Sticks and Stones: Bigotry and the Wine Industry
PART ONE: One of my grandmothers used to call Chinese people, “chinkies,” pronounced as “cheenk-eez.” Nice, huh? Especially in front of little kids, it set a great example. She actually used to remind me of Archie Bunker, the grand poobah of TV bigotry, who I was old enough to laugh at if not quite understand when I watched All in the Family on Sunday nights. Grandma Archie was none too fond of black people, Puerto Ricans or, for that matter, divorcées but that is another story. The kinder grandparents referred to black people as “the coloreds.” You can say that they lived during a time when this expression was preferable to say, the “N” word. But then again, they also used the “S” word, “schvartze,” a lot.[i]
We were the chosen people. At least that is what Jewish children are taught in Hebrew school so the implication is that anyone who is not a member of the tribe is inferior. It was always us vs. them and we were smarter than everyone, except for maybe the Chinkies. We liked their food, too, so they were ok. However, the Irish, Italian or Polish Catholics who I knew in school were looked down upon. The “goyim,” as they were often called, had different, i.e., worse taste.[ii] They were not as sensitive either, can’t forget about that. This is the kind of stuff I heard from people in my family, at school and in other people’s houses when I was growing up.
My partner grew up Catholic. Her church believes that anyone who does not accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their savior is going to hell. I think some denominations are not quite as harsh but I’m pretty sure there is no place for me in heaven. To some Christians, I was, am, “them.” And we all know what it means if you are gay. Because you can find anti-gay teachings, or whatever you want to call them, in Judeo-Christian texts, it is justified and not bigotry, right?
Let’s just say that most of us grew up with prejudices of some kind. We are socialized as kids, process information, get out into the world, and at a certain point hopefully educate ourselves to know better. A lot of us challenge our biases as they come up and get over them. Others just learn to be more careful about how they say things. Their bigotry comes through in innuendo. And then there are those who don’t really care if they come across like people who are living in the Antebellum South.
PART TWO: Earlier this year I wrote about sexism in the wine industry.[iii] Being female, it is much easier for me to see the ways in which this manifests itself than racism. No doubt, there are more women in the wine industry in California than there are African-Americans or Asians.
Latinos do a lot of vineyard work, and this is the most important sector of the industry. One of the best ways to learn about wine is to begin with hands-on vineyard experience and work your up. Yet when I go to wine tastings, I rarely see anyone who is not white. For sure, there are guys (most are men) who start off picking grapes for a couple of harvests and then get permanent positions with vineyards, sometimes managerial. However, few become winemakers or growers.
About 13 years ago, I took a break from my life to pursue another interest, left the Bay Area for a year, and to support myself, worked at a wine shop. Most of the guys in the delivery and shipping departments were Latino. The one who ran deliveries, let’s just call him Joe, knew his spirits, and I don’t mean that in the sense that he drank a lot; from single malts to artisan tequila, he knew his shit. The liquor buyer, (who was one-half Mexican-American but also one-half Jewish), left and most of the sales people were hoping Joe would be offered the job. He wanted it, too but no, it went to a white guy who did not know anything at all about spirits but was very chummy with the higher ups.
Let’s go overseas.
In 2013, Fulvio Bressan, a talented Italian winemaker, went on a rant and said some things about the Italian Immigration Minister, Cecile Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that were, any way you slice it, disgusting. Without rehashing the whole thing, it created quite a stir. Jeremy Parzen, a food and wine historian, and translator who lived and worked in Italy for ten years learned about this via a Tweet from Hande Leimer, an Italian wine educator.
He wrote about it on his blog, Do Bianchi, in a pretty matter of fact way, just repeating her tweet, reporting what Bressan said on Facebook, and translating into English Bressan’s FB post.[iv] Over 80 people commented, most but not all condemning Bressan’s words.
