Alicia Towns Franken: Taking BAME representation in wine 'beyond a hashtag'

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

14 July 2020

We caught up with sommelier-turned-wine consultant and Wine Unify board member Alicia Towns Franken to talk about being a black woman in the American wine industry, going beyond a hashtag, and representation

In countries where wine has been, historically, an imported luxury good – namely the United States and the United Kingdom, among others – elitist dynamics often characterise the wine industry and the community of professionals who work in it. With elitism dictating the script it’s, unfortunately, no surprise that wider issues of racial, as well as gender and cultural, discrimination find fertile ground when transposed into the wine industry.

To tackle these issues, a group of non-white American wine professionals recently launched Wine Unify, a platform that aims to make the American wine industry a more inclusive environment by ‘welcoming, elevating, and amplifying’ its BAME voices. Wine Unify was co-founded by masters of wine Martin Reyes and Mary Margaret McCamic, and renowned former somm, and now director of Fantesca Estate & Winery, DLynn Proctor.

Boston-based somm-turned-wine consultant Alicia Towns Franken is a Wine Unify board member who’s been working in hospitality her entire life. We caught up with her to talk about being a black woman in the American wine industry, going beyond a hashtag, and representation.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into wine?

I’ve always worked in the restaurant industry to pay for college and graduate school.

As it usually happens, it was a particular bottle that got me into wine. It was night[time] and someone handed me a glass of wine that literally made me stop. It was Penfolds Grange, back when it was called Hermitage. It was pretty revelatory for me. I mean, I had loved and enjoyed wine, but it was what was in that bottle that made me say ‘how is this thing possible?’

So I asked if I could help [with wine at the restaurant], if I could learn, because I wanted to try as much wine as possible, taste as many bottles as possible. Fortunately they let me work with their wine person, then I eventually became the wine director.

We were selling $3.5m worth of wine a year with an all-female team. We were an interesting crew: black, brown, and a foreigner

Myself with my two assistant somms built what we like to think was one the best wine programmes in Boston. When you have a wine list with 900 labels you can really have some fun. We were selling $3.5m worth of wine a year with an all-female team. We were an interesting crew: black, brown, and a foreigner.

I officially left the restaurant industry when I had my first child. I’m still working on wine programmes, training wine staff, and creating wine lists but I’m no longer working the floor.

Was your family into wine at all?

[My interest in wine came] just from me. My family didn’t drink very much and we definitely didn’t drink wine; my family only started drinking wine after I became wine director. It took my grandmother quite a while to fully understand what I was doing...

I worked at Grill 23 for 11 years and my mom had never, ever, called me at work. Then, there was a time when I got a call from her and my heart stopped because I thought that something was wrong, that my grandmother had fallen ill or something... I get to my office, grab the phone and she says ‘I’m having salmon tonight, what should I drink with it?’

That was when my mom got into wine.

As a black woman, what challenges have you encountered along the way?

I was quite fortunate in many ways, my restaurant was extremely supportive. But there are always ‘things’, I would say. There was very little representation in the Boston wine scene [when I started] and I only saw wine professionals who looked like me when I was in California or in New York. That was the industry back in the 90s.

People who knew me absolutely accepted who I was. My restaurant family was extremely supportive. But with other people… it was an ‘interesting struggle’ at times. I was frequently thought to have a role that was anything other than my actual job.

I was instrumental in the financial success of the restaurant and even at the level that I had achieved I was, on a nightly basis, having to prove myself, and my knowledge, and my position

I was instrumental in the financial success of the restaurant and even at the level that I had achieved I was, on a nightly basis, having to prove myself, and my knowledge, and my position. There were those who were challenging my gender, my blackness... like ‘how could you know anything about wine’, and that’s exhausting. You don’t enter your doctor’s office and ask ‘tell me what you know about medicine?’

Do you believe the American wine industry has evolved since your early days as a sommelier?

Change is always too slow. There’s more diversity, that’s for sure. But there’s a difference between being ‘diverse’ and being ‘inclusive’. It’s one thing to invite people to the table, but you really need to make room for them so that they can bring their full self.

With Wine Unify our mission is to welcome people who’ve never thought they could be working in this industry. We also want to elevate those who are working in the wine industry, that’s why we’re offering the mentorship scheme. Then we want to amplify the voices of black wine professionals. They’re there, and we want to let people know that they’re there.

It’s not enough to have a hashtag, I want to do something and this is the right time to do it.

What’s the main issue at the moment and how can we bring meaningful change?

Representation is a huge issue. Wine is often seen as a luxury good, but also you need to have ‘wine speak’ in order to enjoy it: you need to speak in a certain way, you need to think in a certain way, or drink it with a certain food. But when it comes to a group of people with a different food culture, how are you going to pair that Burgundy with that dish? How are you going to talk about it?

There’s a huge market out there of people who have never thought of wine as being something for them because they don’t see people that look like them working in the industry

It’s just about making it accessible. For years we’ve wanted to demystify the idea of wine but also diversify it and find different ways of speaking about it to make sure that people feel comfortable that they know what that actually is. Wine has been seen as a drink for people that are extremely wealthy and that you need to know something before you can actually enjoy it.

There’s a huge market out there of people who have never thought of wine as being something for them because they don’t see people that look like them working in the industry – making the wine, serving the wine, selling the wine. Representation would really help to change this. The more representation we have, the more people see others doing things, the more it becomes normal. There’s literally billions of dollars out there that is going untapped, so why not? 

You can check out more about the Wine Unify project at wineunify.org

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