Walking the Walk of Bringing Diversity to Wine

Lodi winery Klinker Brick has built an inclusive team, believing that wine needs to welcome all to succeed

Walking the Walk of Bringing Diversity to Wine
Winemaker Joseph Smith Grew up in Belize, with no exposure to wine. Now it is his passion and life's work. (Courtesy Klinker Brick)
Dec 2, 2020

Klinker Brick takes its name from the bricks found in historic buildings around Lodi—dark and irregularly shaped—and the sound they make when banged together. Like many wineries in Lodi, its origins lie in grapegrowing. The Felten family came to the area in 1890. They got into the business by growing grapes, packaging and shipping them to home winemakers on the East Coast. Later, the family sold grapes to cooperatives and wineries.

Current owners Steve and Lori Felten are fifth-generation grapegrowers. Their daughter Farrah Felten-Jolley and her husband, Stefan Jolley, are both vice presidents in the company and are increasingly overseeing day-to-day business. Two decades ago, Steve and Lori decided to start their own brand, beginning with a 2000 Klinker Brick Zinfandel Lodi Old Vine. Since then, they've established a track record for solid Zinfandels, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs and other wines.

Diversity was not their original focus. But when discussions about inclusion in the wine industry started earlier this year, Felten-Jolley felt inspired to speak out about their approach to making the wine world more welcome to all. Klinker Brick's team has staffed their tasting room and trained employees with diversity in mind. Visitors of color are assumed to be savvy wine lovers. And the winery had begun a program to expose local students to wine's many career options.

Felten-Jolley believes diversity and inclusion are part of the winery's DNA: Winemaker Joseph Smith hails from Belize, and assistant winemaker Christopher Rivera is the son of immigrants from Michoacán, Mexico. Women, including Felten-Jolley and Elizabeth Barnard, national sales director, hold key positions of leadership. Rivera and Smith grew up in families where wine was unknown. Now Smith has started a wine distributorship in Belize, while Rivera has launched his own wine brand, Seis Soles, which honors his Mexican heritage and is marketed to the LatinX community. "This is a way I can speak to my own community," explains Rivera.

These four members of Klinker Brick recently spoke with Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about how they came together and how their perspectives informed their efforts to make wine a welcoming world.

Wine Spectator: Let's start with how you got in the wine business. Farrah, you're a sixth-generation grower?
Farrah Felten-Jolley, VP of marketing and sales: My family's been in Lodi since 1890. But we really jumped into the winery side after [I graduated] college, and that's when I came into it. My dad pretty much had me work from the bottom up—I started in the office, payroll, as well as invoicing, then I was on the road. I just slowly worked my way up. Now my parents have stepped back and I'm running more of the company, overseeing everything.

WS: Did you want to be in the wine industry when you were growing up?
FFJ: I wanted to be a vineyard manager. I remember the story with my dad. I was walking in one of our vineyards in the back and he said, "What do you want to do when you get older?" and I said, "I want to come back after college and be a vineyard manager." And he said, "I don't know if you know that. You're only in fourth grade." I said, "No I want to come back."

WS: Elizabeth, what's your background? Elizabeth Barnard, national sales director: My mom was Ravenswood's salesperson in 1979. She had her own fine wine wholesale business when I was growing up. So, my childhood was spent entertaining, including Donn Reisen from Ridge and Koerner Rombauer, when they would come work the market in the Midwest. I was always around the business.

The funny thing was, unlike Farrah's parents, my mom was always very standoffish about the wine industry. She always said, "You'll never make enough money, don't go there." It was six years after running sales and marketing in digital media that I really pushed back and I said, "This is really what I want to do."

WS: Chris, want to go next?
Christopher Rivera, assistant winemaker: I started here about seven years ago, started in the wine industry only nine years ago. The idea was that I would go work at an entry-level job at a big winery. I was dragging hoses. I really started to fall in love with the idea of wine at that point, and I hadn't had much exposure to it previously—I didn't even really drink it, my family didn't drink it.

I started looking at smaller wineries and Klinker Brick was one that gave me a chance. I came here as a cellar master and started just taking on roles and as I did my work, and hopefully did it well, they gave me a little more responsibility.

