Tahiirah Habibi on Making Wine Inclusive by Building Community

The sommelier and Hue Society founder is hoping to let people embrace both a love for wine and a love for who they are

Tahiirah Habibi on Making Wine Inclusive by Building Community
Tahiirah Habibi grew up in Philadelphia before moving to Miami and becoming a sommelier at several top restaurants. (Courtesy Hue Society)
Aug 25, 2021

Tahiirah Habibi fell in love with wine while working at a hotel bar, and studied passionately. She would go on to work as a sommelier in two top Miami hotspots—the St. Regis Bal Harbour and Michael's Genuine.

She had a goal to become the first Black female Master Sommelier, but during the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) testing process in 2011, she was told she would have to address other sommeliers as "Master," which she found traumatizing as a Black woman. She would later describe her grief over this experience and leaving the CMS track in an Instagram video in 2020 that went viral.

Tired of feeling like she had to assimilate when it came to wine, Habibi decided to create events that she wanted to attend, like the Black Wine Experience in New Orleans. In 2017, she launched the Hue Society, inspired by the Jay-Z lyrics, "What's better than one billionaire? Two. 'Specially if they're the same hue as you."

The Hue Society's Third Annual Wine & Culture Fest, which celebrates Black- and brown-owned brands, will take place Aug. 27 to 29 in Atlanta. It will honor leaders such as Dorothy Gaiter, Iris Rideau, Brown Estate and more. (You can learn more at www.wineandculturefest.com.)

Habibi also co-founded The Roots Fund in 2020, along with Carlton McCoy and Ikimi Dubose, to offer financial support through scholarships and mentorships to help address a lack of diversity in the wine community. She recently spoke with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about how she decided to work in wine and her efforts to forge her own path.

Wine Spectator: Where did you grow up?
Tahiirah Habibi: I grew up in Philadelphia—North Philadelphia. It's a very urban neighborhood, historically it's been very underfinanced, which is probably the best way to describe it. I grew up in a three-bedroom house with six children and two to three adults. I didn't even have my own bed until just before I was getting ready to leave for college, when we moved to another part of a city.

Philly is interesting. Because on the one hand, there's this real sense of community and pride. And I definitely got a lot of my values from there. But on the other hand, it can be super traumatizing, depending on which part of the city you grow up in.

WS: What did you want to be when you were young?
TH: I was pushed to be a model. People would always say, "Oh my God, you're so beautiful. You should model." I tried it once and it was just not my thing. I get very nervous in front of a camera. It takes me a little while to warm up; I can be super awkward.

I thought I would be an engineer. I actually went to high school for engineering science and I realized how much I hate math. I graduated college with a broadcast journalism degree and a minor in African-American studies from [the University of Pennsylvania].

WS: When you were graduated from college, what did your career path look like?
TH: I didn't want to do broadcast journalism because celebrity news was becoming this big thing, and that's what everybody was kind of pushing me toward. And I just did not want to be a part of it. I knew I was really good at events and really creative. I worked at the University of Pennsylvania in the event planning section. I worked at a pharmaceutical event planning thing. And then I got laid off.

I was actually homeless for a little while. I was sleeping on a girlfriend's floor for a couple months and I didn't have a job. I started working as a hostess at Hotel Palomar, Kimpton Hotels. That's where my wine career jumped off. I took a hostess job, bartending in between. Bartending is how I got into wine when I was in college. When I got to Kimpton I was so fascinated there was this woman running this entire wine program—Emily Wines. If she can do it, I know I can do it. They offered to pay for wine classes. I was working as a hostess during the day and taking wine classes at night.

I was just like, this seems cool. I can probably make a career out of this. I don't see any Black people doing this. I already knew it was kind of like some power in it—I will take it back to the community because I am community-oriented, just naturally. I studied my ass off. In 2010 the Court of Master Sommeliers was the end all, be all.

WS: So part of the appeal was to be a pioneer?
TH: Yes, but not for myself. I wanted to see if I could set the standard. Because I saw this woman do it and I was like, well if she can do it, I can do it. So if I can do it, I want you to know that you can do it. I have the resources here in front of me to be able to achieve this. So I'm going to work my behind off to do it.

I realized it was also time for me to leave Philly. I moved to Miami in 2011, just on a whim. I ended up being able to transfer with Kimpton and become a cocktail server on a rooftop in Miami. I remember going up and down steps in heels and booty shorts.

I had tunnel vision, because I was studying this entire time. I was going to be a somm, and that's it. There was no question. I didn't want to walk around in those damn shorts. I did not want to get comfortable in this job, even though I was making really good money. I read the Wine Bible twice and studied my ass off, I rarely went out.

WS: When you took the Court of Master Sommeliers entrance exam in 2011 and were told you would need to address instructors as "master," how did you feel? You ended up passing but then left the program.
TH: Everything shattered that day. All these plans that I had, all the work I did—I would never be respected. Regardless of how much I had studied or what I had achieved, I knew I'd never be respected. I couldn't imagine going back into this space knowing how raw and shredded my dreams had become that day.

I went home and I cried, just released it. I had to come up with another plan and it didn't have to be that day. I had to go back the next day and take the test. I knew I could at least pass this test for myself. Was it for anybody else? It wasn't to prove anything except that I made it this far. I knew that that was the end of that journey and I was also terrified.

And the worst part is, I didn't tell a soul. I didn't feel like anybody would understand. I didn't know any other Black people in the industry at the time, and I didn't have anybody who can relate. I will never allow myself to feel like this again. I cannot continue with this course. So after the test and when I got back to Miami, I thought it was over for me.

