In Conversation

Who Will Fix Wine Education?

July 23, 2020

Story: Punch Staff

Art: PUNCH

A conversation between Jirka Jireh and Cristie Norman, two sommeliers on a mission to rebuild a broken system.

Some would say the professional wine education’s reckoning began with the Court of Master Sommeliers’ cheating scandal, in 2018. Others would argue that a reckoning has been happening for far longer, mostly in private, among the professionals who had long seen the country’s most prominent organizations as out of touch with current wine culture at best, and, at worst, bastions of the kind of gatekeeping and elitism that have made the wine industry an often inequitable, unwelcoming place. With a renewed attention to systemic racism, the Court of Master Sommeliers, which awards the most coveted certification in the world of wine, again came under fire. This prompted the resignation of several prominent members, a removal of the word “master” from the front of that title and a large-scale reconsideration of what wine education should look like, what it should aim to achieve, who should have access to it, even what wines should be considered foundational. The answers to those questions don’t just impact professional wine culture, but wine culture as a whole—all the way down to what consumers drink, and how they drink it.

A number of emerging leaders have tasked themselves with answering in the form of new organizational bodies and grassroots initiatives that hope to fill the gap. Jirka Jireh and Cristie Norman are two of them. Jireh is a sommelier and caviste at Ordinaire in Oakland, California. Along with a group of fellow industry professionals, she helped found Open Wine Forum, a tuition-free wine education program, and is a cofounder of Virtual Industry Sessions, a weekly nationwide educational series, complete with coordinated tastings, that centers BIPOC teachers and students. Norman, a sommelier, rose to prominence in the industry through her YouTube series, Adulting With Alcohol. She went on to develop an online wine course for consumers and is the president and co-founder of the United Sommeliers Foundation, which is aimed at providing financial assistance to sommeliers out of work as a result of the COVID-19 closures.

In a new series of conversations that we’re publishing on PUNCH, we’re asking leading voices in drinks to have a discussion about the topics that are most important to them. Here, Jireh, speaking from Oakland, and Norman, speaking from Los Angeles, talk about what’s broken in wine education and how they aim to fix it.

Jirka Jireh: Let’s talk. We’re going to talk about [wine] education today. You’re doing some really great work in L.A. and you come from more of the classical wine world. I’m doing a national thing, but with natural wine. What are some of the barriers you saw at the beginning? How did you start learning? What inspired you to get into it?

Cristie Norman: I just want to say that I’m so glad that I got connected with you because we are doing such different things, but our mission is the same: To bring excellent wine education to those who might not have access. To answer your question: Learning about wine, studying for the exams, I found that there weren’t really any resources available that really give you real-life preparedness [and] understanding. So, I had to reach out to my network. One of the servers at the steakhouse that I was working at was a certified somm and he basically told me, “I will teach you everything that you need to know.” I actually got brought to an advanced tasting group when I was just still in intro and it was difficult… Being a young, Asian female, people looked at me like, Why are you here? And it took me a really long time to be accepted by these different tasting groups. It wasn’t always a pleasant experience.

CN: What was it like for you?

JJ: I was in New York. Once I knew that I was interested in wine, I just kept banging on the door. I kept asking my wine directors and the somms on the floor: What should I do next? How should I study? Is there a tasting group I can join? For the most part, I would get brushed off. I remember being part of a restaurant group that had a wine study program where they chose people from each of the restaurants. I was selling my own wine on the floor, I had already mastered the list, you know, but I still saw my male colleagues that didn’t really show that much of an interest be chosen for those programs instead. I feel like a lot of the beginning was me just banging on a door that was never going to be answered. I had all the heart, I had the palate, I had the questions and the knowledge already. I wish I could tell myself that back then—You got this!—but there’s a lot of gatekeeping and barriers that are put in front of you, if you don’t fit the idea of what a “proper” somm is.

CN: Before social media, I imagine it was probably very difficult for young women in the wine space to meet each other. We got brought together cause we’re both people of color doing wine education and it’s actually really cool to see the synergy. How did you get into wine education? I know that you’ve been at a ton of restaurants, but how did you move into this space?

