How mentorships, scholarships, and other outreach programs widen access to the wine industry
By Mary Orlin
Want a life in wine?
There are as many ways as there are grape varieties to get into the wine business or rise up the ladder, and while there’s a common perception that a wine job means becoming a winemaker or sommelier, the wine road has many lanes and many entrance ramps.
It was simple curiosity about wine that led Tracey Dyson of Union City into a part-time position in Longevity’s tasting room. A senior pharma contracts manager, she was visiting Longevity Wines in Livermore Valley when she struck up a conversation with owner and winemaker Phil Long. Long hired her, but more importantly, as president of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV), he sensed Dyson’s enthusiasm and encouraged her to pursue an AAAV scholarship that could lead to a professional wine certification. Using that scholarship at the Napa Valley Wine Academy, Dyson earned the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 wine certification.
“It’s a badge of honor,” says the mother of two, who continues to hold her pharma job while also pouring tastes at Longevity and working to develop a Wine Ambassador Program. “The scholarship and certifications are an opportunity that gives a sense of belonging.”
That sense of belonging is where mentorships—both formal and informal—scholarships, and outreach programs come into play. Mentorships, which offer exposure to all aspects of the wine industry, are particularly important for women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, AAPI, and people from other underrepresented communities who don’t always see someone who looks like them working in the wine field. Socioeconomic factors also come into play.
“The industry can be isolating and discouraging,” says Oakland resident Shannon Holbrook, who worked at Dashe Cellars, Rosenblum Cellars, Wachira Wines, and is now the wine bar manager for Oakland’s CoCo Noir. “You have to prove yourself,” she continues, especially in the face of both male- and family-owned wineries, few of which are minority owned.
“If I don’t know those winery families, or look like those families, I’m not getting into those wineries,” Holbrook says. But she was not deterred, crediting Bâtonnage Forum mentorships for her gaining access.
What is mentorship?
In the early years after they opened their Bay Grape wine bar and bottle shop in Oakland, owners Stevie Stacionis and Josiah Baldivino both chose to mentor people through internships.
“Some of our favorite guests who expressed interest in wine were not folks from a wine background; they were formally educated in completely different fields,” Stacionis says. As she and Baldivino looked to fill open positions, they thought those guests would make a better fit than traditional wine world applicants. “Our first two hires were both women and people of color, so we developed an internship for them to learn about wine.”
That experience guided Stacionis as she co-founded Napa-based Bâtonnage Forum in 2017. In 2020 she launched the Bâtonnage Mentorship program with three progressing levels of focus, each more involved than the last for mentors and mentees.
Fiona Fang came to wine via academics. While her background is in business consulting, a trip to Italy inspired her to pursue wine. She joined the Professional Wine MBA program at Sonoma State University, where she applied for a Bâtonnage Forum mentorship.
“What struck me about Bâtonnage was how you’re in direct touch with a lot of thought leaders in the industry and they are very responsive,” Fang says. “You get the direct support of someone who is experienced in a specific role that you’re potentially interested in following.”
Fang completed both the Level 1 and Level 2 programs. She explored numerous opportunities in wine, including domestic and international sales, marketing, and communications.
“Through Bâtonnage, I met another mentee who worked at a wine importer and knew of an opportunity with an Emeryville importer,” says Fang. The importer was Sacred Thirst Selections, and Fang was able to get that job.
Bâtonnage also gave North Oakland resident Crystal Chen access to mentors in several wine industry sectors. Creating community for LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented folks in wine is another mentorship benefit, Chen says.
“I’m trans, and it’s rare to see anybody who looks like me, or has the same background like me,” they say.
The power of networking . . .
Not all mentorships revolve around structured programs. An example is the Women’s Wine Collective of Livermore Valley, a group that meets to provide support among the growing cadre of women working in the local wine industry.
“This connection provided me and others with an avenue to reach out to the other women in the valley,” Alexandra Henkelman of Omega Road Winery says. “I’ve asked, ‘Hey, this is what I’m trying to do. Do you have any thoughts?’”
Henkelman says women-only groups have value.
“When we’re trying to do some new things, or experiment, or facing a challenge with a wine,” she says, “that space is just a little bit safer by keeping it within the female focus.”