Less than a year after the Bressan incident, Martino Manetti of Montevertine had some choice words on his Facebook page about immigrants and at the end of his tirade, said, “Next year I plan to change the name of my wine to Mein Kampf.” Even during fits of anger, or in jest, Mein Kampf? I had a bottle of the ’07 Le Pergole Torte a few weeks ago and while it is still very youthful, enjoyed it.[v] There is a ’95 waiting for me in my cellar that I probably should drink soon but after that, I can’t see myself buying Montevertine again.
Do people deserve second chances? Sure. We’ve all said stupid shit. We might have even believed it at the time but we can change our views. That is not flip-flopping, that is evolving. The Bressan incident was three years ago. Giovanni Pagano, Bressan’s importer, thinks that he learned from the consequences of his notorious Facebook post. Bressan denied being a racist in a comment on Do Bianchi and explained why he wrote what he wrote in his original post. Perhaps, he was being more insensitive than racist? We can all come to our own conclusions.
PART THREE: Bigotry seems omnipresent. No matter what type of work you do or where you go to school, it exists, in different forms. There is the overt name calling that rears its ugly head, such as the incidents with Bressan and Manetti. Offensive as that might have been, the lack of non-white faces in decision-making positions is more systemic and has far reaching consequences. The “old boys network” is a white old boys network and there is a white young boys network, too. Honestly, most of the women I associate with in the industry are white. Wine drinking is not as entrenched in Asian, African-American and some Hispanic cultures as it is in others. Yet, to some extent, bias is a factor that makes it tougher for minorities to break into the industry. People tend to hire people they know, or know of, or can relate to, in some way.
Race as an issue has never gone away but it seems as if it has been back in the spotlight again in a way that it has not been since the early 90’s. The police killings of unarmed black men and women, trumped by the emergence of Trump as the Republican nominee has made it a daily topic on the 6 o’clock news. I know people who are voting for Trump even though they disagree with him on many things, but when it comes to immigration (Mexicans) and terrorism (Arabs, Muslims), his bigotry resonates. I’m convinced this is the main reason why he was able to bully his way into the nomination.
Then we have Orlando. With all of the unknowns, this was a hate crime. It sounds like the mass murderer, Omar Mateen, had demons about his sexuality and was unable to reconcile this with his religious beliefs. Like Leviticus and other religious texts, bigotry is etched in the Koran. Not to be outdone, Trump and the Trumpeters have stepped up their anti-immigrant, anti-Islam blabber. And so around and around we go.
I’m glad that people called out Bressan and Manetti because there is no place for bigoted, hate speech in the wine industry. Wine brings people together. It is a liquid form of breaking bread and throughout history, has helped us recognize our common humanity. Whether these winemakers had bigotry in their hearts when they made their comments I don’t know but the words were pretty damning. It also served as a lesson, to other winemakers, that we live in a global industry, word travels fast and that what might be acceptable in some places is not in others.
But we also have to be conscious and vigilant about less obvious forms of bigotry. Remember the saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me?” There is some truth to that. You can call someone an ethnic slur but denying them a chance to move up in the world because of their ethnicity, race, religion or sexuality is going to cause much greater damage.
So with this, I want to pay respect and give my condolences to those who lost their lives or loved ones in Orlando. They are not just the victims of a fanatical nut or lax gun laws but of a society that is way too permissive of bigotry.
Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (One Love!);
There is one question I’d really love to ask (One Heart!):
Is there a place for the hopeless sinner,
Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own beliefs?
– Bob Marley and Peter Tosh
[i] Literally, it means black in Yiddish and originally was not derogatory but over time, it turned into a slur.
[ii] Goyim is the Yiddish word for non-Jews. It has taken on an offensive overtone. Goy is a shortened version of the word.
[v] Le Pergole Torte is the flagship of Montevertine. It is a heralded Super Tuscan, composed entirely of Sangiovese. https://dobianchi.com/2014/03/11/pergole-torte-racism-manetti/