In February of 2017, Dr. Monique Bell attended the Black Vines Festival in Oakland California and it changed her life.
“Never had I seen so many Black people drinking and enjoying wine,” she said. “Not only were the customers Black, but the winemakers and winery owners were Black. It opened my eyes to a whole new world, and a new found passion for wine.”
Growing up in Rochester, NY, Bell noted that wine was not on her family’s dinner table every night. Fine wine also was not part of the culture of her friends at Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore, Maryland, or during the years she pursued her Ph.D. in Marketing at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.
But when she moved to California to teach marketing at CSU-Freso, a wine culture was more visible. “There is a vineyard near my house,” Bell admitted, “and Fresno State has a great wine program, but I didn’t really think about the wine industry that much until my friends took me to the Black Vines Festival, which highlights Black vintners and winemakers.”
Dawning of a New Research Stream
The experience ignited a new research passion in Bell – to analyze the motivations and challenges of black entrepreneurs in the wine industry. “But when I started the literature review,” she reported, “I was shocked to find that no one had ever researched the topic before. In fact, I could only find one academic paper on black wine consumers.”
After gaining university approval for her study, Bell began searching for Black wine entrepreneurs to interview. She consulted the Association of African American Vintners, and used the “snow ball” technique (asking each interviewee if they knew of others to interview). In the end, she was able to complete 40 interviews with Black winemakers and wine professionals. She also developed an online survey, which includes more than 100 survey responses.
Given the fact that there are only around 65 Black owned wine brands in the US, out of more than 11,000, according to Wines & Vines Analytics, Bell had to expand her sample to include all types of Black wine professionals. In addition to winemakers, she reached out to Black wine marketers, educators, retailers, negotiants, and consultants.
The timing of the research was rather challenging, in that she started her interviews in February 2020 by attending the Black Vines Festival again. But in March 2020, the pandemic arrived and in June 2020, George Floyd was killed.
“Due to the pandemic,” reported Bell, “I had to conduct most of the interviews online. But I found that people were eager to be interviewed. Probably part of it was because of being isolated by Covid, but they were also grateful to be recognized for what they were doing in the wine industry.”
Black Lives Matter also brought more attention to Black entrepreneurs across the nation, as Americans were urged to support Black businesses. “Some Black winery owners were suddenly deluged with orders,” said Bell.
Now with the data all collected, Bell is busy analyzing the results to write academic and trade journal articles, and present at conferences. However, she was able to share some high-level findings.
Major Challenges of Black Wine Entrepreneurs
The three major challenges emerging from the data are lack of financial capital, systemic racism, and confusing wine regulations. Since the majority of the Black wine entrepreneurs were self-funded, access to capital to grow their businesses was identified as a key challenge. Yet more than 77% of the businesses represented were not certified as Minority-Owned Business Enterprises (MBE) or an equivalent. Pursuing this designation and actively engaging with local and national trade and professional organizations could open access to more loan opportunities.
Interestingly, racism wasn’t listed as the primary challenge, mainly because it is “baked-in racism,” according to Bell. “Racism is ever-present and has been going on for such a long time that many Black entrepreneurs accept it as a given, and see it as just another obstacle they have to deal with every day.”
Excerpts from the interviews include micro-aggression comments such as, “Can I talk to the owner?” – even though the owner is the Black professional standing in front of them. Also, “People assume that because you are a Black person holding a glass of wine, that you are ‘the help’.”
Black female wine entrepreneurs described the dilemma of a double discrimination – being both a woman and Black. Given that there are not that many female winery owners in the US, adding Black to the equation creates more concerns. “I was told that no one’s ever going to buy wine from a Black woman,” was one comment.
Finally, confusing wine regulations, which differ by state, were identified as a third major challenge. However, this is one that is shared by most new wine entrepreneurs, regardless of race. Finding routes to markets by identifying distributors to carry your wine has always been a challenge for new wineries.
Key Motivations of Black Wine Entrepreneurs
The major motivation for entering the wine industry is also one that is shared by the majority of wine entrepreneurs, regardless of race. This has to do with a passion for wine as a product, as well as it linkage to agriculture and Mother Nature. Many people who enter the industry are attracted by the romance of wine, and desire to create it and share with others. This motivation was similarly present among Black entrepreneurs in the study.
A far different impulse, however, had to do with the second motivation emerging from the data. This had to do with the desire to be a trailblazer for the next generation. “Many people talked about the fact that they were starting a wine business so other Black people can follow,” explained Bell. “They said they were not doing it just for themselves, but as a legacy and for the broader community.”
“Based on this altruistic reason to enter the wine industry,” says Bell, “it is feasible that they are expecting obstacles – as any entrepreneur does – but they persist because of their long-term vision for creating opportunities for their families and others.”
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