JJ: I’m always teaching as a somm. You’re always teaching in whatever place you’re in. If you’re in retail, if you’re working in a wine bar, if you’re working on the floor. So, it was really natural for me when there was a clamoring in our country to do better, better because of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade at the hands of the police. Violence against Black and Brown bodies is not a new phenomenon. There was time, since we’re in a pandemic, for people to actually think about that and sit with it. There was just an influx of demand to do better. I am very comfortable with talking about tough issues, and for me it was natural to say to myself, OK, you want to know what you can do? What you can do is provide education for BIPOC to become leaders in this industry. It was an opportunity and a moment that needed to be seized. And that’s why we—me and [sommelier] James Sligh—started collaborating on Industry Sessions. Now we have over 13 cities and each student has wine in front of them.

CN: I learned that from guests that wine education and income weren’t proportionally linked and there was a huge lack of wine education in the consumer marketplace. I started making these low-budget YouTube videos that were a mixture of wine education and comedy, but I realized that I needed to build vocabulary from the ground up. That’s why I created the wine course for consumers. … For professionals, I created my own tasting group. I try to make it as low-cost as possible. I want to make it easier for others than it was for me, because I was paying $60 to $80 a week just so I could attend those other tasting groups. I didn’t really learn very much, because I was only listening to these advanced people who had been training for years and I was just trying to absorb it, but it was never broken down for me. Having a large, diverse group of people allows me to match people together in a way that expedites their learning. We have had over 300 wine professionals attend my events in the last 3 years. A master class costs $20. During COVID, it’s been pay what you can, but even before COVID, it was $40 for a full flight of six [wines].

How can you expect BIPOC to automatically think that this space that you’ve historically created to be unwelcoming, is all of a sudden OK?

JJ: I was definitely drawn to natural wine because it was a little more welcoming, a little bit more playful and I could afford the wines. It’s not focused on regions throughout the world that are just not accessible [pricewise].

CN: How do you help remove the barriers of wine education?

JJ: I threw this workshop in March, it was called the Price of Admission and it was about dismantling discrimination and sexual violence in natural wine. Through that, there was a network that formed. I decided to reach out to those people to partner with me to provide these wines for BIPOC in their respective cities. So that was a way that we all could act in unison to bring down those barriers. And there’s not really any natural wine education right now. There are no classes, per se. What a time to start them, while people are stuck at home.

CN: I think one barrier with wine education for professionals is that, as a BIPOC person, I really didn’t have people that I could really look up to that looked like me. I didn’t really see any in my network—and Los Angeles is huge. When I started my tasting group, we started with eight people and now we’ve had over 250 somms in my classes and the tasting groups. We only had four Black wine professionals out of all these years. I always thought I was marginalized because I’m young and Asian and female, but learning about privilege—my privilege—I realized I had an advantage. … What the Black community faces in the wine industry is much greater. It really takes intentionally creating access for somebody. And it’s not difficult for us to create that; it’s actually very easy, you know? When I noticed that we had such a small amount of Black wine professionals, I started reaching out to people to say, Hey, I’m here. We look to these big [wine education] organizations to fix these problems, but I think it really does start with what we’re doing on the ground as well.

CN: So, you said you started pursuing natural wine because you could afford it. Why else?

JJ: Natural wine aligns with my values. Transparency is important. Taking care of the earth is important. what wine can be without the additions of harsh chemicals or the stripping away of it’s true character is vital to me. It’s also [accessible]; it’s possible for you to be a winemaker. A lot of these winemakers are very, very small operations—like a two-person team for the most part. So yeah, it just called to me, but it was a hard road to get here. I just know that it’s my responsibility to turn around and give the next generation of wine professionals the same opportunities that I have now and make it easier for them. I can provide access to winemakers. I can provide a space to talk, you know? Not everybody wants to be rattling off flashcard memory. It doesn’t make sense that BIPOC have been alienated from both [natural and classical] worlds of wine. There’s no reason why we can’t kick down this door and let everybody else in it. I think that’s what we’re actually doing right now.

CN: One challenge with the way that wine education is structured, is that the most well-read and committed somms and wine professionals are focused on passing these extremely difficult exams, filled with esoteric information that isn’t really used in salesmanship of wine in a restaurant or retail shop. I wish that wine professionals were measured by the impact that their knowledge has on the community rather than how many flashcard answers about must weight they can rattle off.

