Here’s a giant opportunity to make a difference on race in California’s wine business
EDITOR’S NOTE: Liz Thach, Ph.D., MW, is a wine journalist and the Distinguished Professor of Wine and Management at Sonoma State University. Her article first appeared in the Wine Advisor.
When Blake Gray published his ground-breaking interview with four Black wine sales professionals at E. & J. Gallo, and I read that they want more journalists to publish on the topic of racism, I immediately contacted several Black people I knew in winemaking and viticulture. Each of them responded with a desire to talk openly about their experiences of being Black and working in the wine industry.
I must admit that, in the past, I have always been too afraid to ask questions about racism, because I didn’t want to offend or bring up uncomfortable topics. Instead, I have discovered that people do want to talk about this, and brainstorm solutions to improve the situation for everyone. One of these people is Brenae Royal, currently vineyard manager of Monte Rosso, one of the most famous and historic vineyards of California.
Statistics verify opportunity to change
Brenae and I discussed many topics, but an important one is the number of African American wine consumers in the U.S. compared to the number who actually work in the wine industry.
The statistics verify a need for change. For example, the Association of African American Vintners reports there are about 50 Black-owned wineries out of more than 10,000 wineries in the U.S. The 2019 Career & Salary Survey for Beverage Alcohol shows only 2% African American employees working in the three-tier system. Yet the 2019 Wine Market Council consumer segmentation survey reports there are around 100 million wine drinkers in the U.S., and 11% of wine drinkers are African American. This equates to approximately 11 million African American wine consumers.
“In order to connect with these consumers and to encourage more to engage with wine,” says Brenae, “it is important to have people of color working in your wine business.”
This statement is supported by numerous research studies verifying that racial and gender diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and higher profitability (Herring, Richard, Yantyo & Manulana).
How did Brenae fall in love with wine?
So how did Brenae land one of the most coveted vineyard positions in the wine industry?
Well the short answer is hard work and determination. Growing up in the town of Atwater, California in the Central Valley she became inspired by agriculture, and decided to obtain a degree in Crops and Horticulture at California State University-Chico. During her senior year she was introduced to wine, and fell in love with big bold reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
In 2013 after graduating from Chico State University, she accepted a job with E. & J. Gallo as a viticulture intern at Monte Rosso vineyard. A month and a half after the internship ended, she accepted a full-time position as viticulturist. Then, in 2015, she was promoted to vineyard manager, overseeing five employees for the 575-acre property, as well as multiple grape contracts with wineries.
Discussing Black Lives Matter and micro-aggression
“When the Black Lives Matter campaign first started,” says Brenae, “I was a little bitter. Racism didn’t just start yesterday. It’s been happening forever. However, now my stance has changed. Instead, I see it as a giant opportunity to make a difference, to educate people, and to give true and authentic feedback on how the industry can be better as whole.”
Brenae describes some of the challenges she has faced in the male-dominated world of vineyard management. The main one is a concept called “micro-aggression,” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary means, “comments or actions that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude towards a member of a marginalized group.”
She describes examples that happen on a weekly basis, mainly from customers, suppliers, or other visitors to the vineyard.
“People are very surprised when they learn a Black women is the vineyard manager,” she says. “They mistake me for the secretary, and make comments like: ‘I didn’t expect someone like you in this role.’ I’ve had several men call me an ’Amazon’ to my face and then laugh it off as a back-handed compliment. Some have asked where my husband is, and others express surprise that I drive a truck.”
Over time, all of these comments are very exhausting, she explains: “I feel like I have to justify myself all of the time. The micro-aggression wears you down. I smile and stay polite, but it would be nice to be accepted as a professional in my position, rather than people acting shocked I’m in my role. I’ve even had people reach out and touch my hair because it is different from theirs.”