black sommeliers

4 Black Sommeliers Share Their Perfect Pour and How the Industry Is Changing

How the wine world can become more inclusive of Black wine experts.

By: Kristin Braswell

If you’ve ever enjoyed a wine tasting or experienced the perfect pairing with your food, you can thank the expertise of a sommelier for providing that memorable pour. Around the world, those who are enlisted to select and share knowledge on wine is limited to a select few. If you’ve suddenly envisioned a white male presenting a bottle, taking the glass for a swirl before that first sniff, that’s because this image is very much the face of the sommelier and wine industry.

That’s why last year, on a trip to Portugal for my birthday, I made it a priority to meet with sommelier Cha McCoy. A Harlem native, McCoy currently resides in Lisbon, where she took me through a tasting journey of the region’s wines. We enjoyed a citrusy Anselmo Mendes Contacto Alvarinho, a rare 2016 Casal Figueira Vinhas Velhas, and a Sao Joao Espumante that could easily rival Portugal’s neighboring country Spain’s most prized Cava. She shared an incredible history of the region’s wines and personal anecdotes of tastings she’s done that have stretched from Brooklyn to Berlin. What continued to strike me during the day (besides the incredible wine) was how different and fulfilling so many of my tasting experiences in the past would have been, had I been exposed to more diverse wine experts.

When we travel to eat, enjoying cuisine from chefs of different backgrounds is part of what makes each meal so highly sought-after and memorable. A wine tasting experience shouldn’t be any different. As sommelier Lydia Richards shared with me, “Wine is produced throughout the entire world and in every continent. For a product with the amount of history and diversity that wine has, current industry leaders are not representative of that, and that needs to change.”

These Black sommeliers represent every part of the globe with an expertise and passion worth celebrating in an industry that is overwhelmingly homogeneous. They shared with me some of their favorite bottles and how they hope to see the wine world become more inclusive of Black wine experts.

 

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When did you first fall in love with wine and decide to pursue it as a career?

“I first fell in love with wine when I moved to Italy in 2010. I was there for my MBA, but my time spent in the vineyards and learning from classmates from various countries in Europe is what motivated me to want to master my own palate. My first job in the industry came when I returned back to NYC in 2012 to work at a boutique wine shop in Harlem called The Winery. It was there that I met the general manager and my mentor, Eric White. He inspired me to envision my own business, Cha Squared Hospitality, which focuses on wine experiences, including events, education, and tourism.”

Have you seen any change in how the wine industry embraces diversity and inclusion of Black sommeliers? What do you hope to see change?

“Because of recent calls for more diversity, Black wine professionals have started to share their stories publicly of working in the industry. More brands are posting solidarity in media; however, many have not shared how they will actually make the change happen. It takes true internal work from the top down to make change happen, from who you hire, to what the work environment is, and the overall mission of the business. These changes can happen with small wineries and large brands; everyone has a role to play. I hope that the exposure given to Black wine professionals in media will create more educational opportunities. I’m working on projects of my own to help connect BIPOC wine professionals and students to wineries for experiences in the vineyards.”

If you could only sip one wine for the rest of your life, which would it be, and why?

“Sauvignon Blanc from Loire Valley. Nicolas Joly: Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2001 Loire-Savennieres Coulee de Serrant.”

What wine region of the world do you have particular expertise or love for, and why?

“Portugal, South Africa, and New Zealand and Chilean wines. A lot of wines that go under the radar that are from these countries are great quality and have good price points. Especially with living in Portugal, I have access to smaller winemakers and can learn about indigenous grapes that probably won’t make it to the US, but [which] tell the story of the terroir of the native land.”

Can people set up virtual tastings or events with you?

“Yes, on my website, ChaMcCoy.com/estore, you can book for your private group tastings as well as other virtual sommelier services like home food pairings and curating a case of wine for delivery. And if someone wants to join existing classes, AirBnB Experiences is best if you are booking for yourself.”

 

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When did you first fall in love with wine and decide to pursue it as a career?

“Thanks to my mom and aunts, I had an appreciation for wine since I was very little. The real OG wine lovers, in my book, they would sit around for hours on end—and I remember always finding it fascinating that their talks would revolve around a bottle (or two) of wine. My own love affair with wine began after graduating from college and living in Paris for a few months to learn the language. Living with one of my closest friends, who was French and a real wine connoisseur, really opened my eyes to the different French wine regions, styles, and the culture behind it. From then on I was hooked. After moving to New York, I worked in marketing and PR in the fashion industry, but always kept coming back to wine. I took wine- and food-pairing classes after work, and slowly but surely, it started taking over my life. About five years ago, I decided to fully commit, take sommelier lessons and make the career change. It was the best decision I’ve made so far. Always follow your gut!”

Have you seen any change in how the wine industry embraces diversity and inclusion of Black sommeliers? What do you hope to see change?

“Absolutely, and of course, even more prevalent now with everything going on in the world. I think it’s amazing, but it’s also frustrating because, well, it’s 2020! One of the reasons I started Vino Concierge, my private-events company, was because I saw a gap in the industry. Aside from being Black, I am also an Afro-Latinx immigrant to this country, which makes me part of an even smaller percentage of people represented in the wine industry. This is the same story with so many talented, hardworking Black professionals in the industry, for far longer than I have been in it. We’ve had to forge our own path because there wasn’t a platform for us to be heard. I am more excited about this now than ever, because it finally feels like there’s real change ahead. Our community is not keeping quiet anymore: We are speaking out to communicate our value and denouncing racist behavior and companies. Our work is far from done, but there’s hope.”

