Have you ever met someone and felt immediately comfortable with them?
That's how I felt the first time I met Simonne Mitchelson at the Women Winemaker's Brunch in March. We had been following each other on social media for some time (millennials, amiright?), so I suppose it wasn't SO surprising that we would hit it off when we met in person, but it was still wonderful nevertheless!
Much like my burgeoning friendship with Justin Trabue, Simonne and I had a mutual shyness that kept us from connecting sooner. But all that shyness went out the window when Simonne and Justin co-wrote an open letter to the wine industry calling for more diversity and representation in what is a predominantly white, male industry.
Simonne graciously agreed to a photosession and interview where I became (even more) infatuated with her!
here is our interview
Where are you from?
I can never answer that question simply. I’m a bit all over the place.
I was born in Durban, South Africa. The city where my father was born and raised, while my mother’s side is from Cape Town, South Africa. I feel the most connection to that city.
My mother was given an opportunity to work as a Physical Therapist in the United States, so my parents packed up their lives (including me and my older sister) and moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan - later settling in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was raised.
When I was 17, 9 days after I graduated high school, my dad put me on a plane to New Zealand. Six years there consisted of studying at the local university (which was short lived), traveling around both islands, general early 20s debauchery, as well as my introduction to the world of wine and hospitality.
I left NZ in 2016 and moved to northern California to work harvest for Poseidon and Obsidian Ridge, and then Flowers Winery. I have been in California ever since (minus a near 5 month stint in Tasmania).
What was your first job within the wine industry?
My first harvest was with a small winery on Waiheke Island (40 minutes ferry from Auckland, NZ), called Stonyridge. The GM was a regular at the restaurant where I was a host/server. Long story short, I told him that I would work for free in exchange for the experience. I knew the brand because we sold it’s iconic wine, Stonyridge Larose, at the restaurant where I worked and the owner, Steve White, would dine with us frequently.
I truly loved that vineyard/winery. The winemaker, Martin Pickering, and assistant winemaker, Bryan Deleu, had a rapport that I immediately felt comfortable with and fell into. Which really means, we talked a lot of shit. Talking Heads, tennis, and how they couldn’t believe they allowed a palateless American to help with harvest. They were incredibly down-to-earth and created a non-intimidating environment, allowing me to be myself and ask as many questions as I wanted. I can’t deny I was one of the common folk who thought the winemaking process would be much more glamorous, but that initial harvest piqued my hunger to learn more and it was the best intro to the cellar I could have asked for.
And what do you do now?
I have just accepted a position managing a new cider house in Los Olivos, but I still have my finger in the wine pie. That’s a saying right? I’m also working on a couple new projects that I am SUPER excited and passionate about. More details to come soon!
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE WINE INDUSTRY?
Working in restaurants is really how I got started. I was 18 when I was hired as a hostess for a high end restaurant in Auckland. I knew absolutely NOTHING about wine or food service as my parents never drank and we rarely went out to dinner. When we did, it was the occasional Perkins or Olive Garden. Your average Midwestern family stuff.
I loved the fast paced nature of the industry. When I was hired, the Rugby World Cup was about to take place in Auckland and the city was buzzing. We were packed everyday and every night. The atmosphere was pretty intoxicating (no pun) but what I found really fascinating was the drinking culture and more specifically, wine.
The wine list we had was incredible. I had no idea there were so many different varietals, and how many countries made this, that, and the other, how to pair wines on fat vs acid, the list goes on. It blew my mind!
Winemakers and distributors from around New Zealand and Australia sat down with our team to talk us through their lineups as well as distributors with their portfolios. The winemakers themselves were usually a bit eccentric with a really capturing way of describing their wines….like they actually fuckin loved what they did, which made their products even more endearing.
I wanted to sell their wine because of them and fell in love with their wines because of their story. It made you feel connected to a bottle and like you wanted to share the experience you had with someone else so they could feel why that wine was so special as well.
I had a couple great mentors who pushed me to learn more about wine service and of course the wines themselves. I eventually asked to assist with matching wines to our degustation menu for “Chef’s Table” and our executive chef, as well as my favorite distributor, saw my enthusiasm and told me to consider a harvest.
What challenges have you faced as a young Black woman in the wine industry?
To be honest, the same challenges I've faced in my everyday life. Ignorant comments, my intelligence being questioned, microaggressions. WHITE MALE EGOS.
I had a Black couple come into the old winery I worked for and instantly say “whoa, a unicorn!” As I’m sure you can assume, because people of color in this area and this industry are few and far between. For that reason alone I always feel that I have to refrain from being inflammatory, that I represent a lot more than myself being a young black woman working in wine.
[But] in the hospitality sphere in general? There are too many stories to recount.
After being harassed by a manager because of my skin and hair, I finally had enough and brought it up with our superior who said “you should be in hysterics with the amount of Black jokes made about you”.
