Meet the Woman Making Fancy Wine More Accessible
Sommelier Ashtin Berry felt ignored by the wine industry, so she decided to change it.
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Historically, wine has been thought of as a language — one that is tasted and felt, not necessarily spoken. It's produced around the world, in all different climates, and with all different grapes. It tells the stories of the towns where it was made and the people who created it. It's meant to be consumed to celebrate a moment, bring people together, or enhance a meal. Somewhere along the line, however, the industry's white, male-dominated image took hold, changing its face in the modern market for decades.
Even though the people that farm, serve, and, especially, drink wine are diverse, you wouldn't know that by looking at the industry power-players. For example, even though the amount of women who drink wine are around the same as men according to the 2019 State of Wine report, industry blog WineSpeed explains that just the year prior there were "no female CEOs at wineries producing between 100,000 and 500,000 cases annually". Like many other consumer-facing industries in 2020, the people that drink and work in wine are not reflected in the image put out by the industry.
Ashtin Berry, a sommelier, activist, and founder of Resistance Served, an annual food and beverage symposium, is working to change that. Not only does she hold the prestigious sommelier title — a wine expert certification that requires both schooling and testing to achieve different levels, all the way up to expert — she is one of the very few black women who does. The problem with the glaring lack of representation in the wine industry has been an integral part of her work: Resistance Served seeks to educate black and brown people in hospitality about laws and constructs (like tipping) in the industry, while simultaneously celebrating their contributions.
She's been working in hospitality since she was a teenager in the mid 2000s. The industry is where she fell in love with wine, but it’s also where she began to understand that the industry is overwhelmingly white, and that the barriers to success for people of color are seemingly endless. "When I was young, there were very few women who were in wine, and there were certainly not really any black people," she recalls.
"It is definitely difficult to get jobs,” she adds. “I was pretty young, and I had one, two, and three of the WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a course that oversees wine certifications for sommeliers], which was way more than half of my peers, but they would get hired before me."
At the time, she took this to mean she needed to conform to prejudiced standards. "If I wanted to work at a fine dining restaurant, I had to straighten my hair to be 'palatable,' to look the right way," she explained. "So when I wanted to wear it natural, all of a sudden, I went from never having complaints to getting complaints and people calling me aggressive."
Despite the obstacles she faced, Berry ultimately flourished within the industry. She's been at the helm of beverage programs for top tier restaurants and hotels around the country, including the Ace Hotel. But even as her personal profile gained recognition, Berry realized there was so much more work to do. "At this point, I have been included on international lists and local lists and national lists, but I'm still generally one of the only black women or women of color. I was featured on a [people to watch] list where I was the only person who was in their early thirties," Berry says. "I think there's slightly more visibility, but I don't see that changing in terms of structural power."
Although she understands media recognition is important — and she’s had her fair share of it, having been named one of The Observer's 55 Most Influential People in Food and Nightlife, and Imbibe's 2019 Bartender of the Year to name a few — her work to change the face of hospitality goes far beyond inclusion on lists. She's creating a curriculum that aims to make restaurants and bars safer and more inclusive for the service workers and, in turn, the patrons. For example, she has a plan for restaurants and hotels to extend Human Resources support outside of the 9-5 hour range so that they can help the workers that fill all shifts, especially because black and brown people tend to be the ones that work them, she says.
"One of the issues that people keep talking about is diversity, but what [they] mean is [the numbers]" she said, referring to a corporation’s diversity quota. “Because of this, a lot of the efforts in the hospitality industry end up being tokenizing rather than actually supportive because they are worried about getting the numbers. That isn't sustainable because they don't have the infrastructure to make sure those people are successful," she continued. "Essentially, what I'm trying to do is take out the idea that you need to have special training to talk about equity or race or sexism.”
As an example of how restaurants could improve their workplace, she suggests that during line up — where servers typically hear about daily specials and run of show at a restaurant from the chef or manager — there should also be a check-in about the culture of the establishment, and how employees feel about it.
When it comes to the consumer side of wine, Berry is also working to change the narrative of who drinks it, and how it's served. Particularly when it comes to buzzy, and often more expensive wines like those labeled "natural" — a term that, according to Vox, is a loose way to describe ”unadulterated fermented grape juice and nothing else.”
"I love natural wine, but it comes off in a way that feels like ‘we're better than you,’” she says, referring to the way that it’s marketed as a higher brow way to drink. “You may not like Yellowtail [an under $10 brand from Australia], you may not like the way it's made. Cool, that can be a conversation, but there can also be a conversation that it's needed in the ecosystem of the wine world. A Yellowtail provides access for someone, even if it's not for you."
When I asked her if she could boil down the work she's doing, both on her own personal platforms and through her programs, she had a quick and straightforward answer: "I'm proud of my persistence, [and] that even when people didn't always understand, that I continued to create content that took sociological theories around organizing practices to help people better navigate our industry. It's just one of those things where a lot of times we're trying to overly intellectualize things to get people to value it, when really what we need to do is make things simple so that people can understand it and we can make it better."