José Eduardo Barboza: Wine, education, and Brazil's systemic racism

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

21 July 2020

To get some insight into dynamics that characterise Brazilian society, its wine industry, and what can be done to make it more inclusive, Jacopo Mazzeo caught up with São Paulo-based sommelier, wine consultant and educator José Eduardo Barboza

A few weeks ago, the leader of Brazil contracted Covid-19, despite having consistently downplayed the pandemic which has been devastating for the people of Brazil.

President Jair Messias Bolsonaro is infamous for his controversial views on a range of topics, including women's rights and homosexuality. The list of controversies has recently grown longer, as Bolsonaro’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has also exacerbated the high levels of social and economic vulnerability suffered by its non-white people (56.9% of the entire population, according to 2018 figures from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics).

It then comes as no surprise that Brazil’s social disparities are easily translated into its overwhelmingly white wine industry. To get some insight into the dynamics that characterise Brazilian society, its wine industry, and what can be done to make it more inclusive, we caught up with São Paulo-based sommelier, wine consultant and educator José Eduardo Barboza.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you developed your career in wine?

Until 2013 I worked as a sales manager in IT services and printing. It was common for me to receive visitors from other countries or Brazilian states and I was generally responsible for accompanying them, including lunches and dinners. Because of that, I always visited the restaurants in advance, to check out their food menu and the wine list. 

I began to really enjoy it so I decided to study [wine] a little more. I did my first course in 1999, then went on trips and attended tastings. My sommelier career arrived at a later stage in my life, when I decided to change and work in an area I felt deeply connected with. 

In 2013 I took a sabbatical year which I dedicated exclusively to my wine studies. I became certified with the Associação Brasileira de Sommeliers (affiliated to the International Sommelier Association), I took WSET Level 3, and also participated in all the professional wine tastings that were available in my home city, São Paulo. 

I did freelancing work at events, and in 2015 I started working at one of the largest importers of wine and food in the country, Casa Flora, where I spent almost two years. After that I was head sommelier at Winebrands for another three years. Now, I mostly work as a consultant and wine educator.

How diverse is the Brazilian wine industry?

The Brazilian wine market is still very elitist and usually it’s identifiable with white European culture, and due to our country’s educational and economic structure, there are no prominent black sommeliers in Brazil. In fact, there are few black people who hold managerial positions across all sectors of the economy.

Due to our country’s educational and economic structure, there are no prominent black sommeliers in Brazil. In fact, there are few black people who hold managerial positions across all sectors of the economy

Here in Brazil there are no black wine producers, merchants or anywhere else in the supply chain; people of colour only work in vineyards during harvests or cover lesser roles in wineries. This is directly linked to Brazil’s colonial history and to the economic and social barriers that prevent access [to higher positions] or to becoming successful entrepreneurs.

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery (1888), and since then, there has been no planning, action, or incentive for the social assimilation of black people. This reverberates today in the favelas and small inland communities that have no running water nor electricity. It will take another 132 years to raise the Brazilian black population to the category of ‘citizens’, and the only way I know to achieve this is called education!

Have you ever experienced episodes of racial discrimination first-hand?

These difficulties occur from childhood. Just to illustrate, while at university I was the only black person in the classroom. Then, when I moved to the corporate world, in 1991, I was the first black man to work in the commercial department of ​​an American multinational that had been operating in the country since the 1960s. Yes, at the beginning of my career the challenges were enormous, I needed to work hard and show competence to occupy that space, and make sure I offered no reason for complaints. 

I remember a specific episode when, during my first visit to a client, I spent more than two hours waiting to be seen. It was clear that the client did not want me there. I insisted and waited; when he received me he said: ‘I know your company, I know your products, when I need to buy something I make the purchase and you send the order. I will continue to buy: it will no longer be necessary for you to be here.’

At the beginning of my career the challenges were enormous, I needed to work hard and show competence to occupy that space, and make sure I offered no reason for complaints

I was sad, angry, and unable to work that day, went back to the office and reported the situation to my superior.

It was one of the worst days of my life. In my career as a sommelier I haven't experienced a similar situation: I believe that my attitude and experience in dealing with people now prevents it from happening.

What can be done to make wine an appealing and viable career for more non-white Brazilians?

In Brazil we have good quality wines in all categories, but the biggest challenge remains the very high price for both domestic and imported wines. We have a very high tax. Wine is classed as a luxury product. A quality entry-level label starts at £8, which prevents most people from accessing it. [To make wine more accessible we should] simply present it to these people correctly, without snobbery, and bring it into their everyday life. 

The best way to improve ourselves as a society is to offer education and work to everyone

I have a practical and personal example: I introduced my sisters to wine tasting five years ago, always taking a few bottles for Sunday gatherings. Today they [can] buy the bottles that they like and wine has become a mandatory drink on the table during meals. 

I am an optimist, but with my feet firm in the real world. I am sure that the best way to improve ourselves as a society is to offer… education and work to everyone. Our people have incredible strength, they are able to overcome so many adversities without any support. Imagine if the political and financial elite really fulfilled their duties of public management and social support – what could we achieve?

Brazil's lack of diversity in the wine industry is, unfortunately, not an isolated case. We recently talked with Wine Unify’s Alicia Towns Franken about being a black woman in the American wine sector. You can check out the interview here.

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