Wine Soul Train: Rumbling Past Food System Biases

Oakland Food Policy Council

As the council director at Oakland Food Policy Council, I am always scanning social media and news feeds for relevant articles that can help us illustrate and articulate what it means to have an equitable and sustainable food system, including why we need it, what it can look like, and how we can each act to create it now. More importantly, when I hear about the deeply rooted problems of our current food system – exploitation, racial and gender segregation of food system workers, continued environmental degradation, and the fact that nearly one in four Black and Latino households in the US is food insecure – I seek opportunities to engage in creative endeavors that build the kind of food system that OFPC believes in.

photo of people outdoors enjoying winephoto Vic Pantaleon

As I scanned the news one day in August, I read that the Napa Valley Wine Train, a company that offers wine country tours by rail, had harshly removed the women of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge, a predominantly Black book club, from the train. Their offense? Laughing.

Learning of this event, I felt pain. When I later found out that train management had posted a false statement on social media stating that “following verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved,” I was furious. These women had been treated unjustly, and their behavior – laughing during a social event – had been criminalized based on the racial stereotype that Black and Latino people are a threatening and criminal element in society, the very same stereotype that results in fatal action against Black and Latino populations today. What does it take to stop the social norm of treating Black and brown folks like criminals to rationalize unjust treatment?

Taking this news in, I realized that the wine train incident was a small but clear example of a profound problem. If the Napa Valley Wine Train owners, management, and front-of-house staff were people of color, their cultural understanding and capacity to relate to people of color would be much less likely to be wrought with implicit bias, racial discrimination, and criminalization. This incident provided a perfect launching point to discuss the importance of our collective economic power in establishing equity and to highlight business leaders who are creating spaces, experiences, enterprises, and ultimately policies and systems that truly reflect our values.

OFPC decided to act. We did this by partnering with The Mexican Bus, a festive San Francisco-based bus company, to offer a tour of Black- and Latino-owned vineyards in Northern California. Our ride was a refurbished school bus painted lime green. Luxuries like air conditioning were absent, but the bus made up for it with a full sound system, string lights, and walls plastered with pop culture images. It was a party bus, and we dubbed it the Wine Soul Train!

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The tour kicked off in front of Miss Ollie’s Restaurant in Oakland. We chose this location because it’s an establishment that serves as an anchor of culture and organizing in the community. A multigenerational, ethnically diverse, and LGBTQ-friendly crowd showed up ready for action. We visited Latino-owned Maldonado Vineyards in Calistoga and Black-owned Esterlina Vineyards in Healdsburg. Both locations have unique stories that could not be more relevant to our discussion: Both were started by agricultural workers who bought their own land and started their own wineries. Their journeys in ownership have been fraught with the same barriers to access and acceptance we see all along the food chain.

Our event was a fun, vibrant, and visceral experience that provided a living story of the inequities in the food system, and most importantly, our power to change it. The trip also demonstrated that with the cost of a bus ticket, we could support local businesses and local ownership in the food system, as well as foster leadership to create space for communities of color in the food sector. Ticket sales went to support several Oakland businesses owned by people of color, including Pietisserie, Red Bay Coffee, and the Town Kitchen, as well as, of course, the continued work of OFPC.

It was an adventure meant to spark inspiration and the courage to reach into the deeper waters of implicit bias and daily microagression and address the structural barriers that stand in the way of an equitable food system.

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