Wine

It’s Time to Decolonize Wine

June 25, 2020

Story: Miguel de Leon

Art: Nick Hensley

Wine

It’s Time to Decolonize Wine

June 25, 2020

Story: Miguel de Leon

Art: Nick Hensley

The wine world's culture of gatekeeping, racism and silence is antithetical to its true spirit. Now is the moment for real change.

It’s 3 a.m. on June 3, and I’m watching wine writer Julia Coney’s impassioned call-out on Instagram for the third time; my heart is racing. It’s mere days after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, and #blacklivesmatter is trending again on social media. This time feels different, bigger—no one can look away and COVID-19 has rid us of distraction.

Julia is upset about the unwillingness of white people in wine to “do the work.” She demands action, she wants change, she is tired. I feel her anxiety and her anger. I can’t seem to stop my hands from shaking. It is a gut punch that goes to the parts of me that I’ve tried diligently to keep away from everyone else, raw memories of feeling less than collected over a lifetime.

La Paulée | March 7, 2020

It’s the 20th anniversary of La Paulée, an annual celebration of the grape harvest that has become a playground for rich collectors and socially mobile sommeliers. Everyone is excited; it’s the largest sommelier class in the event’s history with the most women ever represented. (Thirty out of 130 is still a failing rate, but it’s the small victories, I guess.)

The tables are cramped, laden with priceless bottles of Burgundy. There is a chorus of stout Burgundian men clad in vests and capes, singing about the charms of chardonnay and pinot noir. The clientele is overwhelmingly white. My fellow volunteer sommeliers are a collection of faces I’ve seen on Eater—white people Making Moves, white people with their own restaurants and wine shops and importing companies. I count the number of faces that are not white. The number lands on two hands. I count the number of Black people. The number lands on two fingers.

Halfway through the evening, as I’m done pouring off a bottle, I return my service materials to a table and am approached by one of La Paulée’s senior fraternity brothers, one of those white men Making Moves. He scolds me for not saving him any.  

“What’s your name?” he demands. It never occurs to him that I know his, not to mention that he could look at my name tag.

“What does it matter?” I say back. “You won’t remember it anyway.”  

I meet him again a few months later. He does not.

My name confuses a lot of people. Chalk it up to colonialism and the remnants of imperialism. Being Filipino is a very different kind of being Asian. We don’t use chopsticks when we eat. We don’t really use herbs when we cook. We speak a modern language that sounds like Spanish creole. Most of us have very Spanish names, and those of us who don’t have very American ones. We’re not light-skinned enough to sit with the Chinese kids, and not dark-skinned enough to sit with the Black ones.

Four hundred-plus years of occupation will do that to a national cultural identity. To be Filipino nowadays is to be wrapped up in the trappings of machismo and Catholicism, in colorism, in a culture and language that doesn’t have words for he or she but has strong opinions on gender roles, in wanting to feel like we’ve always belonged when no one wanted us. It’s why we’re so stuck on losing our accents or being self-conscious about our noses. The generations before us couldn’t bear to be proud of who we were because of the fear of upsetting the group’s status with white people, whether it was the Spanish or the Americans. In Filipino culture, the word is hiyâ: a deep, inherent shame that grounds your social interactions so you can be perceived as modest or demure, the embodiment of the myth of the model minority.

In America, I learned to slowly shake it off. I went to high school. I went to prom. I did very American things that I used to only watch in movies, like drink Heineken at house parties when kids’ parents were away, or make out with a girl and pretend we weren’t doing anything when her parents got back home. I yearned to be shameless.

When my mom got her citizenship in 1999, I was naturalized as a minor. My passport changed, but I did not. When I told my very Filipino mom, while I was in college, that I was coming out of the closet, she didn’t say much. She pretended she knew the whole time. She joked with me and laughed a comforting laugh. I breathed a sigh of relief.

When I told my very Filipino mom that I wanted to be a sommelier, 11 years later, she responded by telling me that there was a job opening for a flight attendant at an airline my cousin worked for. They had good benefits and I’d get to travel and make a lot of money, she said. She urged me to think about it. Sommelier was not the career she’d dreamed of for me. I held my breath.

Pinch Chinese | June 2, 2017

It’s a gorgeous late spring night, one of my first at SoHo’s Pinch Chinese. Over the previous three months, I’d assembled a wine list that looks different. One that highlights women winemakers, features a red by-the-glass list that only serves merlot and contextualizes natural wine tentpoles like Cornelissen next to Château le Puy, alongside cuvées from people like Evan Lewandowski and Michael Cruse. Tonight, I’m the only one who’s running wine service. I see a table rapt with the list. I offer my help. “Let me know if there’s anything I can answer for you about the list.” 

“Yes, in fact,” says one of the guests at the table. “Can you bring the sommelier over?”

He points to one of my white employees. I die a little bit inside.

