A small wine boutique is changing the face of who is a tastemaker

·7 min read
Jaby Dayle, 32, was awarded a scholarship from Toronto wine boutique Grape Witches and is currently taking multiple wine courses with the goal of becoming a sommelier.  (Laura Clementson/CBC - image credit)
Jaby Dayle, 32, was awarded a scholarship from Toronto wine boutique Grape Witches and is currently taking multiple wine courses with the goal of becoming a sommelier. (Laura Clementson/CBC - image credit)

Jaby Dayle loved the food and wine industry, but they never saw a future for themself as a wine expert. In fact, they never saw any Black wine experts working in the industry.

"When you look at the world of wine, you don't often hear tales of the children of immigrants being able to make their way to the industry," said Dayle, a first generation Canadian whose family emigrated from Jamaica.

The 32-year-old, who now lives in Toronto, said they have been working in the hospitality industry off and on for half their life.

"And, yes, you'll see a lot of people who look like me in the kitchen. You may even see a lot of us in support roles in front of house. But the managers, the sommeliers, the owners will, more often than not, be white people — specifically, white men."

Dayle is now taking multiple wine education courses they need to enter the industry, thanks in part to a scholarship started by a downtown Toronto wine boutique called Grape Witches, which is looking to support Black, Indigenous and people of colour who aspire to become wine professionals. The store's team believes making the industry more inclusive will not only help rid it of discrimination, but also boost its relevance by broadening tastes.

Laura Clementson/CBC
Laura Clementson/CBC

Grape Witches co-owners Nicole Campbell and Krysta Oben have spent years carving out a safe space for women in the male-dominated wine industry. They thought they had done a pretty good job until they realized how white that space was.

"It was mostly white women and that wasn't a reflection of Toronto. And that wasn't OK," Campbell said.

Rather than just post a meme in solidarity on social media, the duo, who turned their nickname, the Grape Witches, into a storefront selling natural and decolonized wine, started a scholarship worth $5,000 to help women of colour access costly higher wine education.

Dayle was the first recipient.

'I couldn't afford it'

The cost of education to become a sommelier, like many other Canadian college and university programs, can be prohibitive, particularly given the amount and types of wine students are expected to purchase.

"I couldn't afford it. Simple as that," Dayle said. "There's no way around it unless I was willing to lie, cheat and steal my way through wine education, which would be pretty difficult."

Dayle is hoping to start the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Level 3 course in July, a graduated program that is standard in the industry.

They say that when studying for certain levels of certification, it's expected that students spend around $200 a month on wine alone — a cost not built into courses.

Another barrier, Dayle says, is that they often felt unwelcome at tastings with predominantly white men.

"I've been approached by people who will then ask me to bring them some water because they look at me and don't expect me to be there to taste," Dayle said. "They look at me and expect me to be here to wait upon them."

Laura Clementson/CBC
Laura Clementson/CBC

Grape Witches manager Lorein Codiamat said she, too, has experienced those microaggressions and biases in her lengthy career in the food and wine industry as a server, wine expert on the floor, and as a manager.

Codiamat says as a woman of colour, customers question her expertise.

"There's immediate distrust as to whether or not you know what you're talking about," she said.

Even the way most people are taught to talk about and experience wine through established education programs can be culturally loaded and Eurocentric, she said.

My palate is very different from a white person's palate. - Lorein Codiamat, Grape Witches manager

"I don't know what sandalwood smells like and tastes like. I do now, but I didn't for a really long time. But I know what the equivalent of that is in my lived experience," said Codiamat.

"Just because you don't know what gooseberries taste like ... you'll still be able to critically talk about a wine. You'll just have different sensory experiences."

WATCH | Dayle on telling the story of wine in a different way:

At Grape Witches, Codiamat tried to make it a safe space for customers who don't have classical wine education or who struggle to pronounce the names on the bottles.

"Not just rich white people want to drink wine. Everyone loves wine. That's why wine has existed for thousands of years," Codiamat said.

The problem, Codiamat said, is that only the tastes and interests of white people are valued in the wine industry.

"My palate is very different from a white person's palate. And what I want to drink in wine is very different."

Decolonizing wine

Doris Miculan-Bradley teaches budding sommeliers at George Brown College in Toronto. She says even though there are significant financial barriers, the program's student body is becoming more diverse and it will force the established wine world to change.

"If changes don't occur in our industry, if we think we're irrelevant right now, get ready for it, because the next generation isn't going to put up with it," Miculan-Bradley said.

"The wine industry will benefit, and culture will benefit, from different people telling the story. It's subjective. Palates are as subjective as the thumbprints that we have on our fingers."

At Grape Witches, change starts with what they put on the shelves. The boutique tries to bring in wines from countries that weren't part of the early colonial trade routes that popularized wines from France, Italy and Spain.

"What we think of as the best grapes are, of course, informed by political and social factors in the 17th and 18th and 19th century and 20th century," Campbell said.

Patience does not equate to complacency - Jaby Dayle, wine student

Decolonizing wine isn't about devaluing traditionally expensive wines from places such as Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barolo, she said.

"It's … questioning whether a wine from western Slovakia or from Greece or from all of these other regions that have these rich and long histories shouldn't also be able to command the same prices," she said.

For Dayle, decolonizing wine also means thinking more about who works in the vineyards versus who is the face of the wines when they are marketed.

"It's white in the châteaux or the tasting rooms. But then if you walk into the vineyards, it's travelling Black and brown folks who are actually picking the grapes, who actually know these sites intimately."

Asking questions

The Grape Witches are preparing to award their second scholarship to a Black applicant.

Dayle says if people want to support change in the industry, they can start by asking questions about where the wine they buy comes from and whether the people who work in the vineyards are paid a fair wage. For example, South Africa's Seven Sisters is Black-owned and run by women of colour who have also started a foundation for women who are victims of abuse.

Laura Clementson/CBC
Laura Clementson/CBC

Other parts of the Canadian wine sector are also taking action. The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS) has struck a diversity committee to look at increasing inclusion. Its committee head, Domer Rafael of Winnipeg, estimates 10-15 per cent of the wine professionals in Manitoba are people of colour or LGBTQ+.

In Ontario, CAPS has launched a survey to capture diversity numbers in the province. Another group of wine industry professionals, Vinequity, whose mission is to support diversity, has also started to offer scholarships and professional development opportunities.

Dayle is optimistic the industry can change.

"I am hoping that it changes more, that it's not just, well, brown people pick the fruit and white people make the money."

Dayle is already a part of that change. In May, they launched a new business that distributes small tasting packs of wine so that people who can't afford a whole bottle can still experience expensive wine.

"Wine has taught me a bit of patience," Dayle said, "but that patience does not equate to complacency, so there is a lot of work to do."

CBC
CBC

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting