Why Julia Coney Has No Time for Excuses
The Black Wine Professionals directory means the wine industry can no longer claim ignoranceLenore T. Adkins
December 17, 2020
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and the Audi #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers who have stepped up to help their communities in light of COVID-19, as well as individuals who are putting inclusion and equity at the forefront of building back better. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Lenore T. Adkins explores the career of Julia Coney and her mission to uplift Black voices in the wine world with Black Wine Professionals.
Julia Coney has had enough of racism in the wine industry. When a white winemaker in Napa told the wine writer, educator, and consultant that he didn’t expect her to be Black, Coney responded that she didn’t expect him to be an asshole. She had another white man in the industry mistake her for the help at a premier wine tasting. And at a wine master class, a sommelier expressed shock that Coney had been to Bordeaux…then asked if she meant the one in France.
“I was getting a lot of that because they weren’t used to seeing this Black woman talk about high-luxury wines,” says Coney, who spent a semester abroad in Paris and speaks French. “They were like, ‘Oh, Black people drink sweet wine.’ And I would be like, ‘Yeah, I drink sweet wine when it’s supposed to be part of the experience.’”
Instead of ruminating on these experiences, Coney decided to take action, seeking to promote the accomplishments of Black people in the wine profession with her latest project, Black Wine Professionals.
Launched this past June, Black Wine Professionals is a free, online directory created to uplift Black people working in wine, including sommeliers, media professionals, sellers, importers, distributors, marketers, beverage directors, and more. The database is aimed at wine industry employers, gatekeepers, and food and beverage industry professionals, so they can no longer use the excuse of “not knowing anyone” when it comes to hiring Black individuals.
For Coney, George Floyd’s murder in May spurred the directory’s creation. His murder triggered national protests and calls for the country to address racial injustice in all aspects of society, including the food and beverage industries. In Coney’s view, the wine industry had a lackluster response to the racial reckoning.
“I realized so many of these Black wine professionals I know were never getting jobs. They were getting overlooked,” says Coney, who splits her time between Washington, D.C. and Houston. “They haven’t been on the media trips I had been on. And I was just like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ So that’s when I decided I was going to start something.”
It was a Black woman who inspired Coney to become a wine professional. From 1998 to 2010, Dorothy J. Gaiter co-wrote the Wall Street Journal’s “Tastings” wine column with her husband John Brecher. Coney was working as a paralegal when she discovered the column and was drawn to the way Gaiter and Brecher linked wine to people, relationships, and life.
“I felt like, ‘Hey, here’s this Black woman who look[s] like me who I want to learn from,’” Coney says. “And that’s what I did.”
In 2016 she shelved her popular beauty blog, “All About the Pretty” and embarked on wine blogging, and later, wine education and consulting. She devoured books about wine, modeled her writing after Gaiter, and started taking wine education and creative nonfiction classes to boost her knowledge. From there, she earned a Wine & Spirit Education Trust level two certification in wine and spirits, and is continuing to pursue additional certifications.
But her focus on equality in the wine industry was sparked after reading wine journalist Karen MacNeil’s article in The Somm Journal, “Beyond the Wine Glass—A New Glass Ceiling?” The piece, detailing sexism in the wine industry, featured more than 30 photographs of women in wine, without a single Black woman among them.
“The men who didn’t expect you to have a voice? Now multiply that by each day of your life,” Coney wrote in an open letter she posted on her blog. “This is what it feels like to be an African-American woman today.”
MacNeil sent an email to Coney in response, admitting she did not think about race when she looked for women to interview, and mentioning that there aren’t many women of color in the wine industry—something which needed to change. Though Coney appreciated the response and the continuing conversation, she felt that MacNeil’s answer missed the mark.
“Google was around in 2018,” Coney says. “She said she didn’t even look—it didn’t even cross her mind.”
Two years later, people are embracing Black Wine Professionals. The directory currently lists more than 100 people, and Coney won’t be accepting new applications until she goes through the 300 she already has. In terms of professional development, Champagne Laurent-Perrier USA recently partnered with Black Wine Professionals and awarded scholarships to five members for the Wine Scholar Guild’s prestigious Champagne master-level certification course. Coney hopes to expand Black Wine Professionals to include event listings, job postings, educational resources, and a discussion forum.
For 2021, Coney is using grants and donations to produce exclusive, upscale, master wine education classes that’ll be led by three chef de caves in Champagne. These online classes won’t be run-of-the-mill; they’ll use the movies such as Coming to America and television shows like Martin and Power as cultural reference points and relate them to wine.
“It’s going to be lit,” she says, adding that she’s accepting donations. “We are going to be our full expressions of ourselves.”
Lenore T. Adkins is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her pieces have appeared in The Washington Post, Eater, Resy, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @lladkins.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi, with visionary support from KitchenAid, GrubHub, and Edens and sustaining support from Enroot.