2020. What a year so far! 

Though 2020 has already been one of the most challenging years for the Virginia wine industry — from reinventing business models following the mandated coronavirus shutdown to all nighters in the vineyards fighting late spring frosts — winery teams have demonstrated remarkable resilience.

When the chapter on 2020 is written, resiliency will be a clear theme.

Sadly, ‘silence‘ may also be a theme this year.  

Over the past three weeks, hundreds of thousands of people across the country (and more around the world) came together to march and stand against the malignancy of racism.  

While many companies — tech giants to fast-food chains, clothing brands to auto manufacturers and consulting firms — voiced support for Black Lives Matter, the wine industry has largely been silent.

Why?

Wineries operating with reduced staff leaving the remaining team members to work seven days a week to keep up with vineyard duties, bottling, implementing new social distancing procedures in order to reopen, packing boxes to fill orders and other duties just to stay in business may be a big reason for the silence (in Virginia and beyond).

There are other reasons, too. 

A central Virginia winery owner told me his winery decided long ago to stick with making wine and not talking politics on social media because such discussions alienate customers and potential customers.  

Being silent on matters of politics in these hyper-political times is understandable; staking out a political position can alienate customers and directly impact sales. With payroll to meet and bills to pay, staying politically neutral can be a good economic decision. 

But, racial justice is not about politics. It’s about life, equality, and human rights.  

A few local wineries like Knight’s Gambit Vineyard have made a clear stand against racism. Based in Charlottesville, Knight’s Gambit has pledged to match donations up to $2,500 to four different organizations that fight for the rights and lives of people of color. This is a good start.

Given Virginia’s history coupled with the lack of diversity in the industry, isn’t now the time for wineries to let their customers — all customers! — know where they stand on equality and inclusion?

Please do not mistake this for virtuous finger wagging. I’m not qualified to lecture anyone and I have as much to learn and work to do as anyone. 

As someone who has covered the Virginia wine industry for ten years, I have deep respect for vineyard and winery teams who work day and night to grow and make local wines. I ask these questions out of a sincere desire to learn and help build a more inclusive wine industry.

Dorothy J. Gaiter, who wrote the highly acclaimed ‘Tastings’ column in The Wall Street Journal from 1998 to 2010 with her husband John Brecher, and is senior editor of the online wine magazine Grape Collective, shared her experience as a Black wine journalist in her most recent article, ‘Being Black in the White World of Wine.’  (A must-read for every winery owner, winemaker and winery staff member.)

I’m angry, exhausted, and hurting,” writes Gaiter.  

She’s not alone.  Black and Indigenous People of Color who support local wineries — buying wine and participating in virtual tastings with local winemakers — when support is needed the most, echo Gaither’s feelings.

Scroll through the Instagram feeds of Drinky LaRue, a Washington DC-based wine enthusiast, and Pam Riley, who has covered the Virginia wine industry for years on her blog, Vines of Virginia, to see where People of Color stand on supporting local wine.  

Another winery owner told me they haven’t been more vocal because they’re not sure what to say and worry about backlash from saying the wrong thing.  

I get this, but silence is actually ‘saying’ the wrong thing.  

For those who are not sure what to say or do, Miguel de Leon, a restaurant and wine professional based in New York City, offers a number of suggestions in his recent Medium article, ‘Actionable Items for the Wine Community.’

We are in an extraordinary position to talk about the systemic changes necessary in order for the future and survival of sommeliership and the wine industry,” writes de Leon. 

Absolutely right — we are, right now, in an extraordinary position to talk about and effect change in the industry. 

Annette Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, says, “The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office stands firmly in support of the Black community. We acknowledge that their experiences within our industry are vastly disparate from others and are committed to being a force for inclusiveness and change from the top down. In the coming months, we plan to have hard and necessary discussions with leadership in our industry to make those changes a reality.”

Wine has the power to bring people together. Let’s use this collective power to build a more inclusive Virginia wine industry where everyone feels valued and welcome.  

Speaking up and matching actions with words is a good first step…  until then, the silence is heard.

(For the Facebook pseudo-intellectuals who cry ‘virtue signaling’ from their keyboards when someone presents positions they do not like, give it a rest; that ol trope is passed its sell-by date.) 

Thank you, Pam, Drinky, Alicia, Elizabeth, Gabe, Dave and Paul for graciously having conversations about this article or reading initial drafts.

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