Boston has long been home to visionaries shaking up the status quo. So it should come as no surprise that three local wine industry leaders — TJ and Hadley Douglas, owners of South End wine shop Urban Grape, and Alicia Towns Franken, executive director of nonprofit Wine Unify — are at the forefront of making change. They’re championing initiatives that are fostering a more diverse generation of wine professionals, many of whom are already making an impact beyond the Bay State.
Urban Grape Wine Studies Award poised to grow
In 2020, husband-and-wife duo TJ and Hadley Douglas established the Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color, a year-long program designed to provide BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals with premier wine education, mentorship, and paid work experience across retail, restaurant, and distribution sectors of the wine business. Established with an endowment housed at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, the award program opens doors to individuals historically underrepresented in the industry. The initiative, now hosting its fourth cohort, continues to grow with the support of Urban Grape customers and donors, as well as partners like importer-distributor M.S. Walker, restaurant group Row 34, and Jackson Family Wines, one of the largest, multi-brand wine companies in the country.
This coming winter, the Douglases will launch a second Urban Grape retail store in Washington, D.C., building toward their goal of becoming the largest certified Black-owned retail and e-commerce platform in the United States. By expanding to our nation’s capital, the couple anticipates extending the reach of the award program. TJ Douglas is quick to share why he and Hadley launched the initiative.
“Coming up through the wine industry in Boston, I’ve often been by myself,” TJ explains. Over the course of his 30-year career in wine and hospitality, he was often the only person of color in any room. He didn’t want the next generation of professionals to endure that kind of isolation. So on the heels of social justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the Douglases launched the wine studies award. Dozens of applicants now apply every January, and two people are selected annually to go through the program together.
“When I see that they’re not alone, it’s like a proud dad moment,” TJ says, marveling at how awardees get to lean on one another, even as they connect with a broad network of industry colleagues and mentors.
Since its launch, three Urban Grape awardees have secured wine jobs, based in, or connected to, California. Suhayl Ramirez is director of consumer engagement and communication at Trois Noix Wines in Napa Valley; Amanda Best is the Boston-based communications manager for O’Donnell Lane, a marketing and public relations agency representing food and wine clients, headquartered in Sonoma; and June Glenn is a lab harvest intern at Central Coast winery Talley Vineyards. The Golden State — where more than 80 percent of US wine is produced — also figures into the experience of awardees in cohort 3. Both have had “aha” moments made possible by hands-on experience.
Hands-on experience leads to ‘aha’ moments
“I feel so privileged that I was picked for this,” says Lucia “Lucy” Almirudis. “When speaking with so many people in the industry, a lot of them have the reaction, ‘I wish I had a program like that when I started.’”
Almirudis, 34, grew up in northern Mexico and moved to Boston a decade ago. She had studied and worked as an architect in her home country, but was contemplating changing careers at the time of her move. Working in restaurants — eventually becoming a dining and events coordinator at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Seaport — was where her love of wine blossomed. She was drawn to the Urban Grape program not only to deepen her wine knowledge, but to learn how different facets of the industry operate.
Almirudis is in the midst of a three-month paid internship in California with Jackson Family Wines. That 360-degree view of the company’s business operations — from direct-to-consumer sales to vineyard management — inspires thoughts about the future. “I would like to see more Latinos in decision-making positions, making decisions to grow brands, not just grow the grapes,” she says. “The more diversity we bring in terms of people — other ways of thinking, other ways of seeing the world — the more diversity we’re going to bring to the industry.”
Allie Kuo, 24, is thrilled to be going through the Urban Grape program alongside Almirudis, and is also currently in California with Jackson Family Wines. Born and raised in central New Jersey, Kuo graduated from Northeastern University last year with a degree in communications and media studies. At the beginning of her wine journey, she taught herself — reading everything she could and connecting with wine influencers on social media.
“At this intersection of being a young person, a woman, and a Taiwanese American, I hadn’t even thought of wine as a place where I could work,” Kuo says. Not seeing anyone who looked like her working in wine shops or restaurants left her feeling that wine was not meant for her. Until she attended an internship tasting event, she had never met anyone of Asian descent working in wine; so when she finally did, meeting an Asian American winemaker from Sonoma, the encounter left a lasting impression.
Thinking ahead to a job in the industry, Kuo is keen on merging wine, tech, and UX (which translates to “User experience,” how an end-user interacts with a product or service). She’s eager to tell the stories of women winemakers, LGBTQ winemakers, and winemakers of color — people who have not traditionally been represented in the industry.
