Rising Black Voices in Wine: Sommeliers - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Rising Black Voices in Wine: Sommeliers

illustrations by Matt Williams

This is part of Rising Black Voices in Wine, a feature from our October 2020 issue. More information on the project can be found here.

We present here a small slice of the burgeoning Black wine community, broken into two groups. You’ll find Trailblazers, those who have firmly established themselves in the wine community and are now mentors to the next generation. You’ll also find that next wave, the Rising Black Voices in Wine, those whose impact is starting to resonate across our whole industry, to the benefit of all.

Photo by Focus n Color Visuals

Tahiirah Habibi

As the president of the Pan-Hellenic Council at Penn State, and the Homecoming Queen her senior year, Tahiirah Habibi spent a lot of time with the school administration. “I was curious about wine because I saw the power that surrounded it. I didn’t want to be embarrassed and I didn’t want to embarrass my culture,” she says, which is why she set out to build her wine skills spending time in Europe and as a sommelier in Miami. Habibi founded the Hue Society in 2017 and the annual Black Wine Experience in New Orleans in 2018. This year, she founded the Roots Fund with Carlton McCoy, MS, and Ikimi Dubose, building pathways for new Black wine professionals. —Joshua Greene

Photo by Hannah Harrington

Zwann Grays

Back in 2006, Zwann Grays reached out to this magazine about a job. She’d been on the celebrity beat at People magazine and wanted to move into wine—taking the American Sommelier society’s viti/vini class and working at Harlem Vintage. Soon she was interning with Wine & Spirits and working the floor at Bouley. Now, at Olmsted in Brooklyn, she’s drawn a following for her sustainably focused wine list as well as her warm, laid-back attitude, making Grays a go-to for other Black women getting into wine. “I can hear Zwann talk about wine forever,” says Bianca Sanon of Boia De in Miami. “She makes it fun and relatable and inviting.” —Tara Q. Thomas

Photo by Hardy Wilson

Tonya Pitts

Headed from St. Louis to San Francisco to attend arts school, Tonya Pitts landed a job at Bizou, a restaurant south of Market. Two years later, in 1995, she was helping with the wine program. She built her career at Kimpton Hotels, as the wine director for Helios, then later at Mistral before joining the team at One Market, where she has guided one of San Francisco’s top wine lists for the last 12 years. “Thank goodness for social media,” Pitts says. “Now Black wine professionals have a platform to find one another. And it’s not just young Black wine professionals, it’s most wine professionals. There are some powerful diversity and inclusion initiatives coming together. We all know we have to work together to make a change.” —J.G.


Etinosa Emokpae

Wine Director, Friday Saturday Sunday, Philadelphia, PA

“She’s magnificent,” said Jerri Banks at Jansen in Philadelphia. “You could tell by the way she spoke—so much knowledge and fascination for wine.” Banks was talking about Etinosa Emokpae, whom she met at a Champagne tasting before COVID-19 shut down the city. (“We do always end up coming together,” Banks quipped about Black people at wine tastings.)

Banks’s reaction was no surprise to us—before Emokpae decamped for Philadelphia, she was living in NYC, running the panel tastings at Wine & Spirits with spectacular efficiency and grace, then heading off to work at Lafayette. She’d been in the industry only a short time, having started at Shake Shack before moving on to Untitled and Maialino, two of Union Square Hospitality’s more wine-focused restaurants. “At the time, I really only knew of two Black people in wine, Lee Campbell and DLynn Proctor,” Empokae recalls. “Lee, in particular, was inspiring to me—she was an incredible voice in the natural wine world. Listening to her on Levi Dalton’s “I’ll Drink to That,” I started to believe that there was a place for Black women in wine.” That place is at the top: She just recently stepped into the role of wine director at Friday Saturday Sunday. —T.Q.T.


Bianca Sanon

GM & Sommelier, Boia De, Miami, FL

Bianca Sanon got into wine during her seven years in NYC, having worked the floor at Dirty French and then at Semilla, which had a list focused on natural wines. At one time, facing microaggressions at work, Sanon Googled “black women in natural wine” and connected with sommelier Lee Campbell, then known for her natural-wine list at Reynard in Brooklyn, and for co-organizing The Big Glou, NYC’s first natural wine fair. “She was the whisper behind my back when it was easy to second-guess myself,” Sanon says.

Not long after, Sanon left NYC to tour France’s countryside and, in December 2017, returned to her home state of Florida. She spent the next year situating herself in Miami’s wine scene—until January 2019, when she was hired to build the wine program at Boia De. It’s caused some waves, as it’s focused on natural wines. “I want to show people in Miami what casual fine dining with natural wine can look like,” says Sanon. “[Bianca] felt that [Miami] needed more of a wine presence,” says Oakland-based sommelier Jirka Jireh, who met Sanon at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels when they both lived in NYC. “She’s now a mentor, educator and leader in the city she loves.” —Sydney Love

Research on our Rising Black Voices in Wine was directed by Sydney Love and Susannah Smith, who contributed reporting along with Patrick J. Comiskey, Joshua Greene, Stephanie Johnson, Tara Q. Thomas and Corey Warren. Click here for the full list of those who contributed their experiences to this project.

This story appears in the print issue of October 2020.
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