The wine industry has a reputation for being snooty and exclusive. Now, like so many other predominantly white business sectors, it's reckoning with a widespread lack of diversity. But the owners of a small wine shop in Boston are planting seeds for systematic change in the beverage business – one scholarship at a time.
On a recent summer day TJ Douglas pulled the cork on a bottle of Pais Salvaje and explained how its old, wild Chilean grapevines grow in trees high above a family-owned vineyard. He loves the kinds of stories he finds in every glass and has been pouring, swirling, savoring and assessing wine for more than two decades.
“Look at that color,” Douglas gushed. “It's a little cloudy. It's unfiltered. There's a lot of texture and this is a wine that does go down easy.”
As owner of the Urban Grape in Boston's South End he tastes about 7,000 wines a year to stock his shelves that are arranged by body rather than varietal or country of origin. When Douglas and his wife Hadley opened their boutique store in 2010 they set out to make wine buying less intimidating. But a few years ago Hadley witnessed her husband's passion and knowledge being dismissed.
“I was at our big tasting table, and a couple came in,” she recalled, “and TJ kept trying to go over and help them.” They were looking for something specific from Italy, a place TJ has visited many times, “and they kept brushing TJ off and talking to our inventory manager,” she said.
The manager was white and didn't know all that much about wine. And Hadley is white. Her business and life partner – who's like a walking wine encyclopedia – is Black. She asked him how often that happens and TJ told her, “Pretty much every day.”
“A lot of it is me having to prove myself to someone I shouldn't have to prove myself to,” he explained, “so they would trust that I know what I'm talking about when I'm trying to talk to them about a bottle of Pinot Grigio.”
As the Black Lives Matter protests erupted TJ began reflecting more deeply on the biases and barriers he's faced over his career. He wondered if all the times he didn't get a job in the food and wine industry had more to do with his race than his resume. And he thought about all the times he was the only Black person at wine conferences.
“I don't know if I'm the only Black liquor store owner in the Northeast – I doubt it,” TJ said. “I do know that I'm the only, you know, fine wine shop – at least in Massachusetts, if not the Northeast – who's (owned by) a Black man.” Then he added, “and I don't want to be the only one anymore. I never wanted to be the only one.”
TJ and Hadley have long dreamed of founding an award for an aspiring wine student of color. The idea was born after they posted a bunch of jobs at their shop hoping Black or brown applicants would respond. They never did.
The couple points in part to a lack of exposure to wine for people in communities of color — even for those who work in fine dining restaurants — because they're more likely to be spending their shifts in the back of the house.
“You don't see the candlelit dinners, you don't see the sommelier, you don't see the bar,” TJ explained. “All you see are the dirty glasses, or the plates or the food that you're prepping. And creating access to these communities, to these people of color, this is going to help change the landscape.”
Turns out pandemic sales and the new racial justice movement helped make their wine scholarship a reality.
Urban Grape's storefront was shattered during the protests in Boston, and after learning about the vandalism customers from around the country rallied to support their business. This helped them raise more than $120,000 to launch a model they say will create a pipeline for diversity in their overwhelmingly white industry.
“It has really made us think of this time — and even what happened to the store — as a necessary step,” Hadley said, “And I think when you can reframe a trauma as a growth flashpoint, that's really a gift ultimately.”
The couple is happy to have the opportunity to turn something bad into something good. The winning wine student will learn about every aspect of the complex, competitive business over the course of a year while also attending the Certificate in Wine Studies program at Boston University where TJ studied. The protégé will also serve as an ambassador to show more people of color that their might be career paths for them in the industry, too.
44-year-old Roxbury resident Suhayl Ramirez threw her hat in the ring. "I got into wine via chocolate,” she said. Ramirez's eyes were opened as field marketing manager at the Somerville-based chocolate company Taza. She trained her palate with cocoa beans, which like wine are also fermented. The experience fired Ramirez's passion for grapes and her journey into the vast world of wine and spirits took off.
Like TJ Douglas, Ramirez has years under her belt in the hospitality industry — and she's also been ignored and made to feel invisible because of the color of her skin.
“Nine times out of ten I could walk in and out of any wine shop and I'll never get a second glance,” she said. As a knowledgeable lover of wine Ramirez has been “OK” with perusing labels and vintages on her own, but she added, “The hospitality person in me is not OK with it – and then the Black woman that I am is certainly not OK with it – because it just seems to me that there's no respect for my dollar.”
Ramirez is an “industry attaché” as part of the newly formed Black consumer group called Tfluxe that promotes education and equity in the restaurant and beverage businesses. The Urban Grape scholarship dovetails with her current mission.
“Thinking about what's important to me and what's important in my own activism – as a Black Latina – what are the things that I feel like I could affect change in? And one of those is really food and wine,” she said.
If she wins the scholarship Ramirez plans to embrace the role as ambassador. “It takes a few of us...and there will be a few more...and it'll just keep growing and growing,” she said.
In addition to the BU coursework, the scholarship also includes internships and mentorships at the Urban Grape, the wine importer/distributor M.S Walker and chef Tiffani Faison's restaurant group Big Heart Hospitality. Ramirez believes the hands-on deep dive would boost her confidence and her credibility.
“To be able to walk into the room and say, 'no, I actually do know what I'm talking about,' and to be an expert voice like that, is just a dream,” she said with her infectious laugh.
The application deadline is tomorrow and Ramirez will be waiting nervously for the answer – with a glass of wine in her hand. The Boston University wine program will select the winner in a few weeks and the scholarship begins after Labor Day. The Urban Grape owners say they've almost raised enough money to add a second student next year.
This article was originally published on August 14, 2020.
This segment aired on August 14, 2020.