Time to change: Adam Lechmere on diversity in the wine industry

Our wine columnist on the worldwide efforts to ensure that the industry is open to all – and not just through qualifications

Words by Adam Lechmere

Tahiirah Habibi - wine diversity
Tahiirah Habibi, founder of the Hue Society: “You give the person the power and the tools and you allow them to develop into the professional that they want to be”

Lewis Chester is a man who makes things happen. The former hedge-fund manager has spent the past nine months raising money to tackle the issue of inequality of opportunity in wine. As part of Liquid Icons, the wine research company he set up with his friend, the late and much-loved hotelier and sommelier Gerard Basset, Chester has created the Taylor’s Port Golden Vines Diversity Scholarships with the aim of increasing black and minority ethnic (BAME), and black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) representation in wine.

He’s been collecting wine for years and knows all the right producers, so he’s been able to put together some very fine wines and “experiences” – dinners with domaine owners, helicopter tours and the like – for a glitzy auction at Annabel’s private members’ club in London, and online, in October. Then there’s an awards ceremony called The Golden Vines Awards to celebrate the best fine-wine producers in the world. Apart from Taylor’s, he’s not saying who the sponsors are, but they include “the world’s best-known private jet company and the world’s best-known space tourism company”. He hopes to raise over a million pounds.

Kodjo Adovor - wine diversity
Kodjo Adovor, founder of the Africa Wine Club, which "exposes African youth and talent to the wine world”

None of this is particularly interesting, of course. The wine world is already well endowed with extravagant charity auctions and awards ceremonies. What’s exciting is where the money is going.

The two scholarships that have made all the headlines, £55,000 each to fund two students through their MW and MS exams, represent less than 10% of the total funding. The rest of it is going to be distributed around the world, to “diversity and inclusion initiatives from beginners all the way up,” Chester says.

In practice, this is a kaleidoscope of groups dedicated in some way to helping overlooked and marginalised people get on in the wine world. Chester reels them off: the Kedge wine school in Bordeaux will have two programmes for BIPOC and BAME students; there will be three undergraduate degrees for indigenous peoples in Australia; UC Davis plans a summer programme for students from black-majority schools in southern California; there’s the New York disability group Wine on Wheels, founded by the sommelier and para-athlete Yannick Benjamin; and there’s Ghana’s Africa Wine Club, whose founder Kodjo Adovor aims to spread the word through the entire continent: “It will be huge,” he told me. “It exposes African youth and talent to the wine world.”

Then there’s Tahiirah Habibi’s Hue Society, an Atlanta-based organisation “committed to changing the narrative of Black & Brown wine consumers and brands”, which has chapters in eight cities across the US.

Habibi is a sommelier at the peak of her career; it’s only when I met her (via Zoom) that I realised how relatively unimportant the top-line MW and MS funding is. The excitement around the diversity scholarships is that they recognise that not everyone has the capacity to get to the top: some people just want to get on.

“Often, for black and brown people, we felt we weren’t welcome so we had to arm ourselves with certifications. But now we’re moving out of the idea that being an MW or MS is absolutely necessary to be considered successful, towards the idea of ‘I really love wine and I want this knowledge and I’m choosing to do this. It’s not forced onto me.’ You give the person the power and the tools and you allow them to develop into the professional that they want to be.”

The people Habibi is talking about often have no concept of being able to get into the wine world. Systemic barriers are everywhere – educational, financial, social: “Everything from your lexicon to your hair, to the way you dress, to your experiences not even being resembled in the space you’re trying to get into.” Forget being an MW – the trick is to empower a young person to see any wine career as an option.

Gerard Basset and Lewis Chester - wine diversity
Lewis Chester (right) and the late Gerard Basset MW, founders of wine research company Liquid Icons. Chester has now created the Taylor’s Port Golden Vines Diversity Scholarships to increase BAME and BIPOC representation in the wine industry

These diversity scholarships are a drop in the ocean (how on earth can a couple of million quid change anything?), but they are a start. “One hundred per cent, we have a mountain to climb,” Habibi agrees. “It’s not just money. It’s going to take the dismantlement and reconstitution of systems and policies. We’re looking at a reimagination of the entire wine space. Money helps but if we don’t change the systems it’s just a Band-Aid [sticking plaster].”

It’s going to take more than an auction or two to dismantle a system that has endured for generations. But revolutions are often started by people who see things in quite simple terms. Chester (who claims he’s interested in “fine wine and Arsenal Football Club and very little else”) describes the role of Liquid Icons as nothing more than that of a banker, handing out the money after he’s done due diligence and audited any proposal that comes in. Habibi puts things pretty clearly as well. “Am I excited? of course I am. I was wondering, if something is just being given to me, without me having to fight for it, is this what privilege feels like?”