Society diversity

‘We deserve to be celebrated this way’: How the Hue Society is rewriting the sommelier of color narrative

Tahiirah Habibi fell in love with wine while working in a hotel bar. Once she realized how passionate she was, she worked hard. She was a hostess during the day, but took wine lessons at night, studying diligently with the goal of becoming the first black female master sommelier. She honed her craft at the renowned Michael’s Genuine and the St. Regis Bal Harbor Resort.

Later, his goals shifted to creating inclusive spaces for people of color in the industry and to having lasting impacts that would change the wine landscape. Today, she is the Founder/CEO of The Hue Society, a committee member for the James Beard Awards, and has been featured in Wine Spectator, Vogue, Wine Enthusiast, Travel Noir, and more. But his goal of creating inclusive spaces around wine came from isolated personal experiences in the industry.

“Every time I looked around I was whitewashed,” she recalls.

As a black woman, Habibi has a unique outlook compared to the majority of white, male leaders in the wine industry. And after all his experience, including an excellent track record and the achievement Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 List of 2020, she understood that this whitewashing was not just a part of being a sommelier, but a symptom of deeper issues that had long been rooted in the wine industry as a whole.

Whitewashing, originally used to describe when white actors are cast in non-white roles, also describes the expectation of whiteness in “professional” atmospheres. For example, protective black hairstyles like locs, twists, or braids are mythologized as “unprofessional” in many schools or workplaces, and this drives people of color to change their looks and personalities in order to s equate to a predominantly white environment.

In order “even to reach a place of basic human respect,” Habibi says, she was expected to look and sound a certain way. She felt the pressure of having to transform into someone else, to erase parts of her identity in order to match what the wine industry wanted her to be.

“I wanted to create a space that people could call home and have some mental security,” says Habibi. In 2017, The Hue Company was born.

A new kind of wine festival

Hue Society Rose and Brunch Awards
Tahiirah Habibi with Richelieu Dennis, owner of Essence magazine

A community organization, The Hue Society focuses on providing Black, Brown and Indigenous consumers and brands with access to wine resources, education and experiences. The organization’s core values ​​include dismantling racism through joy, reinventing the winery space, creating equity, and providing wine of color lovers with the tools they need to succeed.

The Hue Society’s flagship event is the annual Wine & Culture Fest held in Atlanta. It’s a festival full of tastings, interactive educational sessions and social events that bring together industry veterans and wine newcomers alike. This year, the festival will take place August 11-14, creating a space where attendees are encouraged to be themselves and navigate the wine industry in a new way – without the effort of code-switching. or compliance anxiety. in a predominantly white environment.

The end of the festival is celebrated with the Roses and Rosé Awards brunch, which honors various pioneers in the wine industry. According to Habibi, the awards brunch is always emotional: “Everyone cries every time, we deserve to be celebrated this way by our peers,” she says.

Last year’s event honored director and wine consultant Tonya Pitts, winemaker Iris Rideau and Brown Estate, the first and only black-owned winery in Napa Valley. Years Ago honored sommelier André Hueston Mack, Vision Cellars owners Mac and Lil McDonald, the McBride sisters, and more. By edifying members of the wine industry who have been largely overlooked, the Hue Society is helping to set a precedent for the industry as a whole.

This is what makes the event so important. Often, it is not enough for an industry to simply be “diversified” for the sake of diversity. These views deserve to be celebrated and honored, especially when Black, Brown and Indigenous sommeliers and brands are still excluded from wine prices.

“Yes, it’s black-centric and focused on cultural perspectives, but the support is always diverse, and sometimes non-blacks win prizes too,” Habibi says. “I think it just reimagines what the wine space, especially these awards, could or should look like.”

The event is one of Habibi’s all-time favorites. This year, the menu offers soul brunch food and rosé pairings in a family and fluid dining experience. According to Habibi, there are also surprise wines to show. And if rosé is the star of brunch, flowers are just as important.

The meaning of the rose

Hue Society Rose and Brunch Awards

“Roses et Rosé” flowed well as a name, says Habibi, but roses have meaning beyond their beauty.

“In our culture, there are a lot of references to a rose growing in concrete,” says Habibi, “or to Aretha Franklin’s famous song ‘A Rose is Still a Rose.’ giving people their flowers while they’re there to enjoy them.Last year’s Wine & Culture Fest came after a difficult year of quarantine and civil unrest, but the community has come together once again. People came from all over the country. “I was amazed by that,” Habibi says. “And so grateful.”

“Last year we really honed our community legends,” Habibi continues. “I’ve seen through these awards how many other people in our community, especially the legends we’ve honored, have gained additional recognition in other places. I think he’s done his job.”

Recognizing these pioneers and uplifting members of the wine community, The Hue Society’s way of not only fulfilling Habibi’s dream of driving lasting change in the industry, but changing the way people view wine as a pastime -time and a career. And when you work hard to change an industry for the better, you have to play hard too. The Awards Brunch is a time of celebration and joy that recognizes the hard work and progress made by the community.

On what the future of the wine industry looks like for her, Habibi says, “Honestly, I see the future becoming more driven by black women. I see us stepping into that space and owning it, and I love that. I think it’s beautiful and I can’t wait to see what it brings.

This article is sponsored by The Hue Company.