(iStock)

Wine has become more than my social drink of choice—it’s now a studied hobby. I took my first wine course in 2021 and will prepare to take the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 1 exam this year to sharpen my skills and knowledge around wine production and tasting. Wine is one of the most complex, diverse subjects I have ever studied; the wine regions across the globe, types of grapes used, and the fermentation processes for red, white, and rosé wines are just a few variables that one discovers in what distinguishes wine. 

My understanding of wine had been significantly shaped by Black women in the wine industry, even before studying it seriously. The appreciation for wine runs deep for those who make wine their livelihoods; they are honest about what it is like to be a part of this world. Learning about their journeys into the wine industry was fascinating—seeing women who looked like me not only enjoying wine but making it their profession too was an incredible influence. Now, my interest in wine has grown beyond studying it—I want to see how I can add my unique point of view as a Black disabled woman to the business and culture of wine. Infusing wine with my activism work feels like a natural progression and the reason this piece came to life.

Black women in wine provide much needed perspectives to an industry that has been slow and resistant to respect and recognize that they fully belong. In her report about Black wine entrepreneurs, Dr. Monique Bell recently released a report about Black wine entrepreneurs, comprising over 100 respondents, 78% of whom identified as women. According to her findings, “bias, microaggressions, and anti-Black racism appear to be prevalent in the exalted world of wine. In fact, 78% of participants agree that ‘racism is a greater challenge for entrepreneurs in wine’ versus other industries.” Further, 20% of respondents identified bias and racism as the number one obstacle for all Black wine businesses in the industry, and 32% of respondents felt that limited capital was the biggest challenge for Black wine businesses. It’s undeniable that Black people in this space understand the systemic and social barriers that exist for them, but that doesn’t deter them from sharing their love for wine with their community or speaking their truth. 

Sarita Cheaves is a writer, wine pairing creator, and podcast producer who has been in the wine industry for 14 years. She is based in Washington, D.C., and has her WSET II and Production Certifications. I had the privilege to interview Sarita about all things wine—from her activity book that centers Black lovers of wine to what she believes has to be done to support Black women in the industry. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Vilissa Thompson: How did you become interested in wine? What was your first wine experience? 

Sarita Cheaves: Drinking wine was pretty routine in my 20s, but during my first trip to California, I discovered this was a passion. I was in Sacramento for a wedding and took a solo trip to Napa. My first stop was Artesa winery, an unforgettable winery with modern sculptures that overlook rolling hills of vines. As I sipped chardonnay and took in the views, I knew I was in love. 

When I returned home, I began to discover wine in a different way. Books led to countless tabs of sites and tastings. Classes led me to Black Ankle Vineyards, where I worked for the next five years. The rest is history. 

Thompson: What have been the professional and personal milestones of your wine journey so far? Was there anything unexpected that you encountered? 

Cheaves: I have to be honest. I’m not really a goal-setter. My entire journey has been unexpected. An idea hits me, and I take off with it. [My podcast] “The Swirl Suite” and its longevity is definitely a milestone. My wine activity book was a milestone I didn’t see coming. “It was all a dream” (Biggie voice). The idea of a book really came to me in a dream. 

It was Fall 2020, and we were all quarantined. I’m a puzzle girl—word finds, crosswords, connect the dots. I finished them all and scrolled through Amazon for more. I thought, “Someone should create a wine puzzle book, that would be cute.” I didn’t think twice about it. I ordered new books and went on about my day. A few days later, I had a dream that I published a book. It was so vivid that I woke up confused. “Can I publish a book? What would it be about?” As I sat up, I looked to my right, there was a wine glass on top of a word find book. That was it! This was my book! I spent the next six months creating wine activities. “VineMeUp: An Activity Book Celebrating the Melanated Wine Enthusiast” was published in July 2021.

Thompson: You are the producer of the highly celebrated wine podcast, “The Swirl Suite.” Tell us about how it got started, and how it’s deepened your understanding of the industry and the people who work in it. 

Cheaves: “The Swirl Suite” was my reaction to a collection of “Black lady meet-cutes.” The first meet-cute was myself and Leslie. She visited Black Ankle while I was working there, and I conducted her tasting. We stayed in touch. Through Leslie, I met Tanisha at a local wine festival. Through Tanisha, I met Glynis at another wine fest. As time went on, we bumped into each other at wine dinners and tastings. We automatically had a great camaraderie and started to really hang. 

I threw out the idea of a wine YouTube show with all of us. The show eventually became a podcast. And we’re still kicking. 

Thompson: On the podcast, you and your co-hosts discuss the racial and gender barriers for Black women in wine. Are there any ways these obstacles take form uniquely in the wine world? How have you learned to navigate within the industry?

Cheaves: The barriers we experience in wine are no different than any other industry. Sometimes, we go to wineries, and people don’t wanna talk to us about wine, assuming we don’t know anything. 

