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A New Generation of Sommeliers Is Rewriting the Language of Wine

Alice Achayo, who is originally from East Africa and immigrated to the United States with her family, grew up eating mangoes, papaya, jackfruit, guava and passionfruit. Her meals often included meat that was smoked or dried, or sauteed in onions and fragrant oils, accented with ground sesame and peanuts. When Achayo started in wine in 2015, she was surprised to learn that her sensory memories didn’t fit into industry boxes: There weren’t established pairings for the foods and flavors she grew up with. Meanwhile, in tastings, jackfruit was simply described as an “exotic fruit.” Achayo wondered, “Who are these fruits exotic to?” If someone mentioned gooseberry as a flavor note, she’d laugh and think, “Who has actually eaten a gooseberry?” 

Achayo is not alone in her experience. She is part of a new wave of forward-thinking sommeliers who recognize that changing the language around tasting and pairing is an essential part of decolonizing wine and making the industry more inclusive.

Now, more than ever, this work is crucial. According to the Wine Marketing Council, 66% of wine drinkers are white; 11% identify as Black; 15% identify as Hispanic and 5% identify as Asian. Meanwhile, Gen Z—which is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations—has yet to embrace wine, a major cause for concern. As it reckons with slowing sales, the industry is eager to bring more people into the fold. “Every news article says that Gen Z isn’t drinking wine,” Achayo says. “But maybe we aren’t using language that engages with them.”  

Rebuilding the Foundation of Wine 

Alice Achayo
Alice Achayo. Image Courtesy of Stefanie Belnavis

Also known as the Wine Linguist, Achayo believes that the way industry insiders talk about wine—everything from the vocabulary around flavors to the way bottles are marketed and how wine is discussed culturally—needs to evolve. She takes a layered approach, teaching wine professionals how to adopt language that considers diverse listeners, consulting with restaurants who focus on foods of the global south as well as centering winemakers and their agricultural work to help showcase other facets of production to people who feel shut out from the industry. 

To reconsider the future of wine language, Achayo is interrogating its roots starting with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), which has long been the gold standard of wine instruction. She notes it was established in the United Kingdom for British importers, distributors and retailers. Eighty years after its formation, the WSET is studied in over 70 countries and has been translated into 15 languages but hasn’t been adapted to each market. “It’s a colonial mentality,” Achayo says. “It’s the same all over the world.”  

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Certifications help standardize wine language, but Achayo says the execution is problematic. “There’s no acknowledgement of the sensory and cultural references of a place—the fruits, flowers and plants that grow there.” It’s like a bad translation of a book of poetry; you lose nuance and subtlety. She views certifications as important for establishing baseline knowledge before branching out into more approachable language. 

Part of the issue surrounding language is that it is deliberately difficult for most people to understand. When prohibition ended in the United States, and producers were struggling to get back on their feet, American marketers positioned wine as a symbol of prosperity and aspiration. “Wine quickly became something for the white elite,” Achayo says. 

The ethos has endured, making wine unapproachable and intimidating for newcomers. When Achayo started working at a Willamette Valley winery, she noticed that guests apologized when they didn’t like a specific wine. They assumed their taste was the problem. “They’d say, ‘My palate is bad, so I guess I don’t understand this wine,’” Achayo says. “It discourages me when people devalue their own experiences, palate and vocabularies. Are we, as an industry, taking the fun out of wine? 

Words Matter 

Paula de Pano
Paula de Pano. Image Courtesy of Daniel Turbert Photography

For some progressive sommeliers, the heart of inclusivity is meeting people where they are. The people behind Grape Witches, a wine club and shop in Toronto, pulls people in by speaking colloquially and evocatively about wine. “There are moments we talk to guests in very classic wine terms, then we take a step back,” explains their general manager, Lorein Codiamat. One way they do this is labeling bottles with badges that have easy-to-understand identifiers like “Crisp and Mineral” and “Weekday Banger.” They also draw in drinkers with casual education hours named “In Defense of Sweet Wine” and “Debunking Funk.” 