“At the end of the day, my mission and the reason why I do this is to make wine more accessible,” Kuo says. “It shouldn’t matter where you come from or what you look like. Everyone should be able to enjoy wine, and learn about wine.”
Boston wine veteran becomes Wine Unify executive director
For Alicia Towns Franken, mentoring the next generation has been a lifelong practice and passion. She’s executive director of Wine Unify (https://www.wineunify.org/), a Napa, Calif.-headquartered nonprofit that welcomes, elevates, and amplifies diverse voices throughout the wine industry. The organization funds recipients to pursue coursework with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a path leading to internationally recognized levels of certification. At the same time, recipients access a national network of mentors drawn from fine dining, winemaking, journalism, and more. Since the program’s launch three years ago, 150 people across the country have received awards and continue to benefit from mentorship both online and in-person. As Towns Franken says, “People come for the education, and stay for the community.”
Prior to assuming the executive director role last year, Towns Franken served as a Wine Unify board member and head of mentorship. Her commitment to fostering talent goes back to the early 1990s, when she built and nurtured a team of sommeliers as part of her decade-plus tenure as wine director at the award-winning Grill 23 & Bar in Boston’s Back Bay. Motherhood, consulting, and a cascade of civic- and education-focused volunteer positions filled the intervening years. Recently, she realized it was time to engage with wine in a new capacity.
“Wine Unify speaks to my soul in so many ways,” Towns Franken says. “I’m at this age where I want to have an impact on an industry that means so much to me, and to help foster this new generation of wine enthusiasts as well as wine professionals. With Wine Unify, we’re trying to change what leadership looks like.”
A boost to professional development and giving back
Imane Hanine, 37, national sales manager of Martha Stoumen Wines in Sebastopol, Calif., likes to say that she chose Wine Unify as much as the organization chose her. Describing herself as a first-generation New Yorker whose father is from Morocco and whose mother is from the Dominican Republic, Hanine speaks effusively about her first meeting with Towns Franken years ago. From that conversation onward, she says she felt significant alignment with the organization’s vision and mission. She loves how the organization acknowledged her as an established wine professional looking to grow her network and advance her career. “It wasn’t just a simple scholarship or just dollars,” Hanine says. The Elevate Awards she received not only covered WSET levels 2 and 3, but also glassware, wine to taste and evaluate, and a Coravin system to preserve opened bottles. “They had thought of every single thing that one would need to succeed, tackling every potential obstacle for someone to pursue their education,” she says.
Maryland native Reggie Leonard II exemplifies a leader for whom wine is a “both-and” proposition. The 38-year-old is keeping his day job as associate director for career connections and community engagement at the University of Virginia’s School of Data Science. At the same time, he’s branching out as a result of receiving a Wine Unify Welcome Award. He learned about the opportunity online during the pandemic. “This was the first time seeing an opportunity for someone like me,” he said, noting that he was not working in wine, but wanted to explore. He found all aspects of the program empowering, from learning WSET’s systematic approach to tasting and talking about wine, to going through the level 1 course online, administered through the Napa Valley Wine Academy, with a cohort of award recipients from across the country.
The more Leonard engages with Wine Unify’s network, the more he wants to give back, intent on reaching out to people of color, non-binary individuals, and people with different ability levels. “I’m very interested in being an active part of closing that gap here in Virginia, and in wine more broadly, through Virginia wine,” he says. Not only is he making his own wine with a fellow Black wine colleague using Virginia-grown grapes, he is co-founder of Oenoverse, a wine club and events platform that connects diverse imbibers and makers. He’s currently promoting an upcoming Charlottesville wine festival called “Two Up Wine Down” on Oct. 29.
There are promising signs of cross-pollination between the initiatives of Urban Grape, Wine Unify, and other organizations advancing the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, Ralph Roldán, currently in Urban Grape’s fourth cohort, was also a scholar with The Roots Fund, a nonprofit co-founded by wine industry luminaries Ikimi Dubose-Woodson, Carlton McCoy, and Tahiirah Habibi. Allie Kuo is also a boundary spanner. What she learned as a result of a Wine Unify Welcome Award allowed her to hit the ground running when selected for the Urban Grape program.
Hadley Douglas looks forward to future synergy between groups. “I think it’s really important that we all layer our programming, so that we are supporting as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible,” she says.
Reggie Leonard thinks change is possible. “There need to be seriously fundamental shifts in the entire industry,” he says. “And a great way to do that is to invite more people in. It’s not about replacing people. It’s not about kicking people out to get people in. It’s about expanding the plane versus saying that it’s finite and zero-sum.”
Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org