Last June, just 10 days after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police triggered the country’s most fierce protests since the Civil Rights era, the Central Coast became a focal point for the wine industry’s diversity and equity issues. In an open letter written by Simonne Mitchelson and Justin Trabue, who both live and work in wine between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, the two women criticized the lack of action or even words coming from wineries both near and far.
“Your silence is deafening,” they wrote. “The wine industry is one of great power in this country, but has always been out of reach for Black people and people of color. This is changing, albeit at a glacial pace, but moving nonetheless because we are making spaces for ourselves and demanding accessibility to an industry that historically has been associated with the white upper class.”
The letter triggered soul-searching for the industry, but also put Mitchelson, who now works for Jackson Family Wines, and Trabue, who works for both Lumen and Ancient Peaks, on the forefront of fostering real change. Over the summer, they connected with Khalil Kinsey, who oversees the Kinsey Collection of African American Art & History; Eric Bach, a marketing pro who cofounded Hipcamp and Good Boy Wines; Teron Stevenson, a partner of The Friend Bar and The Little Friend in Los Angeles; Santa Barbara County natives Cameron and Marlen Porter, who own Amplify Wines; and movie costumer Katie Workinger, who also works with Good Boy.
“We are just concerned world citizens who want to do some good,” said Kinsey of what united them through a series of digital meetings, like the one in which I interviewed seven of them at once for this article. “We became really fast friends.”
After much conversation about what strategy to take, the team decided to raise money and support educational/professional opportunities through a nonprofit quarterly wine club of sustainability-minded wines made by people who proudly support Black Lives Matter and similar causes. The result is Natural Action, which is shipping its first batch of four wines — by Solminer, Scar of the Sea, Good Boy, and Amplify — in early April.
“The outpouring of support has been amazing,” said Trabue of the nearly 200 members who had signed up within two weeks as well as wineries that were reaching out to take part. “We’re so thankful.”
They decided to showcase natural wines because that’s how some of them first met, but also because this style of wine is typically made from earth-friendly vineyards by ethically minded people. “Sustainability is not just the way you make the wine, but it’s the way the workers are treated and the way we treat the land,” said Trabue. Explained Kinsey, “Natural wine embodies a lot of the concepts we identify with as human beings, when it comes to holistic practices, when it comes to things that have soul and heart.”
The wines are being labeled with art from Kinsey’s collection, and the first shipment’s funds will go toward Cal Poly’s BIPOC Wine and Viticulture Scholarship Program. Meanwhile, Natural Action is actively working with wineries to develop more positions for people of color in order to raise awareness that this is a viable career choice, despite the historic lack of opportunity.
“We really want to bring longevity,” said Mitchelson. “That’s a critically important part of this conversation. It’s not a trend. It’s not a one-off. This is a contribution to something that is an investment in Black education. The wineries we have been working with have committed to internships and job opportunities. The education part is very important to us, that it’s more than just a donation to us.”
Kinsey sees the wine industry as just a microcosm of the country at large, and this as one tool toward fixing the problems. “People don’t know what they don’t know,” said Kinsey, who believes that the lack of information, or outright misinformation, about multicultural contributions to society is a major cause of our current divisions. “We all share in this American story. That’s what we are trying to instill through the wine club.”
They recognize that this is the start of a long campaign. “It has been this for a very long time, so I would assume that the changes aren’t going to be super-swift,” said Stevenson, who sees increased media coverage as one positive sign. “But we gotta take a crack at it.”