The Grape Witches are also looking outside of their business to help diversify the industry. Three years ago, they started a scholarship program to help welcome more underrepresented people into the world of wine. Funds support the high cost of wine education, but also help budding sommeliers pay for childcare or transportation. “There are so many intersectional barriers for people to succeed and gain opportunities within the industry,” Codiamat says.

These initiatives are working. When the Grape Witches opened nine years ago, its audience was primarily industry types. Now, their customers are more representative of Toronto as a whole. The same goes for their staff, too, who have led to less conventional pairings. When a shopper asks for food pairing suggestions, the shop’s team will put forward palak paneer or lumpia. “It’s not just white ladies partying with other white ladies,” says co-founder Krysta Oben. 

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Minimo, a bottle shop in Oakland, California, does away with signage all together. Owner Erin Coburn prefers to have conversations with customers, so she can highlight what makes each bottle exciting. This method helps connect small producers—the store focuses on sustainable wines and bottles by queer and BIPOC producers—with customers, which in turn helps promote diversity, access and sustainability. 

Paula De Pano, a former senior sommelier at Eleven Madison Park, also posts no signs at Rocks & Acid, a shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She recognizes that a wall of bottles is intimidating and the world of wine is so large that shoppers would need to be experts to understand the nuances of each one. “California Chardonnay” could mean opulent and buttery or steely and fresh. Instead, she plays translator, talking with customers to help them find a bottle suited to their wants. 

Changing the Context of Wine 

Kiki Austin Mujo
Kiki Austin Mujo. Image Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Colonialism isn’t just in the way wine is described: it’s also embedded in how wine is contextualized, especially through pairings. The flavors and foodways of global cuisines are largely ignored or oversimplified. If a dish is spicy, most pairing roads tend to lead to Riesling or beer.  

In Toronto, Sommelier Beverly Crandon hosts an annual festival, Spring into Spice, dedicated to pairing wine and global cuisines. It’s packed and joyous—diverse crowds of revelers snack on food from Guyana, Jamaica and Thailand, while sipping on glasses of bubbles, orange wines and deep Cabernets. Hot sauce is poured abundantly. To Crandon, events like her festival and pairing dinners show diverse crowds of people that their food is also part of the discussion about wine. 

De Pano, who is Filipino, also treads carefully around the foods and flavors that are typically associated with wine. “Depending on where you grew up and what your palate understands, wine can taste different or mean different things,” she says. “I didn’t grow up in the United States, so I have different flavor profiles in my head.” She avoids referencing specific fruits and words like “exotic,” which is a colonial term. “It technically means something you’re unfamiliar with, but it’s often used as a synonym for tropical fruit,” she adds. “But these flavors are not exotic, they’re exotic to you.”  

Rocks and Acid
Rocks and Acid. Image Courtesy of Daniel Turbert Photography

For other industry professionals, language is just one component of decolonizing wine. For Kiki Austin, a sommelier at the one-Michelin-star sushi bar Mujō, in Atlanta, it is about simply showing up to work. “I’m never the person guests are expecting when they ask for the sommelier,” says Austin, who is Black. “Decolonizing wine language is about people like me taking up space and showing up every day. I do it by being me.”  

Austin extends this atmosphere of openness when she suggests pairings, which she does by leading with experiences over tasting notes. She’ll often ask where diners grew up. One of her regular customers is from the Saga prefecture in Japan, so Austin always opens bottles from that region when she comes in. “In that exchange, I also gain a sense of place and culture,” she says. For a couple who were new to the sake world, she poured them the less conventional Rose Clouds, a sparkling sake infused with rose hips and hibiscus. “It’s so good, it put an immediate smile on their face,” Austin says. “I’ve learned that to create space for community means allowing someone to be who they are when they walk through the door,” she says. 

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