Wine’s New Guard

Here is an excerpt from a great article in Wine Spectator featuring our very own Isaiah Fitzgerald-Palacio:

New generations bring change and growth. In wine and related industries, today’s group of young professionals is the most diverse ever. Supporting these individuals’ dreams are schools that educate students in wine, be it the science of winemaking, the complexities of the business end, or the dynamism of restaurants and hospitality.

Expanding diversity through education has enriched the wine landscape, and savvy industry groups are throwing their support behind scholarships and learning opportunities. In September, the nonprofit Napa Valley Vintners announced a $1 million investment in diversity and inclusion efforts through a new partnership with the United Negro College Fund that will create scholarships for people of color pursuing wine industry–focused degrees.

On the opposite coast, in June, T.J. and Hadley Douglas, co-owners of Boston-based Urban Grape wine and spirits shop, created an endowment for two full scholarships per year for students of color to attend Boston University’s certificate program in wine studies. Students also receive funding for internships, mentoring with Douglas and an immersive trip to Burgundy.

Schools that are paving the way for students in the wine industry include Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management; Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute; and the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis.

These schools are models for increasing diversity in student populations. FIU’s Chaplin School is a nationwide leader in conferring hospitality management bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic and Black students. At U.C., Davis, the Broadening Horizons program, founded in 2011, has focused on inclusive recruitment strategies.

“We went from less than 10% [Hispanic students] 10 years ago to as much as 28% Hispanic students in the past couple of years, which is great,” says Dave Block, chair of Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology. “But how to get more Black students and students of color into the wine industry in general is the active discussion right now.”

“We use the term ‘inclusive excellence’ on campus to refer to our efforts to serve talented students from minority backgrounds,” says Ray Johnson, executive director of Sonoma State’s Wine Business Institute. “SSU is also finalizing a partnership with the Napa Valley Vintners Foundation and the United Negro College Fund in which SSU will welcome Black students from across the country into wine business-focused career pathways.”

We talked to some recent grads about how education helped shape their careers and how they see the wine industry of tomorrow.

Isaiah Fitzgerald-Palacio

Fitzgerald-Palacio had never considered a career in wine until a cousin gifted him a bottle of Ram’s Gate Cabernet Sauvignon, which he opened that same evening. “The next day, I thought, ‘Wow! What did I drink last night?’ ” recalls Fitzgerald-Palacio, 32.

Born in Texas and raised in Atlanta, Fitzgerald-Palacio graduated from Kennesaw State University in 2010 with a bachelor’s of business administration in accounting. After college, he began a career at the National Parks Services (NPS). In 2015, he joined the African-American Employee Resource Group and worked with NPS management to better understand the needs of Black employees and visitors.

But the Ram’s Gate epiphany, followed in 2018 by the death of his uncle, a partner at a vineyard management firm in Napa, motived Fitzgerald-Palacio to pursue a career in the wine industry. Sonoma State University’s executive wine business MBA program helped set him on his new path. Here, he talks about his career goals and shares thoughts on the wine industry’s leadership potential.

Wine Spectator: What did the executive wine business MBA program at Sonoma State teach you?
It helped me to be more strategically minded. I think one of the great advantages of the program is that I now really understand how the wine industry works as a system, and I feel that really empowers me to be a part of some great changes.

In addition to that, the program is great in terms of self-management and leadership. It was a wonderful opportunity to network. My cohort-mates come from very diverse backgrounds as well, many of them in the wine industry. I got to work in groups alongside winemakers for 600,000-case wineries and people who work for distributorships. So that part was really amazing to get all of those perspectives in one program.

WS: What are your career goals?
I recently signed on with a local wine industry CPA firm. I’ll be starting as a senior accountant with the Allen Wine Group, which I’m really excited about. I’m excited to get very detailed into the accounting work behind it. But my ultimate goal is to build a wine business.

WS: What are your thoughts on diversity in the wine industry? What changes do you want to see?
I definitely see change on the horizon. It’s been exhilarating. But in terms of where I see my role now, having this MBA in wine business, is having more Black people occupying senior management and executive leadership positions in wine companies. Of course, there are tastemakers and connoisseurs and sommeliers, but in addition, going back to professional roles [such as] accountants, CFOs and CEOs, those kinds of roles are really important.

I’m very hopeful, not just about opening doors for myself, but opening those doors for myself in the hopes that they remain open for others.

WS: You have spoken a lot about diversity. What has that been like for you personally?
It’s been really exhilarating and, in some ways, overwhelming. It can be difficult to be vulnerable and to open up and to talk about particular issues, especially something that in this country is as closely held as race. For me, particularly being a professional, it’s not necessarily the way that I want people to immediately perceive me. How do I advocate for myself and other people in this position, while at the same time, how do I maximize people just seeing me as a very capable human being?

It’s also been scary. This is a pendulum, and I’ve seen this pendulum before. We all have. That’s kind of how history works. So, I think right now that while there is a flood of attention and concern, I’m a little scared about what happens when that wanes, and what that really means. I hope that a lot of the initiatives that are happening have plans for permanency.

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