“Do you mean him, or me, the person who hired and trained him?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to—” he starts. I laugh it off. No one ever means to. But they do.

When I go to wine tastings, I feel like I have to make a conscious effort to play down my brownness. I cherry-pick my vocabulary, reaching into the word box of white somm-speak. I mind my space. I am careful not to run into, or offend, the Karen wearing a giant Goyard bag oblivious to the fact that she’s blocking the way. I dress to be comfortable, not for status. I do not wear the pins I paid for.

Language is a particular challenge, considering English is my third. Traditional wine tasting grids and wheels are biased to Eurocentric flavors, and crucial wine vocabularies can center on foods completely foreign to my Very Asian Palate, like the description of body akin to the fat content of milk products or the essence of a flavor component wrapped up in a fruit I have never even heard of. (Seriously, what in the actual fuck is a gooseberry?)

Wine is rooted in Europe and its white adjacencies, themselves products of colonial and imperialist histories. From Chile to California, we feel the impact of how winemaking was affected by the conscious, hegemonic spread of Christianity. Even the word sommelier is deeply embedded in the servitude of someone charged with taking inventory of wine on pack animals. The wine world does not take into account current experiences of its BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members. It is steeped in a language that is coded and arcane, tied up with legal jargon and French techniques that only the privileged, monied few are able to decipher.

But wine’s present realities—the rippling effects of climate change to natural wine’s reorganization of traditional hierarchies—are precisely why the removal of these outmoded ways of thinking and presenting information is crucial. This is an agricultural product that can adapt quickly to market trends (see: the boom of rosé, the bust of pinot grigio), so why is wine education so slow to adapt?

International Wine Center | May 18, 2012

I’ve been in New York City for five years and nearing my third year as a “wine server” at Momofuku. I’m eager for an opportunity to hold a sommelier title. I sign up for the WSET Level 3 wine course. It costs $1,500—a worthy investment for a golden ticket to legitimacy in the wine space, or so I think. For the first two weeks of classes, I struggle with rent and food. I pick up two shifts and I try to cover everyone else’s.

I am the only brown person in the course. I try to explain to the lawyer who is taking it for fun what a papaya tastes like. I watch the wine sales rep, sent by his company free of charge, dismiss the work required like it’s a burden on his schedule. It feels bewildering, frustrating, lonely.

During the eight weeks of classes, I smell the memory of my childhood wrapped up in the jackfruit of Savennières. I taste cab franc and it reminds me of the tamarind candies I used to buy in the Philippines when I was little, before I moved to America—before now, when no one else in this wine class understands what I am trying to say. I feel removed from the expertise of my own experience, in a place where I’m supposed to trust my tongue, but the tasting sheet suggests that it’s betrayed me.  

I receive the certificate two months later. It’s not until 2019 that I reconcile the debt. I do not put it on my CV.

I don’t know what will be left of restaurants after COVID-19, but I do know that there will always be wine and people who love it. The idea of pre-COVID, pre-George Floyd normal is over. Normal doesn’t exist—rather, it can’t. The status quo that white people were so comfortable with has been exposed for its racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and myriad other biases and transgressions wrapped up in the package of white supremacy. I’m looking for a better future, and I know what my role is and should be. I do not need to accommodate those who seek to protect the status quo.

I got into wine because of its ability to connect people. We share bottles, we share stories, we share our vulnerability and ourselves. I connect with wine in a similar way that allyship and advocacy leads me to connect with my own and others’ humanity. Structures that aim to keep people like me away from this space don’t get the point of why wine exists. 

Julia’s clarion call continued to ring in my ears and course through my bones in the days following her statements on Instagram. I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about how much harder it is to be Black in the space I occupy. I will never fully understand the struggle of Black people, but I can, in whatever kind of privilege or advantage this system hands to me, fight alongside them to change it.

The document titled “Actionable Items for the Wine Community” that has been circulating over the last two weeks with my name on it began with a conversation between Zwann Grays, the wine director at Brooklyn’s Olmsted, and Cha McCoy, the beverage director of Cherry Bombe. They drew up a short list of demands and we worked together to open it up to BIPOC in every corner of the industry and asked them what kind of changes they wanted to see implemented, like dismantling the idea of “correctness” in wine tastings and establishing better standards for alcohol and drug abuse training. We added them on. The action items are meant to be for everyone, as much as wine is for everyone, as much as this country is for everyone.

I consider how much more I can do, as an immigrant, as a Filipino, as an American, as a cis gay man, as an ally, as an advocate, as a sommelier, as a friend and as a son. I don’t want to perpetuate the systems that dehumanized and demeaned me and my BIPOC colleagues. I want to dismantle white supremacy in wine. I want to spark change, to remove the barriers of entry, to call in and call out peers and industry leaders about the results of their actions and the consequences of their inactions. I want to get loud, get angry, do better. I will ask my colleagues to do the same. I will not stop.

For the first time, I feel shameless.