the pandemic to maintain their margins. Plenty of statistics show people of color were the hardest hit by the pandemic. I would have fallen into those statistics if not for some quick thinking that helped me trade in a small severance package for a vacant merchandising position with the Off-Premise Big Box Retail Team. A strategic decision I made due to not knowing how long the pandemic would last. I also calculated how hard it is for a person of color to break into the industry in the first place, much less find an upper-tier position during a pandemic, which turned out to be my best option at the moment.

Back to the beginning of my journey (See Post), so it seemed. However, it happened to be just the motivation I needed. The 4 am schedule left me with many afternoons to pursue other ventures, including discussing opening up an Urban wine bar/winery that got sidelined, but who knows what the future holds. I leveraged my circumstances at the time to be promoted to an Off-Premise Sales territory, but I had already started implementing my plans to leave the distributor. What can I say? I showed the same allegiance the company offered me. Besides, selling wine that is poorly made and bad for people’s health was not a sustainable option for my conscience. As Uncorked & Cultured has coined, it was time to Sip Consciously.

The surge of media and activism around people of color gaining access to the wine industry came with unattended benefits for me. I successfully applied for a scholarship for WSET Level 4 Diploma Program being offered by the Capital Wine School and received it. The change in my circumstances further motivated me to return to SNHU to finish my degree in Creative Writing and Fiction, which has turned into me pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing (Go Royals!).

My circumstances gave me a whole new perspective on the wine industry and what I want my role to be within the industry. I can identify with Julia Coney’s open letter to Karen MacNeil regarding the walls, ceilings, and floors a Black woman faces in the wine industry. I had always believed I was facing those same conditions alone. My few role models in the industry at the time were not rocking the boat per sé, and I don’t really blame them. I was often the only person of color in a wine-related workplace or one of very few in my ecosystem at the beginning of my journey; I am sure that is probably true in my current pursuit as a Black male writer in the Wine Murder Mystery and Thriller Genre. The explosion of social media had allowed connections that were just in their infancy when I began in the industry to blossom. Elitism within our own community can still be a problem and is detrimental to the growth of minorities within any industry, but things have improved. We can all point to sommeliers, winemakers, brands, and vineyard owners who have benefited from the industry’s efforts to be inclusive. Even television has caught the bug by releasing shows featuring Black people and wine, like Grand Crew, which made its way onto the airways with its somewhat wine-related and funny premise. The show’s highlight for me is Grand Crew’s creator, Phil Augusta Jackson, who opened a new chapter for people of color and wine enjoyment with characters drinking things other than Moscato. Not that there is anything wrong with Moscato.

Today’s environment is much different regarding our ability to communicate the values we want to see in the wines we purchase. However, you still won’t get what you don’t ask for, and awareness comes from the loudest voices. Using my own experiences, I want to spark the imagination of millions of readers and help them to find themselves and their community highlighted in ways never seen before. My first novel exemplifies my desire to increase the narrative around BIPOC, which I will be workshopping this fall in my Master’s program before hopefully getting published. I have also begun outlining the second book in the series for completion next spring. So, If you have read this far, I hope you will stay tuned for the rest of the journey and sign up for my mailing list.

Published by Beau K Hurley

Author, Photographer, and Designer Legends of the Swag is where all these ambitions come together.

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