Aspen, Colorado (CNN) – As hotel staff lowered the shades, signaling the beginning of the “Black on Black” dinner, guests seated in Aspen’s historic Hotel Jerome seemed to take a collective breath – preparing for a joyful and emotional four-hour celebration of the wine industry’s most influential Black leaders.
The dinner, hosted Friday during the annual Food & Wine Classic, came together after last year’s inaugural event spawned a push to bring more Black voices together to celebrate successes and discuss how to diversify a wine industry dominated by White males.
Guests included former and current NBA players Channing Frye, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Damian Jones; rapper E-40; chef Marcus Samuelsson; and several Black winery owners.
“Don’t make me cry,” Wine Unify Executive Director Alicia Towns Franken said when prompted to reflect on the importance of the event. “The energy in the room – I wish we could have bottled it. It’s important for those people to tell their stories.”
Franken also owns Towns Wine Co., one of the approximately 100 Black-owned U.S. wineries, according to the Association of African American Vintners – representing less than 1% of the total 11,500.
It’s a problem that the guests at the Black on Black dinner and many others, hope to change.
A Black woman in a White male-dominated industry
As diners dipped spoons into bowls of peanut soup with crispy rice and okra, Franken rose from her seat and described her company’s first-ever offering: a South African pinot noir called Inkwell, one of the wines selected by dinner organizers to pair with a dish from the six-course Caribbean-spiced menu.
Inkwell is named for a Martha’s Vineyard’s beach, a place she says embodies how America should be: inclusive and welcoming. Guests applauded loudly when Franken announced they would be the first to try it. Her path to becoming a winery owner was an unlikely one.
“[Wine] was a luxury we could not afford,” Franken told CNN about her childhood growing up in a low-income household in Chicago. “It can feel elitist. Wine language is so Eurocentric, and it’s centered on something that doesn’t represent a lot of cultures.”
Franken never had wine before she went to college, but she later married a German man (“Wine has always been an ingredient on our table,” she quipped). After working as a server at Boston’s Grill 23 & Bar in the 90s, she became its wine director and sommelier. She left the hospitality industry in 2002 – but 18 years later she was called to return after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.
She became the executive director of Wine Unify, a nonprofit that works to bring more minorities into the industry through education and career opportunities.
“I wanted to help bring more people [of color] in, because that diversity of thought improves everything,” Franken told CNN. “What we’re trying to do is change what leadership looks like and bring more people into the wine industry. So many people have thought that [this] has not been for them.”
‘A horrible relationship with the earth’
Experts point to several reasons for the lack of diversity in the global wine industry, including a longstanding, underlying stigma about working in agriculture.
“Black people have a horrible relationship with the earth here. It goes back to the initiation of slavery,” said Ikimi Dubose-Woodson, co-founder and CEO of The Roots Fund, a nonprofit that provides scholarships and mentorships for minorities in the wine industry.
“It’s never been corrected that the land provides and the land feeds, despite the negative connotation that goes with it,” Dubose-Woodson, who attended the dinner, said in an interview. “[Land] was a big part of Black wealth 200 years ago – so it’s [about] making a good connection back to it.”
Another attendee, wine brand La Fête’s founder and CEO Donae Burston, agrees minorities need to know they can have successful careers in the wine industry.
“The amount of money and wealth that’s generated in the wine and spirits industry is never talked about,” said Burston. “Those stories have to get out there for Black people to say this is a real career.”
Dubose-Woodson and Burston, whose La Fête Rouge was paired with a lobster-and-sofrito dish at the dinner, are both pushing for historically Black colleges and universities to educate students about winemaking.
“I’m trying to get HBCU agriculture programs to build small vineyards to join us in teaching, particularly Black students, that farming is just not fruit and vegetables,” said Dubose-Woodson. “Let’s show [students] about vines. Let’s figure out how to marry that relationship and get more Blacks in the U.S. making wine.”
Syrah star power
For Channing Frye, a former NBA champion with the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers and owner of Chosen Family Wines, Friday night’s star-studded dinner proved Black celebrities and athletes are working to show minorities wine is worth drinking.
“[In] early rap videos, everyone was drinking Ace of Spades or Veuve [Clicquot],” said Frye. “‘If Jay-Z’s drinking it, then we’ve got to drink it because that’s a sign of excellence.’ That’s how quickly it can get translated – and that’s how quickly wine could get translated.”
Frye hopes Chosen Family, founded in 2020, will not only draw in people of color as customers but also inspire them to start careers as winemakers, sommeliers or chemists.
“If people don’t think a career in wine is an option, we’re missing out on somebody transforming this industry for the better,” he said.
Connection and communication
A lack of communication between the predominantly White-owned wine industry and minority communities has also slowed diversity efforts, several dinner guests agreed.
“This is the honest truth: They don’t know how to talk to us. It’s as simple as that,” said Frye.
Several White-owned companies have contacted Dubose-Woodson for advice, she said, adding that the vintners say things like, “‘I have no one in our company who reflects that community. How do we start to build that bridge?’”
That’s part of the mission of The Roots Fund, which has helped 12 minorities become winemakers through education and mentorship programs over the last three years. In that same period, Franken said Wine Unify has offered 142 financial awards to about 130 minorities seeking industry education about careers like wine journalism, photography, tasting room operations and sommelier services.
“If you’re not in the industry or know someone next to it, you really don’t know how to find these jobs,” said Burston, who has previously donated a portion of La Fête sales to The Roots Fund. “You can do all the yelling you want from outside the room, but if you’re not in the room you’re not really in the conversation.”
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