The phone sizzles. It’s the sound of Vincent Morrow, co-chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ diversity committee, on the other end of the line. He is actively pondering the thorny question I just threw at him: “Why is the wine industry so white?” When I start to regret my blunt line, he replies with the finesse of a glass of pinot, “Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?”
Morrow believes that wine culture has been shaped by centuries of what could be summed up simply as white privilege. Take, for example, land ownership in a wine region like Napa Valley, where Morrow lives and works. “An acre can cost half a million dollars,” he says. “That is definitely a barrier to entry.” Fine dining is another example. Often measured by the art of the wine list, the best restaurants stock a plethora of rare and cost-prohibitive bottles, a testament to the somm’s sourcing wizardry.
Morrow, who has been wine director at Press restaurant in St. Helena, California, since December 2020, has taken a more egalitarian approach in the cellar, balancing collectible vintages with good-value bottles, a practice that earned the restaurant a prestigious 2022 wine viewer Big prize. “The intention of wine, in my opinion, is to be communal,” he says, “and invite people to participate.”
Although he is one of only three black master sommeliers in the world, Morrow acknowledges that he has been “woefully insensitive” to racism in the wine industry. He grew up the only black kid to play soccer in Peoria, Arizona. Later, he was a midfielder at Sonoma State University, where the student body was only 2 percent black. This statistic unintentionally reflects the kingdom of wine: A survey 2019 of 3,100 wine professionals reported that only 2 percent identify as black.
“My lifelong experience being the rare person of color makes me more determined to create more balance in my field,” says the 35-year-old wine director. His seven-person diversity committee at the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, meets every other week to shape a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization. (Other members include Thomas Price, a black master sommelier and professor at Auburn University, and Houston, Texas-based restaurant magnate June Rodil, originally from the Philippines.)
As the world’s most prestigious and historic sommelier certification agency, the CMSA sets the gold standard for service in the hospitality industry. Morrow’s committee seeks to effect change beyond the optics, but that doesn’t mean the organization isn’t fallible. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in May 2020, the CMSA came under fire for complaints about insufficient diversity and its starched nomenclature. Black sommelier Tahiirah Habibi, who founded the Hue Society, an organization that increases BIPOC representation in wine, revealed her discomfort with the use of the term “master” while taking her CMSA exam in 2011. (In response, CMSA no longer uses the word “master” as an address for those who have reached the highest level of the organization, but remains in the name and designation of the organization).
According to Morrow, updating the language is the first step toward change. Under the guidance of the diversity committee, the CMSA removed gendered pronouns like “sir” and “madam” from its service standards, along with the stifling etiquette that goes with them, such as serving wine first to women. Now, whoever orders the wine is given an initial tasting, as always. Then the guest of honor, if any, receives the first drink. From there, the pours continue in a clockwise direction, regardless of gender. It seems, at least in this case, that the cavalry is dead. “The label is evolving,” Morrow acknowledges. “Now being friendly, courteous and communicative includes making service more equitable.”
Another example of what Morrow calls “a small thing with a big impact” is the CMSA’s new scholarship for underrepresented people, including BIPOC, women and LGBTQ+ people. Many of the current applicants are battle-weary hospitality veterans hoping to boost their post-pandemic careers. “Covid absolutely decimated our industry,” says Morrow. “For people who are trying to rebuild their lives, this scholarship could inspire them to keep going.” The introductory course and exam, as well as the first part of the advanced course, are newly available online. The hope is that the Internet can serve as an equalizer.
Morrow sees similarities in the incremental nature of the organization becoming more inclusive and an individual achieving master sommelier certification, which is a roughly 15-year pursuit on average. “At first, it sounds like an impossible achievement, but you get these little wins along the way that keep you on track,” he says. “With the right wind, ripples can turn into waves.”
Leilani Marie Labong is a San Francisco-based writer who has contributed to Elle Decoration, architectural compendium, Travel + Leisure, San Francisco ChronicleY coastal life.
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