If you could only sip one wine for the rest of your life, which would it be, and why?

“This question is hard, but, if I had to choose: bubbles all day, every day! Specifically, Cava (I still love you, Champagne!) because I find the balance of fruit, oak influence, complexity, and aging capability fascinating and very compatible with multiple types of food.”

What wine region of the world do you have a particular expertise or love for and why?

“I think there are so many amazing regions around the world (both known and emerging—English bubbly, anyone?), but right now I’m all about Spain. The range in diversity of styles, native and international grape varieties grown, regions, and quality at every price point imaginable [are] mind-blowing. I find it fascinating how regionally focused their gastronomy is and how it is ingrained within each regional identity. Right now I’m obsessed with wines from the Canary Islands (Los Bermejos in Lanzarote), learning more about the Sierra de Gredos/Vinos de Madrid region (Las Moradas de San Martin and Commando G), and, of course, Galicia (Guimaro) are some of my personal go-tos.”

How can people set up virtual tastings or events with you?

“As the world confronts this 2020 global crisis and turns digital, wine is a timeless vehicle that allows you (and your palate) to travel around the world in the comfort and safety of your own home. Completely customizable, it can be a wine tasting, vineyard tour and/or wine food-pairing class. All services and experiences offered through my company, Vino Concierge, and through Colangelo & Partners at a larger scale, are available on a virtual platform. I’m actually working on a few exciting projects coming up, so stay tuned!”

 

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Tahiirah Habibi

The Hue Society

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black sommeliers

When did you first fall in love with wine and decide to pursue it as a career?

“I fell in love with wine in 2009. I had already begun my studies, but it was my trip to Europe that changed my perspective on making it a career. Wine is such a beautiful escape when you think about the by-products of its indulgence. I learned about geography, history, soils, and all kinds of things as a result of studying the grapes. It can transport you to another time and place depending on the bottle. It’s a living thing that changes over time, just as we do.”

Have you seen any change in how the wine industry embraces diversity and inclusion of Black sommeliers? What do you hope to see change?

“I see the work being done towards change, for sure. I see a lot of organizations trying to make the necessary adjustments to create safe spaces. What I’d like to see more of is the shift from equality to equity. It’s an important distinction that needs to be addressed as these frameworks are changed. It is highly important that people understand these differences because diversity can be celebrated while equity is still not developed, thus the unjust cycle will continue.”

If you could only sip one wine for the rest of your life, which would it be, and why?

“Pinot Noir! It’s so sexy and sultry. It can be expressed so beautifully, yet it’s simple to drink as well.”

What wine region of the world do you have a particular expertise or love for, and why?

“I’d say I’m well versed in Champagne. I love the bubbles, and I’ve taken a few extra classes of study about the region. I love history, so I’m always intrigued by the backstories of our favorite wine places and how those stories are told.”

How can people set up virtual tastings or events with you?

“I have a team of top sommeliers at The Hue Society who will conduct a fun and interactive tasting based on your preferences. During the guided tasting, attendees will be able to ask questions, share impressions, and learn sommelier secrets. Pairings are an available option as well!”

 

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black sommeliers

When did you first fall in love with wine and decide to pursue it as a career?

“There’s one moment in particular when I really believed that wine education could be an actual career path for me, and that was during a week-long educational trip to France in 2009. I applied to the program to become a Certified Bourgogne Wine Educator and was accepted, but wasn’t quite sure exactly what I was getting myself into. I’m glad I didn’t completely know otherwise, or else I may have chickened out! After a day of learning, we had a meal where I tasted a Batard-Montrachet. This wine and that moment is forever etched in my mind, like time stood still. I truly fell in love with wine at that moment, because I tasted exactly what wine could be!

“The career part came a few days later, when I passed the exam to become a certified educator. I stepped out of the room to call my parents, and I remember saying, ‘This could really be something, I can really do this!’”

Have you seen any change in how the wine industry embraces diversity and inclusion of Black sommeliers? What do you hope to see change?

“Absolutely! I’m definitely seeing more of us featured in the media, conference panels are more diverse, and organizations are being created to include, amplify, and promote Black sommeliers and wine professionals in general. The change I want to see, though, is [of more] Black people in leadership, mentorship, and executive positions in the wine industry. I also want to see more influencer and marketing campaigns that include people who look like me.”

If you could only sip one wine for the rest of your life, which would it be, and why?

“One wine... How long do I have to live? LOL! I think I’d pick Bourgogne Blanc because the wine is amazing and there are so many different styles from the region—from steely and mineral, to fruit-forward and lightly oaked. I don’t think I’d get tired of it! Also, I have a lot of memories tied to these wines and this region. I love reflecting back on that time and remembering how I started and how far I’ve come in this industry.”

What wine region of the world do you have a particular expertise or love for, and why?

“I have a particular love for the Rhone Valley. There’s such a diversity of styles and so many grapes in that region. I haven’t had a bad wine from there yet. Sometimes, I even get stuck in a bit of a rut and find that I’m only drinking Rhone wines. Maybe I should’ve selected this for the one wine I’d sip for the rest of my life!”

How can people set up virtual tastings or events with you?

“My virtual tasting experiences include a conversation with the client to ask about their needs, such as if they are wine enthusiasts or looking to host an event like a birthday or bridal shower. I just started offering a themed tasting called This or That, where I select one grape from two different regions and do a comparative tasting of both. It’s a great way to understand the nuances of wine. To end my tastings, I always play a little game, whether it’s guessing the grape or exploring what a certain word means on a wine label. We drink, but we learn and laugh even more.”

 

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