Earlier last month some of the brightest talents in the wine industry were awarded Golden Vines Diversity Scholarships to kickstart their journeys on the Masters of Wine and Master Sommelier programmes. With the purpose of harnessing the potential of professionals from diverse backgrounds and propelling them to new heights, it is not only the recipients of these awards who will benefit from these opportunities, but the entire industry. The wine space as a whole gets to access these talents, these minds and these ideas. The spotlight has been shone and we all can turn towards it and enjoy the glow on our faces.
The necessity for opportunities such as Golden Vines Diversity Scholarships stimulates important conversations around the barriers to entry in the wine industry: cultural barriers; economic barriers; class barriers and gender barriers. We can’t say that they are unique to the wine industry, but these are the barriers that we need to be frank about in order to overcome them. Yet, when it comes to wine, we could argue that these barriers don’t only exist on the industry side of wine, but on the consumer side too.
As consumers in the UK, we have a strange relationship with wine. Outside of wine enthusiasts’ circles, most people profess not to know very much about wine at all. The majority of the population buy wine from the supermarket without much of an idea about what might be inside the bottle, what it might taste like and why. Around people who do know about wine, there is a kind of deference, as if such a person holds the keys to a mysterious and magical kingdom – an idea that has been propagated through the traditional, caricaturish view of the aloof restaurant sommelier. Why the scarce knowledge and, even more curiously, why the deference?
Like Oxbridge and Westminster, wine has a class issue. Even though wine is financially widely accessible nowadays, with some supermarket bottles available for less than £5, it remains socially inaccessible to many people. Much of the older UK population didn’t grow up with wine bottles on dinner tables; this only became the norm for the masses from the early 1990s onwards, which isn’t long enough ago for an entire culture shift to occur. Before this, good wine was only really drunk in middle and upper-class households or by those who could afford to travel abroad to buy it and bring it back home.
Our relationship with wine in this country differs starkly to that of many of our European neighbours, where wine very much is entwined with everyday life and is drunk by all, regardless of income or background. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that these countries make wine; vineyards are woven into the patchwork of the countryside in France as much as wheat fields are in ours. We have historically been an importer of wine, rather than a producer – and therein lies the rub.
Though we did grow vines widely across our country as far back the Roman times, our trading partnership with Bordeaux was cemented in the 12th century with the marriage of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. After that, we focused on importing wine rather than making our own – and so, who do you think came to have access to it? The people who could afford to buy it – or who mixed in Royal circles, of course.
The 12th century was a long, long time ago, but the inaccessibility of wine has been etched into our wine culture. There is a telling comfort and discomfort around wine. Names of domaines and grape varieties trip off the tongue effortlessly for some people, because they have become familiar with them for generations. The same names land uneasily for others, because the world of wine is still relatively new terrain. This discomfiture can be a huge barrier to embracing and enjoying wine, which can sometimes lead to a total rejection of anything to do with it.
When asked how we can make the wine industry more of a diverse place, Jarrett Buffington, one of The Golden Vines Diversity Scholarship recipients, answered: ‘I believe we will attract more diversity in the industry when people of other backgrounds are exposed to wine and encouraged to come as they are.’
Growing up in Wolverhampton, a culturally and economically diverse part of the country, I can see in my own friendship and family circles the ‘other backgrounds’ that Buffington talks about. I also can see that when we talk about barriers to entry in the wine world, for some people just being who you ‘are’ is a huge one. An accent, a dress sense, an income.
And what about this ‘exposure’ to wine? Some of my friends from home are the first generation of their family to drink wine, because, growing up, it wasn’t on their family dinner tables (and, when you’re eating dinner from a tray on your lap, there might not have been a family dinner table, either!). Wine is something they are finding their way around for the first time now as adults.
I agree with Buffington: we will attract more diversity in wine (on both the industry and the consumer sides) when people of a variety of backgrounds are exposed to wine and encouraged come to as they are. Then, potentially, the question might become: Is the wine world ready to accept us all, as we are?
Sophia Longhi is a wine writer and the winner of the IWSC Emerging Talent in Wine Communication Award 2022. She is especially passionate about championing women in wine and hosts her regular Instagram live #WednesdayWineWomen on her page @skinandpulp.