Colonialism, Racism, and Wine

This is two posts, one from facebook, and one from my newsletter, that I wrote earlier in the week about the protests in America.

From my email newsletter, Sunday May 31st, 2020

Wine is Racist + What you can do about it

You might be thinking, what does wine have to do with racism?

This weekend as the world watches America burn, I want to share some of my thoughts about wine and colonialism.

Wine has always been a tool of conquerors.

Julius Ceasar’s invasion of France lasted for 8 years and left over a million Gauls murdered and another million enslaved.

French wine culture wasn’t a choice, it was just the way the Romans worked, spreading and planting vineyards to keep their military forces watered.

My city of Lyon, which was the Roman capital, spread out vines in all directions, south along the famous slopes of the Rhône river, and north through the hills of Beaujolais and into Burgundy.

The Romans believed that they were doing indigenous groups a favor, civilizing them, bestowing the gifts of culture upon them.

We don’t know an enormous amount about the Gauls, the Romans replaced their gods and traditions and ways of life with their own. What little we do know about them was written by their Roman conquerers, so we must assume it bears little weight.

Of course once Christianity took hold of the Roman empire, the two were deeply intertwined. Wine has always been a major part of Christian rituals.

As European countries began to colonize the Western Hemisphere, they too distorted the slaughter and pillage of conquering. They were “civilizing the savages”, “bringing them Christianity”. “Saving” them.

Winemaking in the “New World” goes back as far as the mid 1500s, when the Spanish brought vines to Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.

In case you forgot, in the first 200 years of white people in the Americas, it’s estimated that 90-95% of indigenous Americans, 10% of the world’s global population, were murdered or killed by disease.

There is a pervasive myth that Native Americans didn’t have alcohol, which isn’t true. They did ferment alcoholic beverages from a variety of plants, but they didn’t distill.

The early colonists were rough, drunk men, and they pushed liquor onto Native communities as a valuable trade good.

Hard alcohol was brought into tribes by white people, destabilizing communities and greatly weakening them.

It has been well documented and is widely acknowledged that alcohol played a major roll in the destruction of indigenous peoples in the Americas and in Australia and New Zealand.

But back to wine. Today.

We still use the phrases “Old World” and “New World”. It’s totally acceptable to speak of parts of the world using explicitly colonial language. I’ve stopped referring to wines in this way for awhile now, and will continue to keep it from my vocabulary.

Billions of dollars of wine flow around the world from Argentina, Chile, the USA, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Very, very few of these dollars and up in the pockets of people of color.

Brown and black hands tend vines, they pick grapes, they make wine. They’re the descendants of the 12.5 million people who were stolen from their homes and brutally enslaved to build American fortunes.

People of color are everywhere in the wine industry and throughout the tangled vines of its history, but they are still locked out of positions of power and ownership, rarely are their names found on the label.

Even in South Africa, where 80% of the population is Black, there’s a short list of Black-owned wineries.

In America, Mexicans farm the land and provide the labor, but again, there’s a very short list of Hispanic owned vineyards, and a very short list of Black owned wineries as well.

In restaurants, somms of color have been ignored, left off of influencer lists, passed over.

So what can you do about it?

One – support Black winemakers. Here’s a list, go on, buy some wine!

Two – let’s stop saying “Old World” and “New World”. It’s very easy to replace with “European” and “Non-European”. Seriously, I’ve been doing it for months now and it’s really not hard.

Three – spread the word, don’t forget that racism is deeply woven into the fabric of this current world, it’s even in our wine.

I can and will do better, promoting people of color in the wine industry, calling attention to the lack of diversity, and being an advocate for indigenous and Black wine professionals.

Standing for nothing doesn’t cut it.

I hope that you stand with me and raise a glass tonight for the Black community in America, who are fighting for their lives. Cheers to them.

Be well my friends.



Modern Colonialism

From Facebook, May 31st, 2020

I’m neither surprised nor dismayed by the violence gripping America.

It hurts to watch from afar, and I’m sure it hurts more to be inside of it, but this was inevitable.

This anger is righteous. Black people have every right to their rage, and peaceful protesting, of which there has been plenty, has not worked.

White people elected a racist, fascist piece of shit to be president. Everything is rigged against POC. This epidemic has shined more light on the extreme disparities faced by non-white communities.

In yesterday’s America and today’s America, people of color are sacrificed to the gods of consolidating and maintaining white power and wealth.

Never forget that America was literally founded on the genocide of multitudinous indigenous groups and built by enslaved Africans.

History moves in cycles and waves, we talk about them as eras.

We look back at these historical eras as great swaths of hundreds or thousands of years defined by a few key patterns and moments.

I believe that we are at the beginning of the end of one of humanity’s ugliest eras and that this chunk of history is defined by colonialism.

The violent conquering, slaughtering, and subjugation of native peoples by white Europeans is not something that happened in the past and then was over. It’s something we’re still living in and whose systems we’re still very much a part of.

It’s estimated that 145 million people lived in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of white people. Within two hundred years, 90-95% of the native populations had been murdered or killed by European disease.

12.5 million people were stolen from their homes and shipped across the ocean (a journey that killed 2 million of them) to be brutally enslaved for generations.

It’s been around 5 generations since slavery was abolished in the USA. For many Black people my age, that means the grandparents of their grandparents were slaves. It’s not a very long time ago.

In the meantime, those generations have fought a slow and grinding battle against a system designed to keep them down if not outright kill them.

These violent protest are not a matter of “why?” they are a matter of “about time”.

All civilizations rise and fall. All eras come and go.

This era of colonialism has been cursed by unspeakable violence from day one. Balance will come eventually, over many more generations, but it doesn’t seem likely that it will be peaceful.

Don’t forget how it all started, don’t think that it’s separate or distinct from this dark past.

Don’t say “well I don’t have slaves” or “well I’m not racist so it has nothing to do with me”.

We are all connected by the systems of oppression built over the past few hundred years. They were designed to help people like me, and to hurt people of color.

The battle for equality directly involves every single one of us, because we either benefit from it or we suffer for it.

This system built on blood and shackles must be dismantled, and eventually, maybe in another few hundred years, it will be.

Until then, we have to tear it down however we can, with fire, with words, by those of us who have power not only wielding it for the oppressed but ceding it to them.

We won’t see the end of this ugly era in our lifetimes, but I will be proud to be part of speeding up its collapse.