My Caribbean Palate In A Eurocentric Wine World

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My Caribbean Palate In A Eurocentric Wine World

My previous experience of and knowledge about wine were pretty much slim to none before entering the vast world of wine. The Boston neighborhood I grew up in had zero wine education programs, and my parents didn’t drink wine—my father didn’t drink at all, and my mother was a rum and coke gal. My real intros to wine happened as a young adult when I was out with friends or at celebratory functions, so I wasn’t aware that there were so many varieties of the beverage. I didn’t know there were dry and sweet profiles, that Cabernet Sauvignon was also the name of the grape and that wine hailed from many regions with different terroirs and soils from across the globe.

I grew up in a Caribbean and Central American household, so my exposure to alcohol was through spirits such as dark rum and brandy and the cultural influence of sweet, milky drinks like kremas, a traditional Haitian rum nog cocktail with ingredients similar to horchata. Back then, before I became a wine enthusiast, I sought out sweet libations—basically, anything that wasn’t Grand Marnier or Moscato never touched my lips, but can you blame me? 

My palate and olfactory receptors are, after all, based on the conduits of my cultures, history and human connection. My first experiences with flavor were with tropical profiles like coconut, pineapple, mango and guava as well as spices like curry, allspice, nutmeg, turmeric, ginger and Scotch bonnet peppers. Caribbean beverages aren’t typically paired with foods the same way as wines are, but these delicious flavors are used in my favorite dishes, like arroz con pollo, coconut rice and peas and jerk chicken and oxtail, which complement the flavors of island cocktails such as mojitos, rum punches, piña coladas and sorrel.

Eventually, my taste buds outgrew those sweet wines, and through countless tastings, classes, wine trips and self-education, my palate developed. I have had the opportunity to travel the world sampling various grapes, walking the vineyards, experiencing ancient wine caves, witnessing winemaking and speaking with some of the most knowledgeable wine aficionados in the industry both nationally and internationally. On these tasting trips, we are welcomed with wines paired with foods from the regions we visit, and it’s on these trips that I still find myself leaning toward diverse flavors and aromas reminiscent of the tropics. It’s on these trips that I’ve recognized my Caribbean palate in a Eurocentric wine world. It made me question: How do palates derived from different cultures and identities fit in a wine world dominated by European palates and preferences?

In many nationally recognized food and beverage magazines, the majority of wine-pairing content is based on European cuisines and delicacies. Diverse voices don’t always have a seat at the table, editorially speaking. In fact, the wine industry as a whole lacks minority representation. For example, only 1% of U.S. wineries are black- or brown-owned. As a rising Afro-Latina food and beverage journalist whose entrance to wine was unconventional, I experienced a period of imposter syndrome, which I later shed when I won a scholarship for the WSET Level 2 wine award, an educational program designed for wine professionals. Obtaining this certification helped me become more comfortable with my profession and with wine terminology and helped me understand how to write what I was smelling and tasting. While grants and scholarships exist, these kinds of opportunities are still limited for some, especially if they don’t live in large urban centers.

Although wine tasting is subjective, I realize that my culture and identity have shaped my experiences and perspectives surrounding wine. A few years ago, I was amongst a group of expert tasters and senior writers to rate and judge wines that producers submitted for review. Since this was my first rating experience, I wasn’t sure if the tasting notes of what I was smelling and tasting were “correct,” not only because of the aforementioned imposter syndrome I was feeling at the time, but also because of the terminology the experts used to describe the flavor profiles of these wines. Terms like “lean,” “cat pee,” “basement” and “dirty laundry” didn’t always resonate with me. While these wines received high praises and high scores from the reviewers, I realized my scores and notes were completely different, and I felt like an outlier.

When we blind-tasted the last wine up for review, aromas of tropical fruits wafted from the glass as soon as my nose hit the rim, reminding me of my island roots. Despite my love for this particular wine, when it came to my turn to announce my rating, I stayed silent for fear that I judged it incorrectly because the “experienced palates” disliked it and gave it a low score. 

Luckily, I’ve since pushed past the notion that I have a “bad palate” because I now know better. This knowledge stems from the unfortunate fact that racism and cultural incompetence are still very present in the wine industry, largely because non-Eurocentric cultures are not well-represented. It’s important for the industry to hear diverse voices and promote representation and different perspectives, as it can not only enrich the industry and help it appeal to a wider range of drinkers but also allows wine professionals to feel welcomed, regardless of background. Everyone’s palate is unique, and when it comes to wine tastings, addressing these issues requires a concerted effort to create an inclusive and equitable environment for all wine enthusiasts and professionals like myself, whose Caribbean palate brings flavor and tradition to the world of wine. 

Jaime J. Brown is a wine educator and rosé wine enthusiast based in Boston, MA. You can follow her on Instagram @rosaywithjaime for more writing and content creation.

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