When I graduated college, worried that I might be constrained to a life of predictability, I knocked on the kitchen door of a restaurant I adored (the D.C. institution, Restaurant Nora), and asked for a job. They obliged, and my work in food and hospitality (and ultimately, wine) commenced.
I am forever indebted to that opportunity because it validated my natural desire to challenge the status quo, while also demanding that I do so within the professional sphere. As restaurateurs, the Pouillon-D'Amato clan worked relentlessly to address dissonance within American food pathways, and were key players in creating a market for organic, local ingredients. Food should be joyful and nourishing, yes. But food could also be a mission; and food in America was inherently political. This sense of purpose gave me the strength to begin to carve out my own path. And I needed that strength, because as a first-generation West Indian American, great things were expected, and food and service were clearly perceived as a step backward. Yet, I couldn't shake it. I was inspired.
I made my way back to New York, where I was raised, and worked in some fantastic places. A barrage of important restaurants, a bread company, a food consultant...wherever I felt drawn in by feeling part of a community and a larger purpose. Believing that I had already disappointed my family actually liberated me to do whatever I pleased. But wine was not initially on my radar. To me, it reeked of elitism and was filled with people who didn't look like me. But surprisingly, via the encouragement, support and mentoring of many of those people who didn't look like me, white men like Joe Dressner, Terry Theise and Charlie Woods; and white women like Beth von Benz and Anita Katzman, I began to work as a bona fide wine professional. This was before the obsession with credentials and certifications, before anyone dare utter the misguided honorific, "celebrity somm." The business was filled with people who also seemed to be disappointing their folks. And yet they were impassioned, inspired and caring. I had found my tribe.
A life-changing moment occurred at a luncheon with Michel Chapoutier. While he remains a titan of the industry, in those days, he was also a bit of a renegade: the stubbly Braille on dem labels espousing less-heralded varieties like Roussanne and what-not. In those days, I was usually the only person of color in the room, and also one of the few women. As we dined and imbibed in the lovely garden room of the old Provence in Soho, I snuck a peek at his hands. Callused. Pillowy and well-tended, but definitely callused in spots. That sighting was one of a string of road signs that told me that I belonged in this world. His hands reminded me of my grandfather, a farmer in Saint Catherine, Jamaica, whose own callused hands tended to pigs and sugar cane. Honest men doing honest work. Were grapes really so different than bananas? I decided they weren't.
We are currently experiencing a reckoning both in this country and within the wine industry. It's necessary. It's overdue. My path was truly not the normal one, particularly for women of color. I was lucky. I was impetuous. I was strangely confident. I thank my mother and my grandmother for that brash sense of entitlement. But honestly, the path to wine shouldn't just be open to heedless Black girl knuckleheads as some one-off. It should be an open and welcoming job path for anyone who seeks it, whether they run into the "right" folks en route or not. Whether they have something to prove, or just want to earn a paycheck in a pretty fun way. Whether they want to be big stars...or just be part of a tribe, that in its best expression, feels a lot like family.
Lee Campbell is a wine consultant and sommelier based in Brooklyn.