How Inclusivity and Equity is Vital to ending Prejudice in Wine

In the second of a three-part series, David Jesudason explores the traumatic prejudice faced by workers of colour serving wine and how this racism can be eradicated


[Content warning: This story includes accounts of racist slurs, discriminatory language, and prejudice.]

One of the worst racist nicknames I endured was repeatedly said when I worked at a bar during my university days from 1999 to 2003. It was my job to carry the bottles of wine from the cellar and the manager of this West London establishment – Keith – would reward my efforts by calling me Gunga Din.

For those not familiar with the Rudyard Kipling poem (and I’ve got a feeling that my racial abuser only knew the title) it’s about an Indian water carrier so expendable that after being killed helping the British Army his life is summed up by the jokey line: ‘You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.’

Although it’s a highly offensive term, it’s actually fitting as I was as dispensable as Kipling’s Hindu hero and if I’d complained I would’ve been ushered out of the door. 

 I’d a lot of grounds for concern as a worker here, as the affluent clientele would use the whole spectrum of racist terms when ranting about immigration – this was, for context, a wine bar located in what is now Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge constituency and near Heathrow Airport. My manager, of course, laughed at their racist jokes and the humiliating stories they told of those from marginalised communities.  

I’m not going to make excuses for the hate-filled Keith as I’ve long since given up trying to analyse such stupidity – he’s an actor, in my opinion, indoctrinated and parroting far-right bile. But his life does have some use because without him we wouldn’t have a yardstick as to how much working in wine hospitality has changed. Surely, experiences of people of colour must be different 20 years later?  

“Hospitality is ruthless,” says Fikayo Ifaturoti, who up to last year worked as a sommelier at a private members' club. “People know no boundaries. On a daily basis I would get comments and references to my physical features based on race.

“You had to prove yourself from table to table in a place where it’s already highly respected to be a sommelier. You still have to explain that you are the sommelier.”

I’ll be honest, not only do I find this account shocking but it triggers the trauma that I endured, especially because I naively thought that a workplace in the 21st century would be free from racism. I got through such days by knowing my degree was the important thing and it’s a philosophy shared by Fikayo.

“You develop an attitude” she says, “where you almost ignore their ignorance and focus on what needs to be done. And I did end up impressing them. If someone didn’t have a strong personality as I did they would have struggled a lot more.”

Last month I interviewed various wine industry experts about how wine is mostly marketed at white people and the treatment Fikayo experienced is the manifestation of this: the customers she served buying bottles that could be priced up to £2,000 were nearly all white middle-aged men. I ask Fikayo what, if anything, clubs like these can do to diversify and foster more inclusive environments.

“They can actively filter their members,” she concludes. 

One wine bar that claims to not need to take such measures is Diogenes the Dog in Elephant and Castle. It is run by Sunny Hodge and is in a part of London that is very cosmopolitan and, according to one survey on a property site, it has a 37% black population. 

“I’m trying to form a movement,” he says. “Which is making wine more accessible. My generation [people aged in the mid-30s] have seen their parents drinking it, see it as very expensive and there’s a lot of boujee-ness around it – sometimes you have a glass for £5 and sometimes for £20 and no one understands why.”

Sunny’s view on how to change the demographics of wine is apparent in his relaxed setup at Diogenes the Dog where his staff are super friendly and expert at tailoring wine experiences to their varied customers’ needs. 

He’s different to other people of colour I interview and is adamant he hasn’t experienced any prejudice in the workplace because of his black heritage – he also admits he rarely has the time to read material on this subject. His mother was a Team GB athlete and he exudes the kind of determination that many Olympians need to have so racism is far from his thoughts.

“I’ve never experienced being pushed into a corner,” he says. “Or being disadvantaged because of my colour. But it’s also something that I never dwell on.”

Lorraine Copes, founder of social enterprise Be Inclusive Hospitality, was a procurement director at Gordon Ramsay Group and Corbin and King, and a life coach, so she believes in a positive mindset. However, her experiences don’t chime with Sunny’s especially when you consider she was usually the only non-white person in meetings. 

This insidious problem is replicated in all aspects of the industry... there are some phenomenal black and brown people here, and they’re not visible

“White people can work their way up,” she says. “But if you look at the stats, 17.83% of operational staff are BAME: Why are those people of colour not progressing into management?

“This insidious problem is replicated in all aspects of the industry. I know this because there are some phenomenal black and brown people here, and they’re not visible.”

Copes helps companies interested in accelerating racial equity – something that’s seemingly become more popular after the murder of George Floyd – and she’s rolled out a mentorship scheme to complement the research, education and training that Be Inclusive already offered. But the results are limited by the amount of energy needed to make organisations realise they have to do a lot to ensure their staff is diverse and to foster a truly inclusive culture for them.

“This problem is so deep rooted, complex and multi-layered,” she concludes.

When I ask Fikayo for her solution she turns the question back to me.

“How much do you think the wine industry makes globally,” she asks. “It’s going to be over $400bn. There’s so much wealth considering it’s such as niche industry and it could be why people really don’t want diversity because that $400bn is being distributed to white people.

“I just want actions. I don’t want words.”

Your country needs you!

The systemic reality seems bleak but one ‘action’ wine lovers can take to help is to support events that knowledgeable people of colour, like Fikayo, set up. 

“I want to have a bar,” she dreams. “I want to create supper clubs that focus on black and African food and do wine pairings. I want to use them as a medium to educate people who look like me.”

Last month I talked of the fog of uncertainty when it comes to my experiences of wine culture and racism. But for those working on the frontline, like Fikayo, there is no lack of clarity; only a situation where you have to go to work, get paid and take abuse from the Keiths of the world. To eradicate this level of prejudice will require time, energy and above all investment in workers of colour. Change is overdue and it’s about time employers saw people of colour as skilled individuals rather than Kipling’s expendable Gunga Din. 

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 Jesudason will be looking at the issue of wine-making and racial equity. 

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