Op-Ed

Black folks are drinking wine, not the industry’s exclusionary Kool-Aid

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“Blacks don’t have the capacity to understand dry wine; they’re tropical, they like everything sweet.

That’s what a mentor said years ago while I interned as a cellar master’s apprentice at a wine boutique in New York City.

Like most black wine professionals I knew, he was a down-low wine geek, sopping up the grape rhetoric of fancy wine folks who thought their palates were genetically superior, mutated to perceive cat’s-pee and vegemite-sandwich nuances. Black folks, on the other hand, suffered from Kool-Aid captivity and, at best, sipped bodega white zinfandel from a straw.

When it comes to blacks and wine, not much has changed in the way of perception. Yes, I know there’s a black guy on the 2012 “somm” documentary. And yes, Zuma Miami’s sommelier Michel-Ange Lafleur is not only a Miami native but a Zoe (slang for Haitian or Haitian-American). But the idea of a black person who is a serious, wine-loving professional is, as Lafleur put it in a Herald article I wrote about sommeliers and diversity, “some mythical creature.”

I belong to an unofficial network of black wine professionals who sip and speak wine as a first language. And it’s usually not gooseberry and cat’s pee (some of us are unacquainted with either reference). Our references are personal (as everyone’s wine journey should be) and referenced the idiosyncratic details of our unique experiences and cultures.

It’s listening to the late rapper extraordinaire Biggie Smalls in a puff of Carmenère (an old Bordeaux grape grown heavily in Chile with nuances that can beckon marijuana or cigar ash), for example.

It’s South Beach Wine and Food fest season, and soon attendees will be sipping and smoking lovely. Rev Run and DJ Ruckus will, according to the event’s official website, “lay down some serious beats” while folks sip and party.

All good, folks, do your thing, but it would be nice to see some black grape professionals headlining the wine talk instead of just spinning the music.

It’s cool that chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson and Tren’ness Woods-Black, granddaughter of the late Harlem soul food restaurant owner Sylvia Woods, are bringing some Harlem spice to the beach, but maybe Kool-Aid will sponsor a wine tasting that features a black wine professional.

Before you comment on how racist how I am, A: It’s Black History Month, so I can say whatever I want and B: I’m no dilettante in the game of grapes and race.

We, as humans, are as far forward as we are backward, and the wine industry is no different. As we speak, many South African grape pickers are enduring unspeakable living conditions and unlivable wages to bring pleasure to our bottles, and if you research the history of that Bordeaux bottle you have saved for a special occasion, you might find the spirits of black slaves meandering among those gnarly vines.

Don’t mean to bring down the buzz, but a little knowledge never hurt anyone. Thank God for places like Lagniappe where I can get a thoughtfully (or quizzically made) bottle, slip into some roots music and enjoy the multicultural vibe until my teeth take on the dark must of juices I’ve grown to love.

It’s easy to forget wine is about history, love and connection. If you go to Total Wine & More’s North Miami location, for example, Grape Master Flex Rob Dubois does more than sell wine — he gives you grape proverbs. He recently described the nose of an aged Zin he recommended as being “like a grandmother’s old lipstick that’s been sitting in a drawer for years.”

You go through enough bottles, and some wines taste like home (even the sweet ones). A couple years ago LeFleur and I dined at Mignonette downtown, and for dessert, he ordered a Domaine Philippe Delesvaux Sélection de Grains Nobles Coteaux du Layon. It was the 1997 vintage, and it was sweet — sweet like coconut drops, a Jamaican candy of my childhood, and the bruised, mangled mangoes my mama often left in her bathroom, sweet like a time when my palate was cherry Kool-Aid red, and no one judged me for it.

Dinkinish O'Connor is an adjunct professor in the communications department at Unilatina International College. She has written for Wine Spectator, Condé Nast Traveler and EBONY, among other publications.

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