Is This Even Wine?

If you were to survey wine lists across the United States, you’d see a lot of sameness. For decades, wines from France, Spain, Italy and the Global North in general have been considered the “default.” But that reality ignores the fact that wine can, and does, come from all over the globe, and that fermentation goes far beyond grapes.

Over the past few years, pockets of the wine industry have been examining its accessibility problem. The conversation has largely centered on who is in leadership roles, who has access to mentorship and whose contributions to the industry have gone overlooked. But it’s not only a matter of these roles within the industry: The call for accountability has considered what’s inside the bottles, too. 

At the forefront of the movement is Jahdé Marley, a New York–based wine and spirits professional and community activist. In 2021, she founded Anything But Vinifera, whose inaugural summit was held in Brooklyn that year. There, more than 200 wine professionals from across the industry gathered to drink and discuss hybrids, native grapes, rice wine and regional fruit ferments. To be clear, ABV is not a movement against Vitis vinifera, the European grape species brought by missionaries who colonized the Americas. The driving force, instead, is the acknowledgment that the beverage world was built on empowering white settlers and colonizers to profit off of a “luxury” product—despite that product having been nurtured, harvested and produced on stolen land, by stolen people, and now reliant on immigrant labor. “If you think about it, the best European producers grow, harvest and produce what traditionally grows [locally] in abundance with minimal inputs in their soils,” says Marley, citing Piedmont’s nebbiolo and Burgundy’s pinot noir. “In Georgia, it’s muscadine; in Maine, it’s blueberries.” With that understanding, the ABV movement is expanding the definition of wine.

At the second summit, held in Miami earlier this year, Kathline Chery, founder of Vermont’s Kalchē Wine Co., whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti, shared a homemade Florida Water. The offering was personal, not just because it was made of ingredients local to Chery, such as Vermont cider and maple sap infused with herbs and spruce tips, but also because, historically, Florida Water is a literal libation, a part of sacred rituals. It had long accompanied ancestral traditions involving rhythmic drumming practiced by Igbo and Yoruba people from Nigeria, a ritual that was eventually banned by slaveholders. For Chery, who grew up playing drums in her church band, this was an offering to the community and a powerful example of using ingredients from her local surroundings to create something healing. 

“This is the kind of wine that I’m really excited to make, that calls in the historical context of the diaspora, as well as being relevant to the place and local flora and fauna of where I am right now,” says Chery. “My wine concepts are really inspired by Afro-surrealist movements in film and novels,” she notes, “so as a creative, why wouldn’t we carry this Afro-surrealist practice into winemaking?” Chery’s thoughtful example of wine as an art form and statement brought me healing; I wept in Caribbean.

At the same event, Chenoa Ashton-Lewis, of California’s Ashanta Wines, guided the group to consider the fruits that grow wild in Miami, then used simple kitchen tools like a juicer to show attendees, who were mostly local, how to make at-home ferments with foraged ingredients. I had never seen anyone demo and break down a fermentation practice with such attention to accessibility. That philosophy is baked into Ashanta’s foraging, which is based on sankofa, a word from the Akan people in Ghana that translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” Foraging is a sacred act for Ashton-Lewis, a way of connecting with the many people who have worked with the land before her. “We approach our winemaking holistically,” she says. For her, the process “consistently interweaves revolutionary moments and teaches us about patience, the earth’s primordial soils and the ineffable spontaneity that is ancestral winemaking.”

Witnessing Chery and Ashton-Lewis reclaim parts of their history and disseminate knowledge that has been historically gatekept filled me with hope. We often forget that wine comes from everywhere, and that for as long as humans have hunted and gathered, we have fermented. This is the world that ABV is working toward, where domestic wines made of foraged goods can be sold alongside local greens and sourdough at the farmers market. Although the ABV movement can be seen as a response to climate change, its reach goes far beyond. It’s not just a pathway to sustainability, but a pathway to further connecting us to one another. When we broaden our view of what wine can be, and share it, we make it possible for anyone to take part in it.

The movement extends well past ABV’s events. For example, Lee Campbell, who broke natural wine into the New York market, now takes her passion and vision south. Campbell is collaborating with Virginia winemaker Ben Jordan to create an incubator with a mission to support the next generation of Virginia winemakers; they’ll empower producers from underrepresented groups, including Marley, as well as freshman winemakers like Reggie Leonard and Lance Lemon. It’s initiatives like this that make the accessible world of domestic production just as exciting as—if not more so than—the regions that currently dominate the wine lists. 

“We’re at the front end of an exponential S-curve,” says Leonard, who mentioned other homegrown wine organizations such as InWine, Oenoverse and Commonwealth Crush. “We’re also on track to building the most holistically diverse and inclusive wine industry in the world.” And as Virginia draws the road map for diversifying a wine region, I cannot wait to see the ripples of change throughout the Americas. 

“In the face of climate change, in a time of championing diversity, looking at our native agriculture and crops derived and/or hybridized from it opens up pathways that can only be found in our soils,” says Marley, if we look at what’s been here all along. “[It invites] acknowledgment and gratitude for the peoples and communities that have stewarded the land for generations.”

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