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Seeking variety among the varietals

SSU alumni emphasize the importance of diversity in the wine business

When discussing diversity in the wine industry, Derek Baljeu, a graduate student of Sonoma State’s Wine Business Institute, said, “You need to see, to be,” regarding the need for representation in a predominantly white and male business.  

Derek Baljieu

“Having people that look like you in positions or places where you want to be is hugely important, and that could be indirect, like seeing someone in an article and helping them to think, ‘Hey, you know what, if he is breaking into the industry, then I can too,’” Baljeu said about his desire to inspire more diversity in the wine industry.  

With only 1 percent Black-owned wineries out of the 11,000 in the country, it is easy to understand why Baljeu wants an increased blend of demographics in the wine sector.  

“I cannot think of any people of color coming my way through the industry. It was just trial by fire, and I was lucky to have some amazing opportunities and make the most out of them,” he said. 

Vincent Morrow has a charge similar to Baljeu, graduating from SSU with a B.S. in Business Administration and a dual concentration in Wine Business and Marketing.

Currently the Master Sommelier and Beverage Director at Press in Napa, Morrow is one of four Black master sommeliers in the world and is working to increase equitable solutions through the diversity committee of the Court of Master Sommeliers.  

“We offer the first-level sommelier course free to beverage and hospitality students who are attending our partner universities with a historically underrepresented population, be it a Historically Black College and University or school with a generally underserved demographic,” said Morrow, referencing the Court’s diversity committee’s work.

Morrow said although the Court is a global organization, the master sommelier test has always been in English. To remove barriers to access, the committee has plans to translate the exam into numerous languages.  “It may not even occur to outside observers, but it is quite complicated when you have to do that extra computation and convert it to your native language,” Morrow said.

“I’m just a man in a cave,” said Baljeu of his role as winemaker for Knights Bridge Winery in Calistoga.

Vince Morrow
Vince Morrow, one of only four Black 
sommeliers in the world.

He said his team at the winery has noticed his transformation since attending WBI.  

“The company has noticed a change in how I think,” he said. “At the Wine Business Institute, you are surrounded by like-minded people, some on the business side, some on the marketing side, some on the winemaking side. It opens up such a wide perspective for you.” 

Mentorship is steeped in the tenets of the Court of Master Sommeliers and is offered to aspiring sommeliers of all levels several times per week. Morrow is wrapping up a nine-month mentorship through the James Beard Foundation with a student who aims to open a wine bar in Los Angeles.  

“Even though you are heading somewhere, it’s important to help lift others up with you,” he said. 

Also committed to the growth and development of mentoring, Baljeu works with The Roots Fund, a nonprofit created to nourish and enrich the lives of communities of color in the wine world. Baljeu said he enjoys helping his mentees through their trials and tribulations while supporting their journey into the wine industry.  

“Just having somebody who has been through circumstances similar to yours is always helpful,” he said.   

—Krista Sherer

Read more from Insights / Spring 2024