'Real Systemic Change Requires That We Have A Seat At The Table'

Theodora Lee, owner of Theopolis Vineyards, on how "the wine industry hasn’t fully embraced Black professionals" and what can be done better.

This Voices In Food story, as told to Nancy Koziol, is from Theodora Lee, the owner of Theopolis Vineyards in California, who grows her own grapes and turns them into award-winning wines. Despite this, she still faces challenges getting her wine into stores and finding distributors. Wine remains a predominantly white industry, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with whiteness, there is something wrong with the systemic racism that keeps white producers in the eyes of the consumer. Lee believes in financial empowerment and a place at the table for Black voices. Lee is only twice removed from the days of sharecropping and brings a unique perspective to how to make systemic change through the advancement of access to education in an industry she believes can be a forum for change.

These senseless killing must stop.

As a late baby boomer who was raised by older parents, I am fairly conservative in my thinking. I support those who choose to protest, but I truly believe that real systemic change requires that we have a seat at the table.

To date, the wine industry hasn’t fully embraced Black professionals. As a small hand-crafted winery owned by an African American female vintner, producing only 800 cases a year, retailers have not made my award-winning wines available in their stores. Also, we have deep challenges in getting distributors, as they feel we are too small.

“The wine industry can serve as a catalyst for this change. Food and wine is something all people enjoy. We all eat and drink. What better forum to bring people together?”

Blackout Tuesday, a silent protest and stand against racism, bigotry and violence, was amazing. Everyone took to social media to support Black-owned businesses, and Theopolis Vineyards received tremendous support. Kathleen Inman, the owner and winemaker at Inman Family Wines, supported Blackout Tuesday on social media. She tagged me on Twitter and Instagram and told her audience: “I don’t drink a lot of #PetiteSirah, but when I do, I really enjoy my friend Theodora Lee’s @TheopolisV version from the Yorkville Highlands of #Mendocino!”

This is real support. How difficult is that? Inman has a huge social media following. Not only did she endorse my wines, she purchased them, too. This is an example of putting your money where your mouth is.

While there was tremendous support on Blackout Tuesday, we have to do more than just talk about inclusion, diversity and economic empowerment. It is nice that white people can be seen holding “Black Lives Matter” signs, but how does that create social justice and financial empowerment? If you want to create real systemic change, you must work with us to create educational opportunities, hire qualified people of color in the wine industry, support our organizations, such as the United Negro College Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the Urban League, to name a few.

Theodora Lee tends to Theopolis Vineyards in California’s Yorkville Highlands of the Anderson Valley.
Theodora Lee tends to Theopolis Vineyards in California’s Yorkville Highlands of the Anderson Valley.

There can be no justice without financial empowerment. If you want Black vintners to survive, you need to contribute to the Association of African American Vintners scholarship funds and buy our wines. This is the way to build economic and political power. Don’t just carry a sign, because carrying a sign isn’t going to change anything.

As a graduate of Spelman College, I believe in the legacy of choosing to change the world through empowerment and encouraging more women of color to advance in corporate America by being part of the C-suite or the board of directors. When you have folks sitting at the table, then racial issues can be de-escalated.

“If you want to create real systemic change, you must work with us to create educational opportunities, hire qualified people of color in the wine industry and support our organizations.”

To address systemic racism and create justice and equality, there must be a multidimensional approach. We must bridge gaps and bring everyone together and make a financial investment in ending institutional racism. A solution requires collaboration across all aspects, including corporations, politicians, religious organizations, economists and lawyers. We must look at all angles to solve the problem, very much like we examine any legal matter.

This will take time and commitment. This problem is not going to be solved overnight because this country has over 200 years of racism. Each individual will need to look at themselves in the mirror, be honest and acknowledge that they have implicit bias. Once we understand our own bias, then we can have a real conversation about racism. Then we have to challenge the status quo and be willing to act differently if we’re going to change this thing.

The wine industry can serve as a catalyst for this change. Food and wine is something all people enjoy. We all eat and drink. What better forum to bring people together? Let’s break bread together and come up with solutions for our communities. How do you get to know people? You sit down and you get a cup of coffee together. You share a glass of wine and talk.

When you go to wineries in a place like Sonoma you’ll see diversity. Everybody’s there together because of the common bond: tasting wine. This is a perfect forum to show people that we have more in common than we have that’s different. Recently, I participated in a virtual tasting and pinot noir talk with Frank Morgan, a wine journalist, along with several other pinot producers. We had a very diverse audience. Everyone wants to learn about pinot noir and terroir and do a tasting. That’s universal. So, I do think the wine industry has an opportunity here to be part of the solution.

When Black Lives Matter is no longer in the spotlight, what and who will be there? We need everyone to be true champions of diversity, inclusion, equity, equality and justice.

We’ve got to figure out how to incentivize those with power to make room at the table for everyone, understand why diversity and inclusion is important, and realize that without equality and justice, we are all at risk. Until that happens, it’s all rhetoric.

In thinking about this whole situation, it reminds me of a stanza in the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore―

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over―

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Right now, everything is exploding due to anger. Change is necessary. An explosion is no good for anyone.

Masks From Black-Owned Businesses