But I knew I couldn't just quit. I've always had this mantra that everything's gonna fall into place, right? Like it's going to suck right now but everything is going to fall into place. Then I found out the St. Regis was hiring a somm.

I carried fear in the back of my mind, right? That imposter syndrome, the fear that I just was not ever going to be successful or good enough because I do not have the certification. I was mourning inside and I wasn't able to tell anybody—I was going through this transformation inside of myself. I was suffering in silence for a long time.

WS: After going public about it nine years later, have you met people that can relate to your experience?
TH: Yes. I did that Instagram video—I didn't intend for it to go viral. I didn't know that it was going to make such an impact, but it made such an impact. My DMs were loaded with stories. So one of the most painful times in my life last year and everybody was pulling on me, everybody's calling me, everybody's just like clawing and no one's paying attention to the fact that I am literally grieving in public. I was crying every day for like two months. On top of it, everybody was sending me their stories.

Then the interviews and headlines and of course I got the hate from people telling me, "This is why we don't like Black people; they cry about everything."

WS: Was there some comfort in starting the conversation and giving people a safe space?
TH: For sure. I'm not proud of the video. I'm proud of what it took to be honest about those situations. I'm glad that I did it because it just opened people's minds about institutions and systems. I'm very proud of it because a lot of people started going their own path and finding so much joy and happiness outside of whatever system that was oppressing them or making them feel less than human or less than who they should be. I will always be proud of that.

WS: It's been more than a year since George Floyd's murder and the national conversations about racism. What has changed, and what conversations do we need to be having now?
TH: George Floyd started a lot of conversations that were necessary. I also think that it brought out a lot of people's true nature, in a sense. It poured out the ugliness, but it also brought out this incessant need to be right and to be validated. The performances went through the roof. It became a trend.

When the trend died down, people kind of went back. The amount of people who were doing anti-racism work went down because now you see this is work, this is not a phase. You could donate, you can agree with someone, you can put up a black square. But this is literally a lifelong thing.

The most important part that I think people didn't realize is when we're talking about progress and liberation and privilege and all those things, those are ugly words for some people, but they don't have to be. I have a privilege, which is why I started the Hue Society to spread that around. I have power, I have resources so I started an organization to make sure everybody else can get that power and those resources.

But the problem became when people realized that they would have to sacrifice some things. Some of those things are financial, some of those things are power. They could be positions, access, redistribution. When do you realize that some of that comes with your own sacrifice? No one wants to do that.

I think the conversation that needs to be had is, You have power and privilege. No one's attacking you for that. That's not your fault. What are you doing with it to help the next person? Until we're all free, none of us are free.

WS: In the wine industry in particular, do you feel like things are moving in the right direction?
TH: I see less and less people being attached to systems and certifications and all the rest, and understanding that you can blaze your own path and not be afraid of that.

You can also see who's actually still continuing the work. So I do think there are some organizations that are definitely going in the right direction. I think that it takes time.

WS: Let's talk about the upcoming Wine & Culture Fest.
TH: I couldn't be more excited. When I started Hue Society, I've always had the same mission: to create events, educational events, wine events, through the Black lens.

The first event is Friday night, it's the cookout and that's just African American vernacular. I just wanted to have something where we are the center of it because we are historically excluded from a lot of things. It's Black distributors, brand ambassadors, importers and brands, just the whole plethora of things. That night is dedicated to us. It's a late-night cookout on the rooftop.

Saturday is the R.I.C.E event, in partnership with City Winery. It's an all-day festival with live music and a D.J. It's an acronym that stands for "Rising In Community Everyday." But rice also crosses a lot of different socioeconomics. People in poverty cook rice, all the way up to people who are affluent, right? It also crosses cultures, since most every culture cooks rice in some form or fashion. But the most innate and fascinating thing about it is that rice is what jump-started the economy in this country. When enslaved people came over, rice was one of the first agricultural products that we farmed. It wasn't cotton. We are also having a blind tasting competition.

My favorite event the entire weekend is The Bubble Room. We designed this beautiful room with sparkling wines from around the world. This year we're doing Legend Awards, which I'm incredibly excited about. We're naming these legends who have not gotten their due in the past years.

I will say it's been very disappointing, the lack of support that I've gotten, but it doesn't stop the show, right? Like if I had to finance it out of my pocket, I will finance it out of my pocket. I've gotten some good support but you would think going back to 2020 and the black squares, more people would be willing to come forward and say, Hey, you know, I really want to send some wine to this, or I would like to help finance your joy.

I think part of it is, Does my wine fit here? I'm like, dude, do you want Black people to drink your wine? What makes you think that we only drink Black wines? Because we can't even find the Black wine, so that's not the case.

I want this to become the standard because it's not just for Black people. It's just Black-centered, and people are not used to that. That's the same thing with Hue Society. It's not just for Black people, it's just Black-centered. You are more than welcome to come and enjoy and be in community.

WS: How have people responded?
TH: People email me and thank me for being 100 percent myself. Because now I feel empowered to be 100 percent myself. And a lot of people will say, I didn't realize—I don't even know who I am [because I felt I had to act a certain way to work in wine]. I think people are just reclaiming themselves and I think that's amazing. You know, it's such a healing thing that you can reclaim your own humanity. Even if that is just in a small space, you know, like a Hue Society meeting or tasting. What you love and enjoy, be 100 percent so you get to reclaim a little bit more of your own humanity back.

WS: One last stupid question from someone outside Philly: Geno's or Pat's for the best cheesesteaks?
TH: [Laughs] No one goes to Geno's or Pat's who lives in Philly. The hood definitely has the best cheesesteaks!

People Black Voices Dining Out

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