A Focus on Black Voices (in Natural Wine): Bianca Sanon

I’ve been “working in wine” for the past four years, give or take a few months. I started getting serious about my wine studies in late 2016 - early 2017, and my experiences have always been tied to service. Microaggressions have been at the forefront of my experience as a server, sommelier, floor manager, and every role in between. One time, when I was working in a restaurant in North Carolina, a guest asked for my name (Bianca), and upon telling him, he quickly responded “Beyonce?!?!” Everyone at the table loved that joke. And, somehow, almost as if on cue, I was subjected to that same experience three different times that week. 

Microaggressions are always difficult to navigate as a hospitality worker -- should I speak up and correct the guest, is that kind of interaction inappropriate, would I or should I even be able to control my emotions in addressing the issue? The tragedy of this moment is that it took the overdue recognition of Black death, one after the other, and a worldwide movement to make it possible for us as Black service industry workers to talk about and confront these instances of microaggressions and how they deeply affect us. The beauty of this moment, particularly in the time of COVID-19, is the realization that community has nothing to do with proximity, as my dear friend Imane Hanine put it so clearly. Although based in Miami, I have been able to process so many issues that I’ve had as a Black hospitality worker and as a Black sommelier with fellow Black women who are based throughout the country, from Philly to Napa, and we have had the actual time and energy to sit and listen to each other, a luxury we certainly would not have had under normal circumstances.

So many thoughts, scenarios and questions have come from our conversations: What happens when the world opens back up and the restaurant industry fundamentally changes? Who will be chosen to move forward when restaurants open back up? Do you respect me for my knowledge or are you afraid of being called out? What happens to people like us who decide to speak up and don’t have a community to fall back on? What do we envision when we talk about inclusion? How inclusive can we be as an industry if we have always been more interested in allocations than structural oppression? How do we envision an industry striving towards inclusivity when it is driven by the concept of exclusivity? What is our collective goal as an industry? How far are we willing to go?

In the few conversations I’ve had with both old friends and new, it’s been clear that we do in fact have the power to challenge the norms of our industry and institute change. When we ask about the repercussions of speaking up, we envision actual structural change in the business in question and amplifying the voices of the traditionally oppressed, offering them a platform to submit grievances, possibly through establishing a third-party HR department that can hold business owners accountable. When we ask about inclusion, we imagine a future where the concept of access is at the forefront of business practices, encompassing everything from approachable pricing, especially for businesses in gentrifying neighborhoods, to QTPOC/BIPOC-led events to de-escalation training for all members on staff. 

In short, we may not have all of the answers, but being Black in the wine industry has always come with a lot of questions, and it feels good to finally start asking them. 

Bianca Sanon is a sommelier and soon-to-be bookstore/café owner.