… and meeting for that glass of wine
Former musician and Silicon Valley techie Fern Stroud launched Oakland’s Black Vines wine festival in 2012, but it wasn’t until she met retired wine writer, informal mentor, and Oakland Wine Festival founder Melody Fuller in 2015 that her event really took off.
“We met for wine and ended up talking for hours,” Stroud says. “We agreed to work with and support one another. Melody ultimately became my mentor in this wine space.”
Stroud says it's thanks to Fuller’s teaching her about the business of wine that Black Vines evolved and earned distinction in the USA Today Top 10 Readers’ Choice 2021 as the country’s top wine festival.
Finding your wine on-ramp
“Taste and talk,” says Shannon Holbrook. “Go to places that have wines you like and talk to the people who are there. Let curiosity be your guide.”
“Don’t be afraid to reach out,” advises Fiona Fang. “Introduce yourself and say, ‘I appreciate and admire your experience, can you tell me more.’ What’s the worst that can happen?”
AAAV’s executive director Angela McCrae points to her group’s newsletters, social media platforms, and media stories for spreading the word about AAAV’s scholarships. Following groups like AAAV, Bâtonnage, and others is a good way to get started and learn about what’s out there.
“If you can find someone who’s willing to give you time and energy, when they tell you to do something, you go do it,” Fern Stroud says. “Don’t expect them to give you all of the keys. It’s your journey to take.” ♦
Wine Mentorship, Scholarship, and Apprenticeship Resources in the Bay Area and Beyond
Formal mentorship, scholarship, and apprenticeship programs have been popping up in the wine world, making access more open to all. Here’s a list of local, Bay Area, and national organizations helping people get into the wine world and advance their wine careers.
The Alliance of Women in Washington Wine offers one-on-one mentorships to provide structure for growing professionals in the industry.
Asia Pacific Wine and Spirits Institute provides scholarships and other resources. apwasi.com/scholarships
Based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, nonprofit Assemblage Symposium helps underrepresented wine professionals gain more access in their careers.
Association of African American Vintners offers a Black Winemakers Scholarship Fund.
The Bâtonnage Forum Mentorship Program was designed to stir our conversations about equality into actions that create equity.
Wine journalist, educator, and consultant Julia Coney founded Black Wine Professionals in the wake of summer 2020’s social unrest as a resource highlighting the many Black wine pros.
Maryam Ahmed and Elaine Chukan Brown created the Diversity in Wine Leadership Forum to bring together wine industry inclusion initiatives.
Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins founded Dream Big Darling with the mission of mentoring the next generation of women in wine.
Dream It, Live It is an initiative by Napa Valley–based Demeine Estates to help advance wine entrepreneurs.
The Hue Society, founded by Tahiirah Habibi, is about fostering opportunities in wine for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
Industry Sessions, with its focus on natural wines and farming, aims to provide BIPOC wine professionals with wine education classes at no cost.
Lift Collective provides scholarships, entrepreneur programs, and mentorships to further access for diverse and underrepresented communities.
Nonprofit Our Legacy Harvested sponsors wine industry internships for members of BIPOC and other diverse communities looking to get started in wine jobs.
The Roots Fund furthers access and inclusivity in the wine industry through scholarships available to members of BIPOC communities.
SommFoundation helps aspiring and working sommeliers build on their careers through educational programs, scholarships, and enrichment trips.
The Two Eighty Apprenticeship Program, created with noted vintner Steve Matthiasson and UC Davis, awards six-month programs that help folks from marginalized and underrepresented communities enter the wine industry with a focus on the agricultural side of wine from the vine up.
The Veraison Project is an internship partnership offered by Silver Oak Cellars (locations in Napa Valley and Sonoma County) to BIPOC communities.
Vinica Wine Society connects folks new to the wine industry with seasoned pros.
Wine Empowered, brainchild of Victoria James, sommelier and author of Wine Girl, offers women and minorities tuition-free wine education and mentoring on topics ranging from winemaking to wine growing.
Wine Unify welcomes people to the wine industry through outreach and education, lifting up minority and underrepresented communities working in wine and amplifying diverse voices.
Mary Orlin is a James Beard Award– and Emmy Award–winning writer and TV producer and a WSET Advanced certified sommelier. For many years she was the Mercury News wine writer and was executive producer of NBC’s national wine show, In Wine Country. She now co-hosts a tasty podcast called Sip, Sip Hooray, exploring winemakers, wine, and other spirited libations.