Brenae Royal does not let the lack of diversity in the world of wine slow her down. In fact, she uses it as a source of motivation. "I kind of grew up being the only [Black person around], and that kind of pushed me into joining different things because I knew that I would stand out," said Royal, who is now the vineyard manager for Sonoma’s historic Monte Rosso vineyard. "So, by the time I entered the wine industry, I was already comfortable being the only one, and I look at it as a position of power because people are going to know your name regardless of if you're in the room or not."
In the latest installment of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, senior editor James Molesworth spoke with Royal about her journey into wine, her landing the coveted role at Monte Rosso and her thoughts on diversity in the wine industry. (Subscribers can read about Molesworth's visit to Monte Rosso and his tasting with Royal.)
Growing up in California’s Central Coast, in the city of Atwater, Royal’s earliest farming memories are those with her grandmother, who inspired her to join the FFA (Future Farmers of America) and then pursue a degree in horticultural science from Chico State. It was during a career fair in 2013 that Royal came across a stand for Gallo, the largest family-owned wine company in the world, that showcased a magnum of Apothic, her favorite wine at the time.
It got her thinking. "I ran up to them and said, ‘We need to make this work, because I like drinking it, I can probably grow it. Let's go!’ And I ended up getting hired a week before graduation."
Her first stints for Gallo were in the Russian River Valley at MacMurray Ranch. During her third day on the job, she was sent over to Monte Rosso. Immediately, Royal knew it was something special. "I was like, ‘OK, wait a minute. This is not big-production agriculture. I'm now on something that is super unique and highly influenced by things happening in the vineyard,’" Royal recalled. "So I was like, ‘I need to take a step back and start learning some stuff.’" Eleven months later, she took over as vineyard manager for the 134-year-old property.
The Monte Rosso vineyard, located on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas mountain range, was planted in 1886 to Sémillon, Zinfandel and Muscat, among other grape varieties. It was purchased by Louis M. Martini in 1938, and he expanded the vineyard plantings from 75 acres to 250, with a strong focus on Cabernet Sauvignon followed distantly by Zinfandel. Gallo purchased the Louis M. Martini winery and the Monte Rosso vineyard in 2002. Today the fruit is reserved mostly for Martini wines, though some is sold to other wineries.
Seven years after taking on the role of vineyard manager, Royal, 30, now understands the historic property like the back of her hand. "There are 16 different spacings, nine different trellis systems, 64 blocks that we farm in about 120 different subplots," said Royal. But she points out that no one farms 250 acres alone. "My team has been here for anywhere from 25 to 39 years, so some have been doing it for longer than I've been alive. I'm honored to be a leader of it, but it's all hands on deck every day at Monte Rosso."
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Despite her success, Royal still experiences discrimination in the wine industry. "It’s been this 50-50 thing. Half of it is challenging, where I have to deal with microaggression, which is unintentional discrimination, and then certainly just overt racism. But it's not something I focus on because the other 50 percent have been the opportunities that have been presented to me. There are a lot of our allies—Gallo being the biggest—that want to see me succeed and want to see more diversity."
Only a week ago, a tasting room associate at another winery refused to sell her wine. "That threw me for a loop, that even in 2020 with the current environment that we are in, I'm still being told that somebody doesn't want to sell the wine to me," said Royal.
With recent events in the United States, Royal has felt thrust into the spotlight surrounding discussions of diversity in the wine industry. "I initially didn't really understand the attention. And then certainly at the beginning of June of this year, I didn't want the attention," she said. "But it was after talking with friends and family and colleagues that I was like, ‘OK, I have a very unique position in the wine industry. I have enough experience now where I'm comfortable in my own skin and in my own skill set.’”
"There's a responsibility that I feel to use my voice, because I do know that a lot of people have reached out to me about how I inspire them and other things. And I want to continue to do that because it's not just going to make the present day better for us, but it's going to make the incoming wine professionals of color more comfortable as well."
According to Royal, inclusivity can be achieved by people of power in the industry looking outside of the usual channels to help cultivate new talent. When she took over the recruiting at Gallo, "we looked at where we were going," and began doing things like recruiting outside traditional wine schools, training staff on unconscious bias and sending out a more diverse group of employees to help recruit.
Royal also stresses that journalists should continue searching. "Present somebody who maybe isn't as vocal about their own successes, or isn’t out there on social media. Because you'll find—and this is something I continue to learn—that there are so many Black wine professionals, and I don't think that most of us knew that they were there," said Royal.
For now, Royal focuses on using her green thumb to maintain the heritage at Monte Rosso. "There's a very special wine that comes from 100-plus-year-old vines," she said. "There's history preserved in those vines. I feel like when you're drinking wine from those vines, you're drinking history. You're tasting people's farming practices that allowed these vines to live for over 100 years. So, for me, I want to maintain that. I want Monte Rosso to continue on. I want the vines that are being farmed today to be drank by my grandchildren one day."
Watch the full episode with Royal on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET. On Aug. 18, Julia Coney, veteran journalist and educator, will speak with executive editor Thomas Matthews about her work as an advocate for diversity in the wine industry and as founder of Black Wine Professionals, devoted to finding and developing talented new voices. André Mack, sommelier, vintner and author, joins Matthews on Aug. 20, all part of a month of highlighting Black voices in the wine industry.