Jermaine Stone’s first encounter with wine was by accident when he got a job at the warehouse of Zachys, a wine retailer and auction house in Westchester, for himself Read University.
Mr. Stone, 38, an aspiring rapper from the Wakefield section of the Bronx, quickly rose through the ranks of wine and started fine wine stewards and auctioneers at Zachys and Wally’s in Los Angeles. career.
Now, as an independent wine consultant and social media entrepreneur, he is using hip-hop as a medium to bring wine to cultures and communities that have historically been overlooked by the industry, while working with key components of the industry to Expand and diversify their consumer base, as many promised after the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
Through podcasts, videos, and his company, Cru Luv Wine, Mr Stone has shown the wine world that it still has a lot to learn.
He has discussed hip-hop with wine personalities such as Saskia de Rothschild, CEO of Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, and Jeremy Seysses of Château Duillac in Burgundy.
He has worked with some of the largest wine and spirits companies such as Constellation Brands, owning such popular brands as Robert Mondavi, Kim Crawford, Ruffino and The Prisoner. Among his clients are wine trade associations in Italy, Germany and Australia, as well as wine companies such as champagne producer Piper-Heidsieck and social media and cellar management tool Cellar Tracker.
Mr. Stone pairs cheeseburgers with raffia; shredded cheese sandwiches, a New York specialty, with corn kernels; and grilled cheese sandwiches with Burgundy wines.
His goal is to remove egos and contextualize the wine with elements of black culture that are known and loved.
“It’s about making all cultures feel comfortable being together,” Mr Stone said. “Wine and hip-hop is me. If I want to see change, I have to be change. Change is me.”
For generations, with very few exceptions, the wine industry has been run by, and served by, white men of European descent. Over the past 50 years it has opened up internationally, mainly in Asia where it has grown and profited, driven by clear business opportunities. And, as the new generation matured, it became more female-friendly, with daughters taking over the family estate and women taking on winemaking and management roles that were once out of reach.
Yet the wine industry has largely ignored black and brown communities, reinforcing the notion that wine is for white people.
Many wine companies committed to diversification in the wake of Mr Floyd’s murder. For many, it’s just lip service.
Ikimi Dubose-Woodson is CEO of Roots Fund, a nonprofit with a mission to help Black, Indigenous and other people of color enter the wine industry. She said that while a small group of companies showed genuine commitment, overall she was disappointed by the follow-up.
“They took a 30-minute online training session and it felt like the problem was solved,” she said in a phone interview. “They’re not willing to hire differently or look at their a million-year-old corporate culture. They’re more concerned with how much capital and jobs are needed.”
Ms Dubose-Woodson said a major part of the Roots Fund initiative was to combine music and culture with wine to get people more engaged and comfortable with wine, as Mr Stone has been doing.
Constellation Brands, one of the world’s largest wine and spirits sellers, has been doing the work, she said, hiring Mr. Stone to host a company-wide event with an audience of more than 1,000 people.
“We worked with him to try to build a more diverse perspective and develop empathy among our teams,” said Robert Hanson, executive vice president of Constellation. “Without the commitment of the entire employee base, It’s hard to walk the talk and deliver what the industry promises.”
For Mr. Hanson and Constellation, that means putting people of color in positions of authority and investing in Black, Hispanic and female entrepreneurs. For example, Bukola Ekundayo, a black woman, is vice president and general manager of Prisoner Wine Company, one of Constellation’s most popular brands, and Constellation has committed to two $100 million funds to support minority- and women-led businesses.
For wine lovers of the older generation, it was an unusual event to see or hear Mr. Stone exchanging Jay-Z lyrics with Ms. Rothschild or Mr. Sethis. But in stark contrast to the wine industry, which shows how hip-hop has become popular across the globe. Hip-hop, at least within its audience, may offer a desirable model for wine.
“The wine world can seem very exclusive and old-school,” Ms. de Rothschild wrote in an email. “In most eyes, it’s still seen as a white tablecloth product that belongs in the hallowed world of sit-down dinners.”
With Mr. Stone, she said, Rafi hopes to traverse his seemingly insular world through cultures such as hip-hop and street food.
Mr Seysses of Dujac said he has realized that wine cannot be divorced from politics.
“French wine was boycotted under George W. Bush, Trump included it in tariffs, immigration policies have a huge impact on the workforce that is key to American wine production, and climate change is directly affecting us,” he said in an email. “The fight against racism and for more equality and more opportunity is part of it all. We want to help build a truly sustainable society. This goes from the vineyard to the winery, all the way to the people who work in the wine industry and our consumers.”
It’s been a long journey for Mr. Stone, who spent an impoverished childhood in the Bronx. His father, a Jamaican immigrant, was a steelworker who lost his job and started his own welding business.
“I watched him make it, so I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” Mr. Stone said. “He taught me everything.”
In 2004, Stone Jr. took night classes at Monroe College and started working at the Zachys warehouse during the day. He quickly distinguished himself for his energy and hard work.
Mr. Stone soon became the logistics coordinator for the wine auction. Not only was it his first exposure to wine, he said, but it was also his first real exposure to whites. Part of his job is to stand by the auctioneer to make sure all bids are confirmed.
“When you walk into that room, it’s very scary — the wealth, the air is different,” he said. “I don’t have white friends, I don’t have other cultures around me. Most people make assumptions about who I am, but I don’t get it at all. It tells me that everyone is an individual. People are so loving and welcoming. No one ever thought I was insignificant.”
Mr. Stone possesses the self-confidence, self-awareness and empathy that allow him to navigate an unfamiliar world without feeling overly frustrated.
“My take on racism is that there are different levels,” he said. “A lot of what people classify as classic racism is actually racial ignorance. If I were in Hong Kong and handed you my business card with two hands and put my head down, it might be considered rude. You have to learn that. If you look down on me, I’ll find a way to level the playing field.”
In 2016, he was out on his own, looking for flexibility to care for his mother who was diagnosed with cancer. In addition to consulting, he also started the “Wine & Hip Hop” podcast in 2018.
“After the murder of George Floyd, the phone really rang,” he recalled. “To make all cultures feel comfortable and people know I’m already doing that.”
For Ms Dubose-Woodson, direct action is all that matters now.
“The bottom line is, I want to shout out at the top of the mountain that we spend too much time strategizing,” she said. “We don’t need to plan for 10 years, we just need to start.”
A good example is the work Mr Stone is doing, she said, along with the committed companies she mentioned, including Burgundy producers such as Dujac, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Domaine Roulot, Maison Joseph Drouhin and Domaine de Montille, She said the companies have master’s programs with historically black colleges and universities.
“They made the best wine accessible to people of color,” she said. “These estates are educating, offering internships and tours. They’re places that can’t be reached in wine.”