Bed-Stuy resident and sommelier Michele J. Thomas is decolonizing the wine industry. Photo: Aundre Larrow.
Bed-Stuy resident and sommelier Michele J. Thomas is decolonizing the wine industry. Photo: Aundre Larrow.

Cheers to inclusivity in the wine industry.

The Fulton Street Fellowship, a new program for aspiring Black sommeliers, is currently accepting applications for their first cohort.

This fellowship is the brainchild of three Clinton Hill wine professionals who want to diversify the wine world and knock down the socioeconomic barriers that often come with the industry. To that end, the free program will sponsor four fellows for a full scholarship at the Institute for Culinary Education to study wine.

In addition to the scholarship, the program includes an educational trip to Europe (pandemic-permitting), sommelier certification and access to a ‘living roladex’ of wine professionals so that fellows can professionally thrive once the program ends.

“Professional contacts provide guidance, opportunities and exposure that can minimize systemic discrimination too often experienced by Black people in wine,” the website reads.

(Left to Right): Chris Leon, Lauren Gumbs, Michele J. Thomas, and Cristina Leon.

Chris and Cristina Leon, the founders of the Fulton Street Fellowship, own Leon and Son Wine shop on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill, where they met their collaborator Michele J. Thomas, the general manager of Greene Grape Wine & Spirits on the same street.

“Last year, when the pandemic was at its peak, systemic racism was really exposed, [Leon] and I really wanted to do something about it,” Thomas said. “We want to make a real difference in people’s lives and transform this industry that we both love.”

Currently, the wine industry is overwhelmingly white. According to an Eater survey published in 2019, amongst NYC’s 170 Wine Spectator award-winning restaurants, 88% of the operating wine programs and buyers self-identify as white; 1% self-identify as Black.

According to the same survey, among NYC’s 76 Michelin-starred restaurants, the percentage of Black wine program leaders and buyers falls to zero.

These industry leaders affect more than just wine — they define trends, drive nationwide demand and prices and influence hiring decisions in the industry, and impact winemakers, suppliers, wholesalers and retailers.

Michele J. Thomas. Photo: Aundre Larrow.

Thomas, a certified sommelier, said that more diversity in her industry’s prestigious leadership roles would mean less gatekeeping and more variety in palate as well.

“For too many years I’ve been the only Black person at a wine event,” Thomas said. “You go to a tasting and the wines you’re tasting are eurocentric, the hiring is eurocentric, and that doesn’t even take into account the eurocentric types of food. This needs to change.”

Fulton Street Fellowship will accept five fellows during its first year of operation. Thomas said the team was fundraising to make sure following years could accommodate larger cohorts.

To apply, a candidate needs self-identify as Black, be 21 or older, have a high school or equivalent degree and provide a personal statement and two letters of recommendation. Applications are open until October 31, 2021.

“By diversifying the industry, you have the opportunity to bring wine to everybody, to every price point, to every cultural experience and to connect it back to agriculture at the same time,” Thomas said.

“It will just be better.”

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Miranda Levingston

Covering everything Brooklyn. Twitter: @MLevNews

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