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Jermaine Stone’s first exposure to wine occurred by happenstance, when he took a job in the warehouse of Zachys, the Westchester wine retailer and auction house, to put himself through college.
An aspiring rapper from the Wakefield section of the Bronx, Mr. Stone, now 38, rose rapidly in wine, forging a career as a fine-wine administrator and auctioneer, first at Zachys and then at Wally’s in Los Angeles.
Now, as an independent wine consultant and social media entrepreneur, he is using hip-hop as a vehicle for bringing wine to cultures and communities historically ignored by the industry, while working with major components of the trade to broaden and diversify their consumer base, as many promised to do after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
On podcasts, through videos and with his company, Cru Luv Wine, Mr. Stone has shown the wine world that it has much to learn.
He has discussed hip-hop with wine luminaries like Saskia de Rothschild, the chief executive of Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, and Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy.
He has worked with some of the biggest wine and spirits companies, like Constellation Brands, owners of popular labels including Robert Mondavi, Kim Crawford, Ruffino and the Prisoner. Wine trade associations in Italy, Germany and Australia as well as wine companies like Piper-Heidsieck, the Champagne producer, and Cellar Tracker, a social media and cellar management tool, are among his clients.
Mr. Stone has paired cheeseburgers with Lafite; chopped cheese sandwiches, a New York specialty, with Cornas; and grilled cheese sandwiches with Burgundy.
His aim is to eliminate pretension and put wine in the context of familiar and beloved elements of Black culture.
“It’s about making all cultures feel comfortable together,” Mr. Stone said. “Wine and hip-hop are who I am. If I want to see change, I have to be the change. Change is also who I am.”
For generations, with rare exceptions, the wine industry has been run by and for white men of European heritage. Over the last 50 years, motivated by clear business opportunities, it has opened up internationally, primarily in Asia, where it has grown and profited. And, as a new generation comes of age, it has become more welcoming to women, with daughters taking over family estates and women assuming once unattainable winemaking and executive roles.
Yet the wine industry has largely ignored Black and brown communities, reinforcing the notion that wine was for white people.
In the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s murder, many wine companies committed themselves to diversity. For a lot, this turned out to be lip service.
Ikimi Dubose-Woodson is the chief executive of the Roots Fund, a nonprofit whose mission is to help Black, Indigenous and other people of color gain access to the wine industry. She said that while a small group of companies has demonstrated sincere commitment, overall she has been disappointed in the follow-through.
“They’ve settled for 30-minute online training sessions, feeling that the problem has been solved,” she said in a telephone interview. “They aren’t willing to hire in a different way or look at the corporate culture they have had for a million years. They are more concerned with how much money and work is required.”
A major part of the Roots Fund initiative, Ms. Dubose-Woodson said, is to combine music and culture with wine to make people more engaged and comfortable with wine, as Mr. Stone has been doing.
One company that has been doing the work, she said, is Constellation Brands, one of the world’s biggest wine and spirits sellers, which has employed Mr. Stone to host companywide events with audiences of more than 1,000 people.
“We’ve worked with him to try to build a more diverse perspective, and to build empathy in our teams,” said Robert Hanson, Constellation’s executive vice president. “It’s hard to walk the talk and deliver the outcomes that were committed to by the industry without having your entire employee base committed.”
For Mr. Hanson and Constellation, that has meant putting people of color into positions of authority and investing money in Black, Hispanic and female entrepreneurs. Bukola Ekundayo, a Black woman, for example, is vice president and general manager of the Prisoner Wine Company, one of Constellation’s most popular brands, and Constellation has committed to financing two $100 million funds to support business ventures led by minorities and women.
For older generations of wine lovers, it’s an unusual thing to see or hear Mr. Stone trading Jay-Z lyrics with Ms. de Rothschild or Mr. Seysses. But it demonstrates, in vivid contrast to the wine industry, how hip-hop has been embraced globally. In the reach of its audience, at least, hip-hop might provide an aspirational model for wine.
“The wine world can seem very exclusive and old-school,” Ms. de Rothschild wrote in an email. “In most people’s eyes, it’s still very much seen as a white tablecloth product that belongs in a sacred world of sit-down dinners.”
With Mr. Stone, she said, Lafite hopes to cross its seemingly cloistered world with cultures like hip-hop and street food.
For his part, Mr. Seysses, of Dujac, says he has come to realize that wine cannot be divorced from politics.
“French wine was boycotted under the George W. Bush years, Trump included it in his tariffs, immigration policy has a huge impact on the U.S. wine-producing primary work force, climate change is directly affecting us,” he said by email. “The fight against racism and for more equality and more opportunity is part of it all. We wish to help build a truly sustainable society. This goes from the vineyards to the winery all the way through to the people working in the wine business and our consumers.”
It’s been a long journey for Mr. Stone, whose early childhood in the Bronx was impoverished. His father, a Jamaican immigrant, was an iron worker who, when he lost his job, started his own welding company.
“I watched him make something of himself, so I always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Stone said. “He taught me everything.”
Mr. Stone’s aim is to take the pretension out of wine and to place it in the context of Black culture.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times
In 2004, while attending Monroe College by night, the younger Mr. Stone began working in the Zachys warehouse by day. He quickly stood out for his energy and hard work.
Mr. Stone soon became a logistics coordinator with the wine auctions. Not only was it his first exposure to wine, he said, but it was also his first real exposure to white people. Part of his job was to stand next to the auctioneer to make sure all bids were acknowledged.
“It can feel so intimidating when you walk in that room — the wealth, the air, is different,” he said. “I had no white friends, I wasn’t around other cultures. Most people are going to assume how I am, but I didn’t get any of that. It taught me that everybody is an individual. People were so loving and welcoming. Nobody ever treated me as insignificant.”
Mr. Stone possesses a combination of self-confidence, self-awareness and empathy that permitted him to navigate unfamiliar worlds without feeling overly discouraged.
“My perception of racism is, there are different levels,” he said. “A lot of what people classify as classic racism is actually racial ignorance. If I’m in Hong Kong and don’t hand you my business card with two hands and bow my head, it might be considered disrespectful. You have to learn that. I’m going to find a way, if you look down on me, to level the playing field.”
He went out on his own in 2016, seeking flexibility to care for his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. In addition to consulting, he began the “Wine and Hip Hop” podcast in 2018.
“The phone started really ringing after George Floyd was murdered,” he recalled. “Making all cultures feel comfortable together, people understood I was already doing that.”
For Ms. Dubose-Woodson, the most important thing now is direct action.
“The biggest thing, I want to scream it from the mountaintops, we are spending too much time strategizing,” she said. “We don’t need to plan for 10 years, we just need to start.”
The work Mr. Stone is doing is a great example, she said, along with committed companies she cited, including Burgundy producers like Dujac, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Domaine Roulot, Maison Joseph Drouhin and Domaine de Montille, which she said were connecting to master’s level programs at historically Black colleges and universities.
“They’re giving people of color an all-access pass to what is the best of wine,” she said. “These domaines are educating, providing internships and trips to visit. They have been the places in wine that were unreachable.”
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.
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