By Liz Thach, MW
When Blake Gray published his ground-breaking interview with four black wine sales professionals at E&J Gallo, and I read that they want more journalists to publish on the topic of racism, I immediately contacted several black people I knew in winemaking and viticulture. Each of them responded with a desire to talk openly about their experiences of being black and working in the wine industry.
Brenae Royal, Vineyard Manager at Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma County, California
I must admit that, in the past, I have always been too afraid to ask questions about racism, because I didn’t want to offend or bring up uncomfortable topics. Instead, I have discovered that people do want to talk about this, and brainstorm solutions to improve the situation for everyone. One of these people is Brenae Royal, currently Vineyard Manager of Monte Rosso, one of the most famous and historic vineyards of California.
Statistics Verify Opportunity to Change
Brenae and I discussed many topics, but an important one is the number of African American wine consumers in the US compared to the number who actually work in the wine industry. The statistics verify a need for change. For example, the Association of African American Vintners reports there are about 50 black owned wineries out of more than 10,000 wineries in the US. The 2019 Career & Salary Survey for Beverage Alcohol shows only 2% African American employees working in the 3-tier system. Yet the 2019 Wine Market Council Consumer Segmentation survey reports there are around 100 million wine drinkers in the US, and 11% of wine drinkers are African American. This equates to approximately 11 million African American wine consumers.
“In order to connect with these consumers and to encourage more to engage with wine,” says Brenae, “it is important to have people of color working in your wine business.” This statement is supported by numerous research studies verifying that racial and gender diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and higher profitability (Herring, Richard, Yantyo & Manulana).
How Did Brenae Fall in Love with Wine?
So how did Brenae land one of the most coveted vineyard positions in the wine industry? Well the short answer is hard work and determination. Growing up in the town of Atwater, California in the Central Valley she became inspired by agriculture, and decided to obtain a degree in Crops and Horticulture at California State University-Chico. During her senior year she was introduced to wine, and fell in love with big bold reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
In 2013 after graduating from CSU-Chico, she accepted a job with E&J Gallo as a viticulture intern at Monte Rosso vineyard. A month and a half after the internship ended, she accepted a full-time position as viticulturist. Then, in 2015,she was promoted to Vineyard Manager, overseeing 5 employees for the 575 acre property, as well as multiple grape contracts with wineries.
Discussing Black Lives Matter and Micro-Aggression
“When the Black Lives Matter campaign first started,” says Brenae, “I was a little bitter. Racism didn’t just start yesterday. It’s been happening forever. However, now my stance has changed. Instead, I see it as a giant opportunity to make a difference, to educate people, and to give true and authentic feedback on how the industry can be better as whole.”
Brenae describes some of the challenges she has faced in the male-dominated world of vineyard management. The main one is a concept called “Micro-aggression,” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary means, “comments or actions that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude towards a member of a marginalized group.”
She describes examples that happen on a weekly basis, mainly from customers, suppliers, or other visitors to the vineyard. “People are very surprised when they learn a black women is the vineyard manager,” she says. “They mistake me for the secretary, and make comments like: ‘I didn’t expect someone like you in this role.’ I’ve had several men call me an “Amazon” to my face and then laugh it off as a back-handed compliment. Some have asked where my husband is, and others express surprise that I drive a truck.”
Overtime, all of these comments are very exhausting, she explains. “I feel like I have to justify myself all of the time. The micro-aggression wears you down. I smile and stay polite, but it would be nice to be accepted as a professional in my position, rather than people acting shocked I’m in my role. I’ve even had people reach out and touch my hair because it is different from theirs.”
Brenae says she receives much support from E&J Gallo. They have embraced diversity and inclusion, and have even set up a Gallo African American Network to support black employees. “However, it is people outside of E&J Gallo that often look at me and think, ‘she’s there because she checks off boxes.’ In this way, I get reduced down to my race and gender as the predominant reason I have my job, rather than my education and experience.”
Some Solutions to Eliminate Racism in the Wine Industry
There are a variety of solutions that wine business are using to attempt to eliminate racism in the wine industry. Brenae suggests that all wine businesses, even small wineries with very few employees, should consider adopting some of the following:
- Inclusion Policy – create a written inclusion policy that is included in the employee manual, communicated during orientation, posted in the workplace, and documented on the company website. This is a simple and basic step many wine businesses can take to illustrate that they support diversity and inclusion, and will not tolerate racism against people of any color or gender. It can even include examples of micro-aggression so that employees, suppliers, and customers are all aware of what it is.
- Training on Unconscious Bias and Reducing Micro-Aggression – there are many consultants who offer excellent training programs on unconscious race and gender bias, with some programs offered online. Many people do not realize they hold these unconscious biases, and until they do, it is difficult for them to stop making micro-aggression comments and reactions.
- Recruiting Quotas – when recruiting new employees, always try to include people of color. There are many that match job requirements, but they are often not considered. Also, if you already have diverse employees in your company, send them to career fairs at universities to recruit new hires for you.
- Marketing Diversity – when creating marketing promotions always try to include photos and videos that highlight the diversity of your employees and consumers. Also, when hiring marketing consultants or influencers seek out people of color for these positions. Attend multi-cultural wine events, and ask what you can do to make your wines more attractive to new consumer segments.
