Monday, 12 May 2014

An Inconvenient Truth: Racism in the Wine Trade

Photo: Kimery Davis (CCL)

Frances Bentley has been involved in pretty much all aspects of the wine industry during her career, and has begun increasingly to notice that what she sees as racist views seem to remain unchallenged in the industry, nor do we have a fair representation of people of colour as employees, consumers or represented in advertising. Here, she gives her views on a subject which she feels has not been addressed nearly enough...

Several years ago, in a cellar in Burgundy, I tasted the wines of a small producer for whom I had a huge amount of respect. His wines were elegant and complex, and his Gevrey-Chambertin had been a firm favourite amongst most of us who were there. Half-way through the tasting he started to talk about his export markets and what was said prevented me from ever buying another bottle. His slurs regarding the Chinese and Singaporean markets were unacceptable, yet some of the others in the group laughed it off in a bar later on, calling his views ‘quaint’.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was new to the trade, and I was a lot younger than I am now, but I knew something was wrong. I never spoke about what happened until much later.

In Champagne last year the issue surfaced again. The question was asked of an employee of Roederer champagne, the producers of Cristal, as to why they had issued comments that the house was ‘unhappy’ with its association with rappers. At the time, the wine trade had collectively gritted its teeth and immediately begun to make excuses. 

The common claim was that the comments made by Frédéric Rouzaud, the company’s Managing Director, were about the image of rappers as being ‘uncouth’ and that this image was damaging the luxury status of the ulta-expensive Cristal brand. The fact that this was accepted as reasonable by the trade is distressing as it demonstrates that the trade will not only accept racist statements to be made, and will defend them, but additionally that it doesn’t understand what constitutes a racist or racially insensitive statement.

To claim that ‘rappers are uncouth’ is a generalisation at best, for anyone who has even thought about the problems surrounding the statement for a moment, but at worst it is loaded with racist meaning. So why is it accepted by the trade? In any other industry, would these comments be accepted? Would they even make financial sense? Rolls Royce, Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands welcome the business, the recognition and the alignment of their brands with a desirable celebrity lifestyle and have not made statements attempting to distance themselves from certain subcultures.

Furthermore, the trade makes lots of quips about Chinese investors buying up Bordeaux, but knowing ‘nothing about it’. Comments about ‘adding coke to Petrus’ are commonplace. Can the trade afford to make these slurs? Why is it acceptable to dismiss and ultimately alienate ethnicities in this way? Why insult and mock a key emergent market? How would the trade react if the Chinese investors were to abandon Bordeaux for Napa Valley? Would it regret its comments and attitude to a wealthy and robust group of investors?

Rouzaud’s comments are indicative of a wider problem within the drinks trade regarding race. There is a notable absence of PoC in the trade. At any tasting or industry event it is obvious to us all but it is never discussed. The trade fails to employ PoC, but also, given the Cristal incident, doesn’t appear to want to sell to them either. The perception of the trade, especially within the UK, is that it is a white, male, upper-middle class industry. 

Recently I was on an industry night and brought the issue of racism up with colleagues from another company. The reaction was that I was wrong, and that now the trade is open and accessible. They were horrified at the idea that their trade was racist, even sexist, and dismissed my thoughts on the matter. When I pointed out that they were ALL ‘white, male and middle-class’ they stared at me, and suddenly realised that their his position of privilege means they will have never had a reason to question or investigate these issues.

One of the problems I have had writing about this meaningfully is that this question appears to be so infrequently asked. Thorough searching threw up no statistics regarding how many people of colour work in the trade in sales, marketing and production of wine. The industry doesn’t care about the issue - because it hasn’t been asked, it hasn’t had to defend itself before. I wanted to be able to unequivocally demonstrate that there is a lack of people of colour working within the trade. Maybe I’m wrong, but anecdotal evidence (arguably no evidence at all) suggests otherwise. People in the trade frequently claim a lack of ‘interest’ by PoC in working with the trade, but this is just another excuse. Sure, religion may come into it in certain scenarios, but this doesn’t go even remotely close to explaining the problem. 

Last year, Chinese oenology students were attacked in Bordeaux in what was widely regarded as a racist attack. Only two large trade publications bothered to report the attack, including, whilst it was widely reported in other news outlets. It wasn’t mentioned whether the attacks were carried out by members of the industry, but the question wasn’t really asked. Was this industry-specific or not? Why were these students singled out? Why has this been ignored by the trade?

It’s not just about employment and representation though, or who is being sold to, its about how PoC are represented by the trade if the trade even remembers PoC exist. I asked a friend in the industry how she saw the issues, and she noted that industry advertising tends to ignore ethnicity. “Are all drinkers white? Why are PoC only ever depicted in Rio-type situations or manning Malibu huts on the beach?” she asks. Take the most recent Guiness advert, or any spirit advert, pretty much ever. It's depressing.

Is there hope?

Our customers care. Our customers really care. Jacob Kennedy, chef at Bocco Di Lupo reacted strongly when he was made aware of racist comments made by one of his wine suppliers. It’s interesting to note that whilst the racist comments themselves were reported by the trade press, the reaction of Kennedy was ignored. 

Perhaps until the trade is made aware of how unpalatable these views are to the people who make our industry possible, it will fail to deal with the problem. We need more people to ask the questions and to push the trade into fairer representation and treatment of all minorities (going way beyond race), otherwise nastier and more toxic problems will surface in the future and we will not be prepared to address them.

NB #1

Full disclosure: I am white, I am middle class. What gives me the right to comment on this? I have struggled with this for a while, wondering if I could do the subject the service it needs. I spoke to a number of close friend in the trade, and a number of people who are involved in activism of various strands. The general feeling was that no-one has asked these questions, no-one is commenting on it and therefore if I can bring it up, then I should. I would have rather this had come from someone who can explain things better than I can, but here we are.

As a woman in the trade I come up against my own problems in the trade. In the past 25 years we have broken down some of the sexism that exists in our industry. We now have more female MWs than ever before, more women are buyers and in positions of real power, and women command respect within the trade increasingly equal to men. This is a slight diversion, but it is interesting to see that this situation has changed dramatically, even in the ten years I’ve been active. I would like to think we are able to, and have made the trade more accepting of groups it tends to ignores.

NB #2

I really do welcome your comments here, and if you have any stats that can help improve this and future articles I would be very appreciative.


  1. Delighted to say that one of my winery owner friends is very proud of his Chinese clients and connections and has employed an Argentinian lady as his sales manager to complement his lady wine maker

    1. I'm delighted to hear that you have positive examples! I don't think it's everyone in the trade, but there are high profile cases that seem to be swept under the carpet - that's what I'm concerned about.

  2. A really good think to write about Frances and to bring into the open. Racism like sexism is everyday and it has to be recognised and spoken about as a first step to getting rid of it once and for all. It doesn't matter who does this in my opinion although those on the receiving end inevitably understand how it manifests itself more and how it feels.

    1. Thanks for your comments Sharon. I'm interested in the Everyday Sexism project, and I'm really pleased that the response has been positive to the article, rather than pointing out the weaknesses in the article!

  3. Kirsty Armstrong18 May 2014 at 20:59

    Hi Frances, have you spoken to my two excellent former colleagues at MHUK? Rachel Ramanathan and Maya Jethwa who i am sure as women working in the wine trade would be able to provide some very useful insights. Excellent article and worth looking into in more detail, i would have thought.

    1. Kirsty,
      Thanks for your comments. I realise that MHUK are very different and more broadminded as employers! It's brilliant to see.