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Maia Parish of the Wine Suite. Photo by Carolyn Wells-Kramer, CWK Photography

One Black Female Sommelier’s Take On The Wine Biz In Denver

The Wine Suite’s Maia Parish speaks out about her experience in the beverage industry.

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My entire experience in the wine world can be framed around my hair. Black women and our hair! It is scrutinized, attacked, punished, rejected, weaponized, disguised, outlawed (the Tignon Laws of 1786) and recently, finally, protected in Colorado (the CROWN Act). I moved back to Denver, my hometown, from Maryland five years ago, emerging onto the Colorado wine scene rocking my Chaka Khan-inspired, Burgundian-colored crochet afro hair. (I switch back and forth between blue, purple, silver, and burgundy.) After all, I escaped the white collar world of human resource management for my soulmate, wine. And I have never looked back.

But I am more than my hair. Today, I work in the spaces of food, wine, events, social media, technology, and financial investments, but I am also a native who attended Colorado Academy and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School. My career in food and beverage began when I was 15; I worked for various restaurants—chains, bars, fast-casual, fine-dining—in every position imaginable. I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2010 with a Bachelor’s degree in communications, and went straight into a Master’s program for human resource management and organizational development.

My love for food and wine never waned. In 2006, I moved to the DMV (as the D.C.- Maryland-Virginia area is known) and, while working full-time in healthcare, launched a small catering company called Silver Linings. I kept receiving inquiries about wine pairings, though, and my interest led me to a tasting class at the Washington Wine Academy—which turned out to be a Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level Two course, meant for industry pros. I remember sitting in that class and having my aha! moment. Wine was so grounding. I hadn’t found the kind of joy it brought out in me in journalism, human resources, or even events. I’ve gone on to become a WSET Level Two certified professional. Eventually, I got my dream job as a tasting specialist for Total Wine, left human resources, and rebranded my business into the Wine Suite, a full-service wine production and events company. I am an educator.

I brought the Wine Suite to Denver in 2015. I wish I didn’t have to speak about the indignities that I have faced as a Black woman in Colorado’s white spaces. But since returning home, I have experienced plenty of racism and sexism from the local wine and food community. I quickly learned about the disadvantages that come with being on my own, not being supported by a wine house or portfolio, and the indignities of being a Black woman in the wine world.

It’s disappointing how the wine community treats women—and especially people of color—from racist insults in the tasting room to ignoring our enormous purchase power. My experiences have been eloquently written about by writers like Julia Coney, detailing the struggle and the not-so-micro aggressions we face as women and people of color. Recently, icon Dorothy J. Gaiter, a former wine writer for the Wall Street Journal, also spoke out about her struggle in this white male dominated world.

Consider this: Every year, my name is left off the trade list at several wine distribution houses. Every year. For the past five years, I have had to call their marketing divisions to receive trade tasting schedules. I have to ask people in the know to send me information about private classes and events; there seems to be a secret society of elite tasting clubs and master seminars. At least twice a year, I am asked if I am in the wine trade, even at trade-only events.

And the white women who grab, yank, or scoop my hair at these events—what is that about? I own “Don’t touch my hair” earrings now, that I wear like armor. It doesn’t work; white women still touch my hair. I am not a Chia Pet. I know my hair is cute and, yes, it smells good, but no, you can’t put your hands in my hair without my permission.

When I say I am a sommelier, many people ask, “Really?” and tilt their heads to one side. I have noticed that the farther the head tilt, the more ignorant their next questions tend to be. Yes, I am a sommelier and yes, I am Black.

Intoxicated white men, fascinated with the racial taboo, say the most explicit things to me. A top-tier brand manager grabbed my rear end twice at a private party; I had to wrench his hand away from my body. Does it matter that he was drunk? I can still feel his hands. One week ago, at a wine event in Denver, the host used the words “lynched” and “slaves” while talking about servers in the hospitality industry, comparing that role to the lot of enslaved peoples. No one references the Holocaust the same way, do they? These words hurt.

One final example: In October 2017, I attended an industry tasting in Denver. I walked up to the table for a Washington State label, excited to try their portfolio; I had read an article on wines coming out of Walla Walla and knew the region produces some great juice. I said hello to the rep at the table, who happened to be the director of sales for the brand. He poured me a sample and provided the name of the wine. That is it. He did not go into detail about the selections and said nothing more to me. I waited, but he didn’t engage. I began to ask specific questions about the brand, and he responded with one-word answers. By this time, two white men walked up and he gave them a whole spiel. I thought, Okay, maybe he doesn’t like women or women somms. I listened to what he told the two men, leaning in to hear more. The men left and I remained, thinking that maybe he would engage now that they’d gone, as I had participated in the conversation with the two men. Nope. He poured me the last selection, just as a white woman and a white man approached. The rep greeted them warmly and gave them the full speech. He liked women just fine. It is very subtle, such racism, but I know. Now, when I see bottles from that house and hear about Walla Walla, I get sad. That brand lost me as a customer and educator forever.

Colorado is home to ten Master Sommeliers and one Master of Wine. We have a healthy community, and yet there are few people of color within it. Carlton McCoy, one of the three Black Master Sommeliers in the world, used to work at the Little Nell in Aspen, but now he is in Napa. Kendra Anderson owns Bar Helix, and is, as far as I know, the only Black woman to own a wine bar in the mountain region. We have very few representatives within wine spaces. I have had to outsource for mentorship, looking for leaders with diverse voices, like William Davis, the director of education at Wilson Daniels, who is a great mentor and friend, and look to organizations like the Association of African American Vinters and Black Wine Lovers.

In the weeks since the murder of George Floyd, it seems like the whole world has woken up—it instantly became permanent Black History Month. My instagram account has been followed over 800 new faces. But the pandering and love we Black business owners and creators are getting feels bittersweet. It feels like fake love. Now everyone wants to know about the struggle and get into the fight. A fight for which Black people have been dying, crying, marching, protesting, and voting for decades. I’m fighting in the wine world, too. In fact, I’d rather this article talk about my award-winning Night in Wakanda wine festival at the McNichols Building, or my growth as a professional wine judge. I’d rather talk about my goal of becoming Businesswomen of the Year and my plans to open a fully accredited wine school.

The reasons for the racial and gender gaps in the wine industry are layered and complicated. BIPOC are not being invited, paid, shared, and highlighted, but we are here. Things are not changing fast enough for me, though, which means that I will have to change the narrative. The creation of my wine school will solve some of these issues. I will be a force in Colorado. I will have the great wine educators teach at my school and create a space of learning for all. I will turn out accredited wine leaders who are well versed in pay equity, intersectional diversity, and progressive community. They will know how to be truly hospitable, respectful to all, and show awareness. So, when you see me and compliment my hair (don’t touch it), please also ask me my name.

Maia Parish is the owner of a wine events company called the Wine Suite and creator of the Tales of a Wine Mistress blog. She is a local wine judge and mompreneur. She has achieved a Level Two certification with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) (and taken the Level Three exam) and is currently studying for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) designation under the Society of Wine Educators. Parish also owns and operates Parish Media LLC.

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