I have had a hard time feeling like work was a safe space. I remember starting a job here in the Central Coast and being introduced to a colleague’s son. I said hello and he responded, “what’s up Shaniqua?” Beautiful name, not my name. And thanks for the stereotype.
What advice would you give to your younger self or to anyone looking to enter the wine industry?
To my younger self, you are never going to please everyone nor is everyone going to like you. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not purely for the sake of being accepted. Being honest with yourself and standing up for yourself is difficult and terrifying and I can’t tell you the fear is ever going to subside, but the pride you’ll feel in yourself will be worth it.
To anyone looking to enter the wine industry? Take the leap. This industry allows you to connect with people from all over the world which is what made it so incredible for me in the first place.
And, What advice/Suggestions would you give to wineries on making their work environment more welcoming & safe for women, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color?
First and foremost. LISTEN TO THE BIPOC/WOMEN that work with you. If they have a suggestion, show them that their voice matters in your organization. If they have a complaint or a grievance, take it seriously and know that it was not easy for them to address it as it is all too regular in this industry for our voices to be ignored or overlooked. Trust that there is validity and investigate the matter.
Secondly, the people who work for you are doing YOU a service. Your business profits off the efforts of your employees. As the great Lauryn Hill once said, “respect is just a minimum”. Show your team that they are appreciated and recognize what they do for the business.
Thirdly, keep an incident book. If an issue arises in the winery, tasting room, event, etc, have the staff member who was affected take note of it if they feel comfortable doing so. If the incident is not isolated, TAKE ACTION. BIPOC/Women are more likely to be targeted for harassment and assault in the wine and hospitality industries. Too often do those incidences go unreported due to toxic work culture and employers treating their staff as disposable. Make the work environment a safe space.
What wine is intriguing you right now and why?
I’ve been researching more and more about natural wines. Bodega in Los Alamos has been a great resource. They had a Furmint from Hungary that I found really interesting! I love high acid white wines. Huuuuge shock from someone in the industry, I know. I’m trying to explore more cool/cold climate white varieties both common and obscure so the Furmint was a great find, Rieslings are always one of my favorites, Kerner, Gruner Veltliner, Frontenac Gris (shoutout Michigan wineries who introduced me). The research is endless, but I can’t say I’m not enjoying it!
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE FOOD PAIRING TO DATE?
The first food pairing that I received recognition for from my professional hospitality peers, was a Gewurtztraminer from Marlborough with a roast beetroot and goats cheese salad. I personally am not a big Marlborough Sav fan, but there are really beautiful smaller white varietals coming out of that region that don’t receive as much praise.
My personal favorite is either Sancerre and fresh oysters, or maybe a Verdelho with South African chicken curry. Two of my favorite foods!
If you could make any wine, what would you make?
So actually! My boyfriend and I are making our first wine this year. We both love cool climate Syrah...savory, tapenade, dark fruit, acidity, lean and feminine…We’re sourcing near Lopez Lake and we’ve been doing all the vineyard maintenance ourselves (with a little help from our friends); pruning, suckering, thinning, etc
I would LOVE to go to Austria and make a Gruner or Riesling. Those are my FAVORITE white wine varietals. I am super intrigued by Traminer, the parent of Gruner Veltliner, which is being grown in my home state of Michigan AND Austria. I think it would be cool to make a wine in each place that has been significant in my life. South Africa, Michigan, California, NZ, and then hopefully Austria.
How can we support you/best way to stay connected with you? (following you, do you have any special things you want the audience to know about, etc)
The best way to support me is to keep the momentum of this movement. We haven’t seen action of this magnitude in our lifetime so we can’t allow it to ebb now! Keep donating, keep conversations alive, keep taking action! The steps we take now allow for a more inclusive, diverse, intersectional future.
If you’re interested in my story specifically? I am most active on Instagram. I generally just share music that I love or articles that I find intriguing specifically now with a focus on highlighting BIPOC in our industry and the overall genre of hospitality...and the occasional shittywinememe.
Keep an eye on me though! 2020 has been a year of introspection and trialing to say the least, but there are a couple projects in the pipeline that focus on the sustainability of the current moment and I am so eager to share with you. Stay tuned!
I am grateful to have simonne in my life.
Her energy, drive, and perspective are all infectious. I felt like I could flip a car after our session together!
She has some amazing things in the works, so stay tuned for more information on how you can support Simonne and women & BIPOC like her!
If you'd like to learn more about Simonne, visit her Instagram page by clicking here and also, check out the impromptu conversation with her on a past Instagram LIVE all about why and how to share your company values on social media!
View this post on Instagram
Today I'd like to encourage you to make sharing your company's values on social media a part of your regular content. I will argue that one of the reasons some wineries are getting pushback when they make statements in support of Black Lives Matter and diversity in the wine industry, is because they rarely (if ever) share their values publicly. We are joined halfway through by @simonneandsoforth who shares her wisdom on how to make your company culture more diverse, inclusive, and safe, as well as how sharing your values on social media can literally bring in more business for you. The time is now, friends.