I try to not go into situations with that “wish factor,” but I’m prepared for just about anything. A mentor of mine suggested I make industry appointments when I visit new wineries so I can get more of an educational hands-on experience as a writer. I told him that part of my experience has to include me being Black. I need to know how wineries treat minorities with no platform when they walk in the door. 

Where we really experience racism is in opportunities and compensation. We don’t receive the same offers as our white counterparts. 

Thompson: On “The Swirl Suite” you also shine a spotlight on the wine industry in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area, a region that may not come to mind for some when discussing wine. What makes the winemakers and wines of the DMV unique? Who are the trailblazing Black winemakers and vineyards that we should know and patronize? 

Cheaves: Well, I’m lucky that I have no bias when it comes to wine. I was never one of those people who don’t drink this or that. I wanted to learn about all wine. Before I started working at a Maryland winery, I had no idea the region wasn’t known for “good wine.” Maryland holds a special place with me because that’s where my experience really started. What makes DMV winemakers unique is that they are creating great wine in an area that’s not expected to do so. The fact that it’s my home makes it even better. 

The only Black winery in the DMV I know of is Philosophy Winery. Vintner Kimberly T. Johnson and sommelier Denise Roles Matthews are the first Black women to own a winery in Maryland, and it’s a big deal. Follow and check out their wine; their cabernet franc is phenomenal. 

Thompson: What do Black women need to thrive in this field? Where is the industry falling short in providing that support? Who is doing the work to make it happen? 

Cheaves: To be a Black woman in this field, you need perseverance and a consistent mentor. This industry doesn’t just give support; you have to earn it. It’s tough because wine is a leisure activity for most, and people will not invest in you unless you are serious. You will have to show your work before you get any support.

There are so many of us who are doing the work to create a smoother path. The Roots Fund and Black Wine Professionals are two organizations that provide resources for minorities in the wine industry. 

Thompson: How have stereotypes about Black people’s relationship to wine impacted your experiences as a professional and as someone who enjoys wine? How has that impacted our ability to sip confidently? 

Cheaves: The wine stereotypes are all the same. There is the assumption that we all like sweeter wines. It’s boring. This hasn’t affected the way I drink at all. 

Thompson: For Black people like myself who are interested in being a part of the industry, what do you want us to know? What do we bring to the table that others cannot, and how can our presence and interest shape the industry’s future? 

Cheaves: I want you and everyone trying to find their place in the industry to know there is room for all of us. Find your lane and tweak it in your own way. Find a mentor who will constantly challenge you. 

I bring to the table, me. That’s all. Me and my story. There are people who do what I do, and it’s a totally different narrative, and that’s OK. My creativity and my spin will always be unique. I want younger Black people to know we are here, and you can remix your wine in your own way. 

Thompson: You published “VineMeUp,” your first book, last summer. What was the most interesting part of that process?

Cheaves: The most interesting part of publishing my book was creating it. I had so much fun developing puzzles and creating activities based on my view of the wine industry. 

Thompson: What does it mean to be a Black woman in the wine industry who has published a book? Who are other Black authors in the wine world who you enjoy and we should know? 

Cheaves: Publishing a book is a pretty major accomplishment no matter who you are, but to be a Black woman, I do have a sense of pride. Hopefully, others are inspired. Some other Black authors in wine are Andre Mack, Jaton Gunter, and Regine T. Rousseau

Thompson: As we are deep into the winter months, yearning for spring to arrive, what are your go-to’s for this time of year? What would you recommend for newcomers to wine? 

Cheaves: If you mean go-to spring wines, I suggest albariño, trentodoc sparkling wines, Roero arneis, rosè from Provence, and almost everything from Portugal. 

If you are new to wine, taste everything. Find a wine shop close by, get to know one employee, and get on their email list. Pay attention to what wines they promote and the seasons. This will open their eyes to the industry a little more, and it’s a great way to develop. 

Thompson: What words of encouragement would you offer Black women interested in being in the wine industry? What do you wish you knew at the start that may be wisdom for them to learn from? 

Cheaves: There is room. I’m going to keep saying this until it sinks in. There is room for us in this industry. Don’t wait to get support to start learning and executing. Just jump in. That’s what we all did. People like me are watching and willing to help in any way we can. 

I wish I knew that I didn’t need credentials to tell a story. I didn’t want to start a blog until I had one certification. I felt, as a Black woman, the industry wouldn’t take me seriously if I didn’t have at least one certification. I even put the credentials in my Instagram profile, and it’s still there. It’s absurd because I know how I absorb information, and it’s not through a certification; it’s with boots on the ground. I wish I would have started publishing my words at the beginning of it all, at that first winery trip to Napa. 

Vilissa Thompson

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...