I've Supported the Wine Industry for Years. Why Won't it Support Me?

After years of working as a wine country influencer, Amber Lucas wrestled with the conspicuous silence from wineries about the Black Lives Matter movement. (Courtesy Amber Lucas)

I am what's known as an “influencer.” I know, I know—it’s hard to say “influencer” without a tone of derision, and I'd argue there's good cause for that. Influencers are known for shamelessly taking photos in public, often posing for forced lifestyle images that feel cheap and cheesy. Influencers will tag just about anything, right on down to a fruit drink, in a post that links items for sale, from which they earn a commission. Just a couple weeks ago, an influencer used the eerie wildfire-orange skies of San Francisco as a backdrop to sell a $200 orange tulle dress.

So when it comes to mocking influencers and how they are generally seen? I get it.

But the influencer space is also female-dominated. It's an arena that gives women a platform on which to become very successful, and to be their own boss, with very little investment. That's part of why it's mocked, I believe: because it is a predominantly female industry.

I am Black. I am biracial. I am a Black, biracial, person-of-color influencer. And while there's certainly no shortage of influencers here in wine country, the pool is significantly smaller for Black biracial POC influencers. This sometimes plays to my advantage, but it also means I'm left feeling like the “diversity token” at many local winery and hospitality events.

When I decided earlier this year to join marches for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and to use my Instagram platform to speak up about the racial injustices occurring both locally and nationwide, many wineries conspicuously unfollowed me—even after posting the “black square of support” on #BlackoutTuesday. When the driver of a Porsche accelerated into our march one night, ramming its way through our group, I shared it to my Instagram stories. It generated 12,762 impressions, but not a single brand or winery had any response to it.

Sponsored

Neither did they reach out to speak to me privately about it at the time, or in the weeks that followed. Neither did any local influencers except one, another Black woman. Six weeks later, when a trendy social-justice posting opportunity of sharing a black-and-white selfie presented itself, I was tagged and sent DMs by these same brands and influencers who'd ignored that fact that I was nearly run over by a car, and who now encouraged me to share and post a viral, appropriated trend.

These were companies and people I'd supported for years. And now, when I needed it most, why weren't they supporting me and my people?

We have reached a precipice: because of social media and the ubiquity of smartphones, the unjust killings and brutality shown towards people of color can no longer be ignored. We all know. You know. The brands, the wine and hospitality industries, they know. And they choose to either remain silent, or do the bare minimum. Many have continued on with business as usual.

Part of this is because only 2% of the industry’s winemakers identify as Black. I've seen nearly every excuse in the book for this: POC’s lack of access to wine, or that the Black community isn't educated enough to understand that wine can be a career, a claim that's absolutely absurd.

Meanwhile, as brands like Crest, Target, Josh Wines and Revlon have been willing to generously compensate me, the local Sonoma and Napa wine and hospitality industries are slow to do so. Many wineries push back with excuses of a small marketing budget. But is that really true?

Take the practice of fellow influencers and social marketers reaching out to me and several other “friends” to join them for winery events. These event coordinators will invite 4-10 influencers from San Francisco and the wider Bay Area, and throw in 1-2 local influencers to participate in what's called a “lifestyle event,” the idea being that the influencers will share the experience with their audience via social media and websites. Contracts are signed; I am often asked to sign away my image, likeness, and image rights to participate in events such as these. This means that my face and images can be used in marketing materials, in perpetuity, without mention of my name, however the winery desires.

It is rare that I am compensated for these events—again, usually I am fed the “narrow marketing budget” excuse. So when I later discovered that my “friends” earn thousands of dollars to invite me and others, while contracting out the use of my platform, I felt betrayed. The wineries are indeed willing to pay; even the same wineries which in the past had told me they had no budget.

A handful of wineries have shown support for Black Lives Matter in these past several months, but even fewer have actually held themselves accountable to it, which means it's performative. When one winery was recently asked on social media what they'd done to keep themselves accountable to their promise, they responded with their commitment to “equal opportunity employment.” That is a legal demand in fair and equal employment, regulated by national law—not an opportunity to pat oneself on the back.

Another telling moment came when I asked my Instagram community: “What local wineries have shown support for Black Lives Matter?” I received multiple mentions of wineries that my followers had felt claimed to support Black Lives Matter, but didn’t in practice. When I tagged these wineries with my followers' responses, offering them a chance to respond, what I got instead were passive-aggressive responses from one winery owner, and then private messages from a “Black man from East Oakland” the winery had sent to me, who they'd worked with in the past, and who told me to remove my content.

Then, the winery asked me if I could lead a videoconference discussion on race with their wine club members, without any compensation offered. After they agreed to set up a call with just me, one-on-one, they continued to read my messages. But wouldn't you know it?

They stopped responding.

To see most of the wineries that I've worked with fail to even acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement tells me that they care more about alienating their consumer base than they care about my life. Perhaps they feel that it would be “too political” a stance to take.

But wine has always been political. It was political during prohibition. It was political when Dry Creek Valley grew mainly fruit trees. It was political when Napa County established its urban growth boundary in 1983. It was political when environmentalists raised issues of water usage and runoff into watersheds. Do not allow misleading rhetoric to trick you into thinking that the wine industry, with all of its lobbying power, is not political. It is. Only what we are seeing here is that the wine industry would like to pick and choose its politics to keep visitors with a certain skin tone comfortable, in a space where the labor of people of color is crucial.

At the majority of lifestyle events I've worked, I have been the only person of color, and the only Black female. So it's hard to witness this conspicuous silence from wineries, just as it's hard to see so much lip service and performance-based allyship.

Performance-based allyship is posting Black Lives Matter content only to Instagram stories, because you don’t want it to ruin your main feed; using a 24-hour window to speak up about injustice knowing it will quickly disappear isn’t speaking up. Performance-based allyship is posting to your Instagram feed but making no real changes in your company's policy, approach to business, or personal daily life. Performative-based allyship is just that: an act.

Being an ally isn’t easy. It's scary, and upsetting, and the guilt that sometimes comes with learning about systemic racism can be uncomfortable. Well-intentioned people are afraid to offend, or to make mistakes in the learning process of becoming an ally, and that's understandable. But here’s the thing: do it anyway. Make the mistakes. Fall on your face. And then get back up and dust yourself off. It will be ok. Allyship is a learning process. It will take a lot of reading. There will be conversations that you dread. But it will lead to understanding.

I was thinking about all of this last night when I received a DM from a local winery owner. She'd been silent in the past several months, but actively listening. “Can you call me?” she asked. “Do you have time to chat?”

By the end of the conversation, I had tears in my eyes. She and I made plans to meet in person to discover how we can work to actively support Black communities here in Sonoma County. She wants to make a difference. “I’ve been watching. I’ve been listening. And now I’m ready to act,” she said.

And together, I believe we will. We'll work to bridge the gap between underrepresented faces of color in the wine and hospitality industries in Sonoma County, and put action to the words that Black lives matter for others to follow.

That is the power of influence. And it's the right way to show up for racial justice: to meditate on a need and the desire to help, and then to set out to do so, while involving a person of color. It's more beautiful than any $200 tulle dress, and I've never been more humbled or proud.

Sponsored

Amber Lucas is a Sonoma County-based writer and influencer. Find her on Instagram, and read more of her writing at A•Mused.