CN: There is a master sommelier, who is a straight white male, and he told me that he offered a group of 70 people the opportunity to be mentored by him on this webinar. He said only two people reached out for him to mentor them. And that was his reasoning to me of why there aren’t many BIPOC in the industry. He said they have the opportunity, but they don’t take it. I told him that it’s not that nobody wants mentorship, it’s that he wasn’t a safe space for them to feel comfortable, and it’s a reflection on him, it’s feedback for him. The way he showed up did not make people comfortable to reach out to him. You don’t create access by simply offering, or suddenly creating diversity programs, and expect all these people to just jump right in. You have to prove yourself and do the work and really show people you care… make yourself a safe space for BIPOC people. It’s not just like, Oh, yeah, I offered…

JJ: It doesn’t work like that at all … How can you expect BIPOC to automatically think that this space that you’ve historically created to be unwelcoming, is all of a sudden OK? [A space] created by money, by elitism, prestigious tasting groups, all-white front-of-house staff and fine dining, where there’s maybe one token female or token BIPOC? For them to walk in and flourish… There are so many things that have to be undone. I don’t see this being undone in my lifetime, but I do see what I can do [creating] drastic change and drastic shifts in my lifetime.

CN: Being a woman trying to seek mentorship in [the master sommelier] space you have to be really careful. I’ve been told to stay away from certain people throughout my career. And lo and behold, facts come out, that those stories are true. They’re intimidating spaces. When you’re considering going on a wine trip, there’s a possibility you could be either the only woman or the only person of color.

We look to these big [wine education] organizations to fix these problems, but I think it really does start with what we’re doing on the ground as well.

JJ: Now that COVID is here and people actually have time to process, you know, how systemic racism is as American as apple pie, structural change is obviously what we need. And a lot of these organizations are looking very antiquated. It doesn’t matter if they have diversity committees. Do those diversity committees actually wield tangible power to create structural change to not just the body of its membership but to the boards of these organizations? I want everyone to do better. I want to do better for myself. I think we both have a heart for education because we do see, we obviously love the sectors of wine that we work in and we know that more intentional work can be done. I’m really inspired by you and what you’re doing. And it really pushes me to stay on my path, because I think, I think that we, we are the leaders, we are those leaders that wine needs.

CN: Thank you for saying that. I got so much hate for my consumer wine education program from sommeliers and my peers. It’s clearly marketed to consumers because I want more people to drink wine so that they can all keep their jobs. You know, our industry gets so nitpicky about people doing different stuff. As a BIPOC person, my experience is that I get criticized for everything I do. I made a parody video about myself. People were critical of that, too. There’s often nothing that I can do right in this industry. Realizing I couldn’t make everyone approve of me is what actually inspired me to just go all the way.

JJ: You’ve told me how you’ve received a lot of hate. I’ve had a little bit of a different experience. I think it’s just because the natural wine community does tend to fancy itself as a more open-minded, liberal community. We applaud ourselves for our zero-zero focus and now we are challenging ourselves to look beyond the glass and value the human experience as well. I’ve had a lot of support from the people in my networks, but there’s definitely a lot of outliers, definitely a lot more that can be done. I’m not going anywhere and I know you’re not going anywhere. I think we’ll continue to shake things up wherever we’re at.

CN: We need to continue because we need to show people who are just coming up that there are people that look like them. There’s this new generation of inspired leaders. I mean, this whole month has been so crazy seeing all the different programs and diversity initiatives and organizations that are forming in response to the silence of the wine community. That’s really what triggered all of it. And it’s super beautiful. Our industry should reflect the country that we live in, and I think that if we succeed in doing that, we’re actually going to increase the consumption of wine and the money that people are going to make.

JJ: We should embrace people coming into wine and value how their experiences are reflected through their palates. Our experiences should be valid. Our tasting notes should be valid. The [tasting] grid that you work with is a compass, a guiding point, and one that needs to that needs to be decolonized; let’s break that wide open. There are so many more experiences, so many stories that can be told through wine. Now is a time for storytellers. I’m glad to know you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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