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How the Urban Grape Wine Studies Award is Poised to be a Groundbreaking Model

When TJ and Hadley Douglas, owners of Boston wine shop The Urban Grape, announced The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color on June 22, the wine industry was instantly abuzz. Not only was the three-pronged program incredibly robust, combining education, work experience, and mentorship, but it launched right as the industry was reckoning with its diversity inequities — seemingly coming to fruition overnight.

In fact, the UG Wine Studies Award has been in the works for years. The duo first approached Boston University (BU) about creating a program with the school’s Certificate in Wine Studies in the spring of 2019, and their hospitality and distribution internship partners were lined up last summer. “When the moment for this came,” says Hadley, “when we saw the opening, we were able to leap through it with such confidence.”

Now, the Douglases’ dream is finally becoming a reality. On September 2, they announced that not one, but two women would be the inaugural recipients of the UG Wine Studies Award for Students of Color: Suhayl Ramirez and Amanda Best. Each will receive an education through all four levels of BU’s Certificate Program in Wine Studies, four-month paid internships at The Urban Grape, M.S. Walker, and Big Heart Hospitality, mentorship from TJ, and an immersive wine travel experience. By investing the time, money, and research to create a comprehensive award program offering real results, TJ and Hadley are making long-term investments to give people of color access to wine industry careers.

A Multifaceted Approach

Working to create more equity in the wine industry has been a goal of The Urban Grape’s

since its founding 10 years ago, but TJ and Hadley wanted to establish their reputation and voice in the Boston wine community. The genesis of the UG Wine Studies Award really came when TJ was trying to hire a diverse staff for The Urban Grape four or five years ago.

“When we were getting applications for employment at the store, it would only be white people for sales and management positions, and brown and Black people for delivery jobs or for ‘stock boy’ positions (which is not a position here, nor would we call it that),” he says. “It made me feel really bad about the inequity in our industry, as well as the fact that Black candidates thought the only position for them would be as a delivery driver or stockboy.”

Besides creating a more diverse pool of talent to hire from (“selfishly,” TJ laughs), bringing more people into the industry will create more innovation in wine businesses and practices. “There are a lot of things that The Urban Grape has done first,” he says, “and I’m excited to give access to new people in the industry because they will come up with things we’ve never come up with before.”

Education was an important foundation of the award, so TJ and Hadley approached BU nearly two years ago. It was important to center the award in their home city, and TJ had studied through the program years ago. “It’s a user-friendly, real-world wine course,” he says. BU is also responsible for managing the award fund and selecting each year’s recipients.

But The Urban Grape was determined to do more than just hand over a scholarship check to the award winners. Offering real industry experience and mentorship is essential in order to provide recipients with the tools to build a lasting career in wine.

“My education has been some formal education, but mostly experiential education,” says TJ, who worked in restaurants and distribution before starting The Urban Grape. “When you’re thinking about getting into the wine industry, it’s not enough to learn about wine sitting at a desk.” Wine students may learn about the differences between Right Bank and Left Bank Bordeaux, but they likely won’t learn how to manage retail inventory, develop account relationships, or write a beverage program.

“I really hope to connect the dots between some of the ‘magic’ of wine and the real business skills required to make different sides of the industry run,” says Ramirez.

By exposing recipients to several different aspects of the industry, TJ also hopes that they will be able to decide which part of the industry is right for them. “We want these students to come out of here not looking for a job, but launching a career of their choice,” he says.

The opportunity to be immersed in fields from distribution to restaurants will also help recipients get a more holistic view of the industry. “I think no matter what industry you go into, it’s important to know different aspects [of it],” says Best. “It really gives you a respect and appreciation of the product or service.”

The award’s internship partners, M.S. Walker and Big Heart Hospitality came from the duo’s long-term relationships with both businesses. Partnering with M.S. Walker allows award recipients to get a wide range of experience at a large distributor, but the company is still family-owned. To give award winners a taste of the front-of-house hospitality industry, Big Heart Hospitality’s Tiffani Faison was the perfect fit. “There’s a reason why her company is Big Heart,” says Hadley. “She has such a big heart and is passionate about social justice.”

Both Best and Ramirez have different goals for their UG Wine Studies Award experiences, but they share a common mission: To act as role models and create pathways for other people of color who want to build careers in wine. Best, who has worked in wine retail, plans to build a foundation of knowledge through study while learning about parts of the industry she is unfamiliar with, like distribution and retail.

She dreams of opening a wine bar or vineyard that would offer opportunities for people of color to learn about wine firsthand. “It’s hard as a Black woman to be seen in this industry and to be taken seriously in a space that is so white,” says Best. “This award will give me the opportunity to be seen, to learn from the best, and to show other Black and brown folks, look — you can do it too.”

For Ramirez, the UG Wine Studies Award offers the opportunity to pivot into the industry after years of being a wine enthusiast and regular at The Urban Grape. Formerly the field marketing manager at Manifest Boston, which shuttered due to Covid-19, she hopes to make wine more accessible to Black and brown consumers through marketing, messaging, and availability.

“I believe showing the industry that a Black Dominican American Queer woman who can speak with authority in the room when decisions are being made is incredibly powerful,” says Ramirez, “and that representation will make it easier for other Black and brown people to see themselves in this industry.”

This is part of the reason why Ramirez and Best were selected as the award’s inaugural recipients; throughout their program year, they are tasked with giving feedback and helping The Urban Grape fine-tune the award for future recipients. “This program is the test case,” says Hadley. “It is the foundation from which we plan to build all the rest of the work we do.” The recipients will keep video and written diaries throughout the program, and Diversity in Wine and Spirits will study and quantify the program.

After all, this is just the start of big plans for The Urban Grape. The BU program, which Hadley and TJ call “phase one,” is close to its $200,000 funding goal, an endowment that will send two recipients through the program in perpetuity.

Phase two, which will likely launch next year, will involve starting a 501c3, bringing similar awards to other college wine studies programs nationwide, and ideally, helping historically Black colleges and universities launch wine programs of their own. This is part of the reason why the results of this first year are so important; they will allow the team to take best practices and proof of concept to larger liquor businesses for support.

“We want to say, ‘we took a year to prove our concept, and now is the time for you to invest on a national level,’” says Hadley. “That slow and steady — and yet also impactful — way of working this program is what most people have noticed and appreciated.” Just like the launch of the award, the duo is taking their time to build a solid foundation that will last for decades to come.

Ultimately, the UG Wine Studies Award doesn’t just benefit the recipients themselves; its effect reverberates as the recipients then work to pave the way for more people of color to have wine careers. “I feel like we’re providing access to the next generation of people like me who can come in and pay it forward for the next generation,” says TJ.

This is part of what Best is most excited about as a recipient. “My goal is to ultimately make this industry accessible to people of color,” she says. “This opportunity is not for me to just harbor.”

Ramirez agrees, noting that it’s an excellent opportunity to make wine accessible to more diverse consumers. “It's such an amazing opportunity to be highly visible and use my voice in a whole new way to educate and demystify the world of wine from the inside out,” she says.

From a carefully-planned foundation that combines immersive industry experience with education and mentorship, the opportunities to study and use the UG Wine Studies Award as a model for other equity initiatives are huge. “This award is groundbreaking,” says Best. “There is so much work to be done and I’m honored to be chosen to put in the work. I know the future of this award is so bright.”

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