During the Women Winemaker’s Brunch in March, I had the pleasure of meeting an amazing woman in wine: Justin Trabue.
I think we would have found each other sooner, except for a mutual shyness that kept us from seeking out new people (more on this later).
Nevertheless, her beaming smile at the brunch attracted me on sight, and I spent the days following the event finding her on social media, admiring her videos of Disneyland, her pet rats, and her love of Lord of the Rings, and generally wondering how I could reach out to her for a photoshoot in a non-creepy way.
In short, I wanted to be her friend.
You see, before Craft & Cluster was an official photography and social media consulting business, I used my Instagram largely as a place to share the stories of women winemakers.
This was in an effort to bring recognition to women in wine and give them a slightly larger platform. If I could introduce one new person to these women, I felt I did my job.
It was always my intention to reach out to and feature more Black Women, Indigenous Women, and Women of Color on my feed, but as we all know, intention is not the same as action.
Then the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests spurred Justin into action; she was not about to wait for me to get my act together, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
She sent me a DM: “Hey what’s your email? I have an email going out that you should read."
The email in question was an open letter to the wine industry, crafted by her and Simonne Mitchelson, presenting some alarming statistics about diversity in the wine industry:
"Out of 3,700+ wineries in the state of California, only 4% are female-owned. We could not find what percent of that 4% are Black/People of Color (POC) females, but we presume it would be an upsetting fraction of that fraction." -Justin & Simonne
I have always known that representation of women in the wine industry was minuscule but I had never considered that the representation of BIPOC women would be so small that statistics couldn't even be found.
This needs to change.
After reading through the letter, I did the thing that I should have done months ago and asked Justin if she would be willing to be featured in a Women in Wine Wednesday post. She kindly and enthusiastically accepted.
Here is our interview
Where are you from?
I think I said it best in the Belonging Series hosted by RACE Matters SLO. “I am a fourth-generation native of Washington, D.C, but my origin story can be traced back to a single glass of wine. When JUSTIN Winery first planted cabernet sauvignon grapes in the Adelaida District of Paso Robles in 1981, Paso Robles wasn’t on any wine lovers’ map, and my parents hadn’t even met. JUSTIN Winery thrived, my parents fell in love and in 1994 they took a romantic trip through central coast wine country. Their adventure ultimately led them to JUSTIN Winery. They must have had fun because about nine months later I was born, and they named me after that enchanted place.
What was your first job within the wine industry?
My first job was in 2016 after I turned 21. This was shortly after returning from a program abroad in Adelaide, Australia. I had the opportunity to explore the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, and Mclaren Vale. When I came back I started in the tasting room at Tablas Creek as an associate. Tablas Creek is such a forward thinking winery with so many many beautiful wines. I couldn’t imagine a better place to start in this industry. Shortly after that I found my passion for winemaking at Lumen Wines, finding an incredible mentor in the LEGENDARY Lane Tanner. Lane is a powerhouse, I started with her as a harvest intern in 2016 after finding her through Cal Poly’s Wine & Viticulture Program.
And what do you do now?
I am currently Lane’s Assistant Winemaker. Find me in the cellar or checking the vineyards. My favourite part of harvest is tasting the grapes throughout the weeks as they ripen, as well as receiving the fruit. We are a small boutique winery making around 2000 cases annually, specializing in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and Chardonnay! This year we released two orange wines that I recommend getting your hands on!
What drew you to the wine industry?
During my dad’s Dartmouth College days, he was the president of their Wine & Cheese Club. Growing up my parents always taught me the importance of great wines and spectacular food. One of my favourite things he told me growing up was, “In good times and bad times, there is always wine. Have a great day have a glass, have a bad day, enjoy that bottle.”
I grew up smelling its aromas and learning about the thousands of varieties of wine grapes in the world. I was a 12 year-old Black girl who could tell you the difference between nutty, creamy, silky and crisp. My parents taught me the secrets of pairing good food and fine wine, and took me out to savor amazing dishes in restaurants all over DC. When I was in college my parents introduced me to a Black sommelier based out of DC, my mind was blown. To see someone who looked like me working in an industry I loved, I was hooked. I decided to come to California in 2013 to study Wine & Viticulture at Cal Poly SLO. From Australia, to New Zealand, to Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara; wine has always been my driving force.
What challenges have you faced as a young Black woman in the wine industry?
I face daily microaggressions, assumptions, doubt, and superiority complexes. My voice matters, my opinions matter, so take the time to listen. Working in both the tasting room and the cellar, I will have customers, colleagues, etc doubt my ability and knowledge of this industry based on both my color and my age. In addition to doubting my knowledge, people often underestimate my strength. Too often will I offer to carry cases out for people and they do not think I can. I love to lift things; barrel work is my favourite, I like to get down and dirty. I love what I do, I just sometimes wish I didn’t have to tell every single credential I have in order to be respected.
Some of the most common microaggressions that I face include being told I am too loud, people touching my hair, people not believing my background and experiences, and ascription of intelligence (Eric Angelo Morrison-Smith), which is assuming, based off of my color, my level of intelligence. Shenequa Golding explains this perfectly in her article Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is....A Lot. She discusses Blackness and professionalism, how “young Black professionals who are recruited for their culture, but told, in so many words, that their Blackness and the struggles that come with it are to be left at the door. Your Black employees are putting on a performance. We’re biting our tongues, swallowing our rage and fighting back tears to remain professional because expressing that hurt caused by witnessing Black death is considered more unprofessional, than Black men and women actually being killed.”
There are so many things I can say, but Shenequa’s words hit home.
What advice would you give to your younger self or to anyone looking to enter the wine industry?
I am a people pleaser, always have been, always will be. I love to make other people smile, I love to see their faces light up. That sometimes will make me stretch myself thin. My biggest advice to my younger self is not to silence your own voice to make others more comfortable. Too often, starting out in this industry I let myself be taken advantage of, underpaid, overworked, or not paid at all. I remember this one event I helped put together a few years ago. I hired 20 volunteers for a weekend wine event and was not paid a fair wage after going above and beyond what was expected of me. I was shocked, I was hurt, but I told myself never again would I let that happen. I know my value. I am actively working on not making myself smaller to please others.
What wine is intriguing you right now and why?
Pinot Noir is my first love, I have Lane to thank for that. Pinot Noir is delicate and luscious, my favourite clone being Pommard 4. She’s funky and lively, I could sip on it all day. I’ve been obsessing over Albarino and Mourvedre since I can remember, which is why I named my pet rats after them. My girls' nicknames are Alby and Mouri.
How can we support you?
In regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, if you want to educate yourself be willing to put in the hard work. Be ready for uncomfortability, be prepared to make mistakes, and to learn from them. We want to have real conversations on inequality and exclusion in the wine industry, as well as show the spaces where Black people can find community.
If you’re in Santa Barbara county come to Lumen’s tasting room at Pico in Los Alamos and let’s chat. I love to meet new people, talk movies and enjoy some delicious food from Pico. Let's talk about horror, musicals, and film scores. Our tasting room is connected to Pico, Los Alamos which is owned by my bosses, Will Henry & Kali Kopley.
I want to leave you all with a final thought, gleaned from getting to know Justin:
There is no room for shyness if important connections are to be made.
Had I taken the time to research and find her, Justin and I would have connected so much sooner. She says it best in her interview with Courtney Haile for the RACE Matters SLO Belonging series:
"All the people I would have known if I had just reached out and gone to the [events you were putting on]! But I shelled up...