- Scholarships and Mentoring/Support Groups – wine businesses can consider donating to educational scholarships to support women and people of color entering the wine industry. Likewise, they can volunteer to mentor, or support mentoring services, for people who are interested in wine as a career. For small wine businesses that do not have the resources to establish support groups/networks for people of color within the company, they can still establish a mentor system to insure new hires can succeed in the workplace. Indeed, this process can be set up for any new employee.
- Progressive Leadership – none of the above solutions will work without progressive leadership from the top. Wine business owners and managers must communicate the positive aspects of diversity and inclusion, and immediately pull aside anyone – employee, supplier, or customer – who is engaging in micro-aggression or other racist behaviors. Many people may not be aware they are harming others, but if a good leader can educate them in a compassionate manner, then much progress can be made. According to Brenae, “Leaders need to think about what they have allowed to happen in the past, and how they are now going to speak up and change things for the better.”
The Importance of Goals and Measurement
Goals should be set for workforce diversity with clear metrics, but there also needs to be a genuine desire to be inclusive. “Even at E&J Gallo,” says Brenae, “which is role model company in the wine industry when it comes to implementing these types of solutions, we still have more work to do. For example, currently I’m the only black person on the vineyard side, and we need to remedy that.”
She also offers a word of caution about congratulating yourself too soon. “Often companies will hire one or two women and people of color and they feel good about themselves. Then they stop and don’t do anything further, or don’t provide support mechanisms within the company to make sure these new employees feel welcome and valued as professional team members.”
A Vision for the Future and Wine Words of Wisdom
When I asked Brenae to describe her ideal vision regarding inclusiveness in the wine industry, she describes a bright future. “I want to see the employees in wine businesses be representative of the people buying the products. We should see Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, more women, and other under-represented groups. I see a day when multiple black women are working in prominent companies running viticulture operations, managing the cellar, or overseeing a wine program.”
Despite some of the angst that is happening around the world with the Black Life Matters movement, Brenae is positive about the future. “As one of the few black women on the agricultural side of the business, I have to use my voice for change. I am looking forward to the cultural shift that is taking place in this country and the wine industry. Hopefully it will make my life easier, and will improve it for new employees coming into the industry in the future.”
She concludes with some inspiring wine words of wisdom. “I’m in this business because I love wine and want to share it with others. The strongest thing the wine industry has going for it is wine. The passion for wine is ultimately what brings people together. Let’s make sure all of our employees feel welcome, and that they are inspired to encourage others to discover the joy of wine as well.”
- AAAV. (2020). Association of African American Vintners. Available at: http://www.aaavintners.org/
- Bowman, S. (2019). The Color of Wine Presents Brenae Royal. Available at:
- Gaither, J. (2020, June 19). What Racism Looks Like in a Napa Valley Tasting Room. Available at: https://vinepair.com/articles/racism-inside-a-napa-valley-tasting-room/
- Gallo. (2020). Women Behind the Wine: Brenae Royal, Vineyard Manager. https://www.winedialogues.com/wbtw/women/brenae-royal
- Gray, B. (2020, June 15), Four Black Gallo Employees Talk About Racism and Progress in the Wine Industry. The Gray Report.com. Available at: https://blog.wblakegray.com/2020/06/four-black-gallo-employees-talk-about.html
- Herring, C., 2009. Does diversity pay?: Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American sociological review, 74(2), pp.208-224.
- Mobley, E. (2019, Aug. 9). Meet Brenae Royal, the young, black female farmer behind one of Sonoma’s most important vineyards. San Francisco Chronicle. Available at: https://www.sfchronicle.com/wine/article/1880s-vineyard-in-good-hands-14290399.php
- Mobley, E. (2020, June 4). Drinkers are supporting black-owned wine businesses right now. Will it last? San Francisco Chronicle. Available at: https://www.sfchronicle.com/wine/article/Drinkers-are-supporting-black-owned-wine-15315335.php
- Richard, O.C., 2000. Racial diversity, business strategy, and firm performance: A resource-based view. Academy of management journal, 43(2), pp.164-177.
- Seven Fifty Daily (2020). 2019 Career and Salary Survey Report for US Beverage Alcohol. Available at: https://daily.sevenfifty.com/salary-survey-2019-report/
- Willcox, K. (2020, June 27). A Black Winemaking Revolution in the Making. Winesearcher.com. Available at: https://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2020/06/a-black-winemaking-revolution-in-the-making
- Wine Enthusiast (2020, June 8). A Global Guide to Black-Owned Wine Labels. Available at: https://www.winemag.com/2020/06/08/black-owned-wine-guide/
- Wine Market Council (2019). 2019 Wine Market Council Consumer Segmentation Handbook. Available to members at: https://winemarketcouncil.com/our-members/
- Yantyo, P. and Maulana, S., 2016, August. Fostering and Advancing Inclusion and Diversity as Corporate’s Key Strategies to Sustain in Global Competitiveness. In 2016 Global Conference on Business, Management and Entrepreneurship. Atlantis Press.