Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Bell shares that her parents occasionally enjoyed wine with dinner. Her own journey with wine began when she attended Black Vines, an annual festival that, in 2017, took place in Oakland, Calif. “The immersive event really opened my eyes to the fact that there were not only Black wine consumers, but Black wine entrepreneurs — folks who have their own vineyards and brands. It really sparked something in me. I said, ‘I want to tell these stories. I want to know these stories.’”
At the outset, Bell was surprised that her study would be the first. “There was nothing in the scholarly literature — literally nothing,” she says. She found research on Black entrepreneurship and Black wine consumers, but academic journals were silent regarding Black wine entrepreneurs. She acknowledges that their numbers are small. Black-owned wineries, for example, represent less than 1 percent of all US wineries. But Bell says absence in the literature points to something deeper. “There has definitely been a devaluation of research that looks at underrepresented populations until very recently,” she says. “But academia and the broader media are starting to see that these unique stories — stories that are more focused — do have value.”
The study’s data tell a compelling and nuanced story, generating multiple topics for further inquiry.
When Bell asked survey respondents to identify the biggest challenge to the success of their own businesses, almost half cited limited capital — getting loans and raising funds — as their number one challenge. Ranked second were time constraints — unsurprising, given that half of respondents hold other jobs in addition to running their wine businesses. Then Bell asked respondents to think about Black wine entrepreneurs as a cohort. Limited capital was again cited as primary; but this time, 20 percent of respondents cited bias or racism as the biggest challenge. This underscores the finding that 78 percent of respondents believe that racism is a greater challenge for entrepreneurs in wine versus other industries.
Bell wants to explore why respondents called out racial bias as the foremost challenge for the cohort, but did not cite it as the largest barrier to their own success. But she offers an observation tying together access to funding and racial bias. “I think it speaks to how systemic the effects of bias and racism are,” she says. “Who is doing the funding? How are they evaluating loan applications? Are there disparities [in assessments of] identical candidates who just happen to have race as a differentiator?”
Respondents wanting to scale up expressed a desire to sell their wines regionally and nationally, but grappled with distribution regulations that vary widely by state, and reported difficulty gaining access to distribution channels. Bell observes, “I think it would take a longer-term investment by these distributors and national retailers, working with these brands for a few years at least, so these entrepreneurs can put themselves in a position where broader distribution is possible.”
Bell was not surprised to find that a high percentage of respondents — 86 percent — value corporate social responsibility. In addition to mentoring and making charitable donations, they promote other Black businesses, even competitors. “It’s so ingrained in so much of Black culture,” explains Bell. “It’s [the idea of] ‘You didn’t make it here by yourself, so you have to help others to get to where they want to be.’ My notion that that existed was confirmed.”
To strengthen the network of Black wine entrepreneurs, and facilitate the formation of partnerships among industry leaders and these businesses, Bell has joined forces with Angela McCrae, founder of media platform Uncorked & Cultured. Together, they are compiling the Sip Consciously Directory at uncorkedandcultured.com/sipconsciously, an online resource of Black-owned wine businesses. During August, which is National Black Business Month, they hope to add 100 more listings. And Bell has a message for everyone who drinks wine.
“You don’t have to be a Black wine consumer to support Black wine entrepreneurs,” she says. “We as consumers have power that I don’t think we wield enough.”
Here are two current favorites that retail under $30:
House of Brown California Chardonnay 2020 Brown Estate, a venerable and widely lauded Black-owned estate winery in Napa Valley, crafts a second label in Lodi. This stainless steel-fermented chardonnay expresses fresh pineapple and green herbs on the nose, with flavors of guava and nectarine, all buoyed by bright acidity. 13 percent ABV. $22. Distributed by Martignetti Companies, Classic Wine Imports. Exclusive to the BIPOC Producers Collection at Urban Grape, South End, 857-250-2509.
Kara-Tara Pinot Noir 2019 Award-winning South African winemaker Rüdger van Wyk showcases pinot noir grown in cool-climate Elgin, southeast of Cape Town, aged in large format French oak. Scents of Bing cherry, rose petals, and a touch of white pepper entice, leading to a palate of red fruit and forest-floor leafiness. 13 percent ABV. $20-$24. Distributed by Martignetti Companies, Carolina Wine & Spirits. At Urban Grape; and Atlas Liquors, Medford, 781-391-0410.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at [email protected]
Ellen Bhang can be reached at [email protected]