How wine excludes us

In a three part series on racism, David Jesudason delves into how marketing shows a lack of diversity and inclusion


Everyone remembers that first bottle. I was living in Leeds in the late 90s and I can still picture the teenage me awkwardly opening the wine merchant’s door to be met with puzzled stares from the customers and the staff.

Nowadays Casillero Del Diablo is a ubiquitous red but seeing it on a shelf then felt like taking a plunge into the unknown. It was so far removed from my drab experience of wine – cheap boxes bought by dad hastily on Calais booze cruises. When I rushed home to try it I wasn’t disappointed: it was so full of character and complexity compared to what I had tasted before. 

But most of all it felt like I was entering a new world of cosmopolitan experiences and uncharted access to the secrets of wine. In hindsight it was a new world, but one that was almost exclusively white and a realm in which I felt othered for being British-Asian. 

Micro-aggressions, like the one in Leeds, have been common in my adult life and I feel loaded down by this baggage which makes me nervous about visiting specialist establishments. The way I was treated during my first visit to a wineshop I immediately assumed was because I looked young, but as the years have passed it’s now my belief that I’m continually patronised and stared at because I’m not white.

Untangling racism from these experiences is difficult though: how much of what I’ve witnessed could be down to exclusive stuffiness rather than prejudice against my brown skin? It’s this fog of uncertainty that’s led me on another journey that will hopefully answer two simple questions: how white is wine? And what can we do about it?

Spice world

Lorraine Copes, founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality and a procurement consultant, tells me there’s a simple way to discover how inclusive and diverse wine companies are. 

“If you look at the back of any wine bottle,” she says, or any tasting notes supplied with a bottle of wine, they are usually [suggesting] European dishes. They are telling you out loud who their customer is: people of European heritage who eat European foods.

“If I’m Jamaican and I want to know how this merlot pairs with something in my cupboard, where do I get that information from?”

After hearing this I browse my local supermarket’s wine aisle and, depressingly, she’s right – it’s impossible to find any mention of mainstream non-European cuisines that we eat every day. Instead, some just obtusely mention ‘spicy food’. 

Copes is the right person to speak to as she’s fighting this issue at ground level. It’s her mission to get companies to be more inclusive through her social enterprise Be Inclusive, which identifies racism in food and drink and offers education, mentorship and career progression to those affected. Be Inclusive also provides workshops and consultancy for firms willing to change, and held a Black History Month event celebrating black women in hospitality this year. 

Wine, however, is a big problem when it comes to change. 

“The industry is marketed and positioned as quite elitist,” she says, “and quite white. To be more diverse requires a concerted effort which some brands are willing to take and some aren’t. 

“Why as a brand would you not take the time and effort to better understand who your customer is?”

Social power

Amanda Mason, like me, is of south Asian heritage and speaks eloquently about the problems she faces in person because of the way wine marketing excludes people like us. She was employed by Compass Group up to September 2020, working with suppliers to provide an array of wines for racecourses around the country.

“I did all the qualifications,” she says. “To gain the knowledge needed for the job. But when I first went into meetings people questioned my qualifications unlike other people in the room. 

“Why do I have to prove my knowledge of wine but the Caucasian lady next to me doesn’t? Front of house, and frontline workers are normally quite diverse. But as they progress [into management] that’s where the diversity stops.

“No brand is going to put it out there that they’re not diverse. I didn’t think about these things until I realised the lack of accessibility for people of our heritage.”

Now Mason is working on a book that can help open up wine to a more diverse audience by offering an answer to the problem mentioned by Copes: what wines should people eating non-European foods buy? 

“I was reading the labels of wine and one said ‘would go well with Asian food’. A whole continent! To put it bluntly it’s because people of colour have not been seen as sophisticated enough to drink wine.

“But I don’t think people realise how accessible the brands are. I’d go on Twitter and ask them what wines pair with the spices you are cooking with.”

Social media is one answer to this dilemma of what a concerned wine lover can do in the battle against systemic issues, such as racism and inequal opportunities. And as an experiment I went back to my wine roots and tweeted Casillero Del Diablo to find out if they would tell me what Thai or Malay spices it would be paired with. I didn’t get a reply.” 

However, pestering companies about diversity may be viewed by some as virtue signalling, but it can work, especially if a new wine brand wants to gain a wider audience.

Lawrence Francis, who hosts the successful Interpreting Wine podcast and is of English and Caribbean heritage, discovered first-hand the different demographic of brands at wine tastings.

“A quirky importer,” he says, “would attract a younger demographic, maybe more female. Those are the tastings where you’re going to attract more people of colour. But a wine tasting from a traditional wine region will go the other way and there will be less people of colour.”

Francis believes this will change if more people of colour are encouraged to go to wine tastings and admits he feels more at home at events held in more relaxed environments. I get the impression he feels awkward talking about these issues as he’s confident to be the only person of colour in the room and rarely experiences micro aggressions.

Speaking to Francis, it feels like the fog of uncertainty has returned. What if I went to a wine tasting and put the required energy into the social situation? What personal cost would it take?

Alien adverts

Tanisha Townsend lives in Paris, France, where she creates wine and food pairings for expats and tourists and, like Francis, hosts a podcast: Wine School Dropout. Townsend, who is African-American, works exclusively with white people and is unafraid to speak about the personal cost of constantly being the only person of colour in the room.

“It does take a lot of energy,” she says. “Because I know people are looking at me. I know people are wondering who I am or what I do. I’m the one representative [of colour] they have: so if I say or do something wrong I know they’ll think ‘there it is’. I exaggerate my confidence and walk in a place like I know what I’m doing.

“White people don’t understand how it is to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because they don’t have to. They’ll never feel that even if they were in an African or Asian neighbourhood because these people are more welcoming to white people.”

Her advice for wine brands to alter this is actually pretty simple: change your recruitment practices. “If you’re putting your job announcements out to the same groups that look like you, how do you think you will find people that are something else?”

For real change to happen, wine lovers of all colours need to have the energy Townsend has to break down barriers and hold companies to account. The issue of racism sometimes is in plain sight for the likes of me, but it’s easy for that fog

I keep mentioning to return especially when brands don’t see the need for change. But it’s not just me who wonders what the truth is when it comes to diversity.

“It’s difficult for consumers,” Townsend says. “In the wine industry a lot of the information [on demographics] is hidden – from [frontline] management to vineyard staff. So I don’t think people can understand or really know who the players behind the scenes are.”

However, Townsend offers this sliver of hope that if wine companies were to market their products slightly differently, they would cause immediate change.

“Black people,” she concludes, “are not going to be influenced by the blue-eyed blonde woman running through a vineyard with a glass in her hand. That isn’t going to make me buy that wine because it doesn’t resonate with me. People want to see adverts that look like them.”

David Jesudason is a journalist who writes for the Guardian, BBC Culture and Good Beer Hunting. In 2023, CAMRA Books will be publishing his guidebook to Anglo-Indian ‘desi’ pubs. Next issue David will be reporting on what working on the frontline in wine is really like for people of colour.

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