David Jesudason meets an outlier of colour making her own wine.
Wednesday 25 May 2022
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“When I was seven or eight,” recalls America Brewer, owner, winemaker and viticulturist of Oastbrook Estate Vineyard in Sussex, “my mum grew a very old vine at the back of the house, and it creeped on to the house itself. I would come back from school, climb on to the vine and eat the greenest grapes.”
This is America’s first experience of wine. It’s also the beginning of the journey she took to become the only commercial black winemaker in the UK. The vine she described climbing up her family house in the Bahia region of Brazil sparked something in her. She knew at such a young age that she “just loved grapes”, but instead of immediately embarking on a career in winemaking after finishing school, she worked in the second-largest bank in Brazil for 14 years.
“One day, I decided that I wanted to explore the world,” she says. “I liked people and I wanted to meet people from different countries.”
America was going to start her odyssey 20 years ago in the country she’s named after – she was born on 4 July – but then 9/11 happened and a friend suggested they go to London instead. When she arrived, she found that the English she had learned was difficult for people to understand, but she adapted quickly and began working in restaurants as a bartender. She met her husband Nick, who was born in Tonbridge, Kent, a couple of years later.
“I thought that I knew England,” she says. “But my husband said I didn’t know England at all. He said let me introduce you to the countryside. That was the first time I felt like an alien because I was the only dark person.”
I understand that feeling. I grew up as the only dark person in the semi-rural market town of Dunstable. I’ve always wanted to live in the countryside but the reminders of my childhood – the racism in the classroom, the fear of walking to school as passersby hurled insults from cars, the strange looks in shops – puts me off from straying from metropolitan areas. I’m fed up with explaining my British-Asian identity to strangers in 2022. I want to conquer these fears, but I also don’t have the time or energy, and prefer my children to grow up in a diverse area where they aren’t othered by their skin colour.
But I do like hearing how Brewer took the opposite approach to me.
“My husband said he’ll ‘take me to a proper English pub’,” she says. She recalls her visit to the Bull Inn in Wadhurst.
“So I said ‘wow’! I’m going to dress up! I’m going to put on silk! I bought a red dress! Everyone was a farmer coming from their work to the local pub and I was wearing massive high heels, a red dress and [had] very dark skin as I had just come back [from visiting] Brazil.”
Everyone was happy to meet her – but the question I have, that is perhaps unanswerable, is: would her welcome have been so warm if she was black British? Because the micro-aggressions I’ve endured when I’ve visited this part of Britain – I used to live and work in Sevenoaks – were commonplace.
To me, America’s story shows the energy – and determination – needed to conquer white spaces like this village pub, and she has vim and strength of will in huge reserves.
She wanted to learn more about wine so she took her baby in a pushchair to France when her daughter was just four months old – sometimes she even got the farmers to hold the baby while she looked at the machinery and the vines. The information was locked into her mind even though she couldn’t use it: the family relocated temporarily to Hong Kong. It wasn’t for another seven years that she could put her research to use, when they moved back to the English countryside near Bodiam Castle, buying a property that used to grow hops for Guinness’ brewery.
Next door to their new family home was a vineyard, so she went – in high heels – to convince the owner to let her work for free to gain valuable first-hand experience. They refused at first, but relented due to Brewer’s persistence. Her determination is the leitmotif of her story, and it was really tested when she approached Plumpton agricultural college to undergo a course at the higher learning provider in Lewes, East Sussex.
Next door was a vineyard and she wanted to work there for free to learn so she went – in high heels – to get some work off the owner
“They said I should have A-levels in chemistry, maths and biology,” she reveals. “My background was in language and they said I couldn’t do the course. I asked them ‘who in their class is going to plant a vineyard, establish it and make wine to promote you?’ I wasn’t going to give up and I didn’t leave them alone.”
She paid for tutoring for the science subjects she was missing and studied them in evenings on top of the Plumpton wine-making course and her childcare. Despite the juggling act, grapevine biology became her strongest field and she achieved one of the highest grades in her class. She also extended her network to include agronomists and learned in her own time about pesticides and herbicides, and visited “thousands” of vineyards in the UK.
“I found out the place I had had very good soil,” she says. “It was luck because it was all pasture. Then I decided to plant one vine like the one at the back of my mum’s house. I did soil analysis and I found I had perfect soil that needed no adjusting.”
She now has 65 acres of fields, 13 and a half of which has planted vines growing only noble grapes including pinot noir, pinot blanc and chardonnay, creating award-winning wine. America is very successful by any metric and her vineyard is thriving, but why does this mean she’s the only wine-maker of colour that I can find to speak to in the country?
When I ask Brewer this question her answer is simple: learn from her and don’t give up. But this seems very simplistic because she wasn’t born in this country and hasn’t been held back by any of the racism she may have experienced if she had been. Most importantly, she has had opportunities that most people of colour are denied in Britain.
I’ve written about the problems faced by people of colour when they venture into agriculture after seeing a Channel 4 mini-series called Young Black Farmers. It was an Apprentice-style contest where children of colour from inner-city areas competed for a job to work with Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, the self-styled Black Farmer – you may have seen his branded produce in the supermarket.
Last year I tracked down all the contestants of the 2006 show and none had pursued careers in farming, mainly because they were fed up with the racism they’d experienced in rural areas. They also had no capital to lean on – unlike Brewer – and many wanted to access agriculture again but were unable to do so because of the financial reality of having to keep their head above water. Put simply: it’s really tough if you’re of colour and want to work in rural areas. Only 0.2% of rural workers in the UK are black.
All this being said, I don’t want to diminish Brewer’s huge achievement. Although she had the capital and support of her husband, her personality and drive ensured she didn’t fail (full disclosure: I also have a white partner who earns more than I do supporting me in a creative job.) It’s just when you’ve lived a life of failure and rejection based on racism – as I have – it’s hard to not “give up” when you’ve not gained the skills to be resilient, and settle for not striving for something that may be unachievable.
However, I think it’s appropriate to leave the last words of this three-part series on wine and racism to Brewer: “Forget about colour. Don’t put limits on yourself. Just try.”
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.
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