South End wine shop Urban Grape recently announced not just one winner of a groundbreaking wine studies award — but two.
Suhayl Ramirez, 44, and Amanda Best, 27, are this year’s winners of the Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color. The inaugural award — the brainchild of TJ and Hadley Douglas, the store’s husband-and-wife owners — provides a year-long program of wine education, work, and mentorship, designed to open doors to professionals of color who remain underrepresented throughout the industry.
The award, housed at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, got its start with funds from the Douglases. After their Black-owned business was vandalized in the chaos that followed peaceful racial justice protests in June, customers came out in force, driving up sales and making it possible to establish the long-dreamed-of fund. Hundreds of donations poured in over the summer.
The award recipients will pursue the four-level Certificate Program in Wine Studies at Boston University’s Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center, taught by two MWs (masters of wine). They will also work in paid internships, one with MS Walker, a major wine and spirits distributor; another, in restaurants, at Tiffani Faison’s Big Heart Hospitality; and a third, in retail, learning from TJ Douglas, who has worked in wine for more than 20 years. Ramirez and Best will also travel to Burgundy, France, at the invitation of premier wine exporter Becky Wasserman & Co.
Ramirez, who laughs easily and often, was born in Manhattan, growing up in a multigenerational, Spanish-speaking household. (Her family’s roots are in the Dominican Republic.) Later, as a youngster in Jamaica Plain, she remembers “being around some really awesome hippies” who would give her fresh corn and sunflowers. For seven years, Ramirez was the marketing whiz at Somerville’s Taza Chocolate. Recently, she joined TFLUXÈ, a Boston-based company that seeks to make wine more accessible to Black consumers.
Ramirez reflects on why the award program is important.
“I can distill it to two words: ‘representation matters,’” she says. “It matters that I as a Black, Latina, queer woman can find myself in an industry that has historically not ever shown me that it was for me. Where the default is European and white — as a mark of quality, as a mark of craftsmanship — when the reality is, the vineyards do not tend themselves. There is so much history where the work, the labor, is being done by people who are completely erased out of the story. It’s important to me to forge a different path, and tell a different story, about how people who look like me connect to this particular beverage and food.”
Best, who hails from Baltimore, has a story to tell. She grew up in a tight-knit family that loves to gather around the table for a quintessential crab boil. While finishing a master’s degree program in journalism at Emerson College, Best took a job as a delivery driver for Charles Street Liquors in Beacon Hill. Curious about what she was delivering to customers, she studied up, asked questions, and attended every tasting she could. Within a year, she was promoted to assistant manager.
She describes being a Black female in the industry as “definitely eye-opening.” New customers are often surprised that she is a manager — and that she knows her stuff. That made her think about how people of color are perceived, and how they lack visibility, in the business. “Honestly, before, I didn’t know anyone other than TJ who was a person of color in wine. I thought, ‘Why is that?’ It’s very concerning, especially in 2020.”
While Best is not sure what leadership role she’ll assume after the program, she is certain of one thing.
“The underlying thing I do know is that I want to make sure I’m giving back to the community,” she says. “I want someone to see me and know, ‘This is attainable.’”
Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com