WS: We've all been warming up for you, Joseph.
Joseph Smith, winemaker: I'm from Belize, a small country in Central America. There's a lot of grapes in Belize, so I knew all about wine. [laughs] I'm joking! There are no grapes in Belize at all. Growing up as a kid, I never had a glass of wine in my life. Never. You name it—Christmas, holidays, birthdays—wine was never part of the culture. It was beer and rum.

In 1996, I migrated to California. I got a job offer to go do some construction work at a winery up in Northern California. We went in the winery, did some drainage and the work they needed, then after the project was complete the winemaker said, "Hey, I'm going to need some extra work for harvest." I was like, "What is harvest?"

I went in there not knowing anything, just pulling hoses, whatever they asked me to do. It was great. I worked hard. Me and the winemaker developed a cool relationship and I think he saw something that I didn't see in myself.

It took me about two years before I actually developed an interest in wine. Shortly after that, the winemaker told me he would be leaving this winery. He said, "You can either stay here and have this job. Or you can come with me." I think the best decision I made was I decided to leave with him. It was a sort of consulting firm we created, and I was his right-hand man. I would go into problematic wineries at the time and try to figure out why they're having problems. We would help all these little, small family wineries. Some of them have vineyards but they want to break into the wine business—we would help them set up.

I landed in Lodi in 2001. At that time there was only about six wineries and they were all large corporations. Other growers wanted to break into the industry. [The Feltens] reached out to the team and said, "Hey, we want to get into the business. We need help. What should we do?" And Barry Gnekow, my mentor and still today a consulting winemaker for us, would help. Rather than them selling their grapes to the big co-op, we would tell them "No, I think you can do this."

I met Steve [Felten] in 2004. He was at a crushing facility and he didn't have a home [for his winemaking operation]. I would go in there and I would help him oversee his wine, make sure he's doing the right thing. In 2007, Steve said, "Look, I need someone to help me do this. I want to have you as my full-time winemaker."

Chris Riviera
Assistant winemaker Christopher Riviera says wine needs to welcome anyone who is curious to learn more. (Photo Courtesy of Klinker Brick)

WS: What are your thoughts about diversity and inclusion, and how the wine industry could be more welcoming?
EB: I think in general the wine industry is built around being exclusive. It's thought of as an exclusive item. That's part of the mystique of it, right? I think one of the things that great somms do is they make it very accessible to people at a table. When it comes to what we want to do at Klinker Brick winery, we also want to make our wines accessible.

There is a gaping hole—Joe and Chris can speak much more to this than I can—in other cultures that didn't grow up with wine. For me I think one of the reasons why I constantly want to highlight Joe and Chris is that representation breeds accessibility. I wanted to work for an organization that was blind to color and gender.

My mom was Steve's first real hire at the winery, when he was building it, and she was a woman in the business. When he hired Joe and Chris, there was not even a question about their background. We hire the best people for the job. And I think, as I've gotten older in the business, one of the things that I firmly believe as a part of this organization, is that diversity forces wineries to look at business and their consumers from other angles and other vantage points, which breeds innovation, creativity and, most importantly, accessibility.

CR: Working-class people don't drink this commodity. And if they do, they're these very inexpensive brands, and that's all you can drink. My family came from Mexico; they're a working-class family. I'm a first generation, born in the United States. I didn't come across wine until I was drinking whatever people would give me at the time. That hasn't changed, especially in working-class communities

In my personal experience, I've been to tasting rooms in different areas, I don't go in there and say, "Hey I work in the industry. I work at this company." I just walk in and I want to experience what they have to offer. Unfortunately, more times than I wish, they give you kind of a weird look like, "Can I help you? Are you lost?"

I don't walk around trying to be offended. But sometimes you can't help but notice. These little things add up. Why would I want to come back? Why would I recommend anybody come to this winery?

Can the industry do better? For sure. We're talking about education and the tasting room. When it comes to the front-facing people that are actually handling the product and talking about it. We can be the winemakers and do fun wine dinners all we want. But when it comes to the people that are actually having that discussion with the consumer face-to-face, those are the people that are giving you the idea of what the winery's about and what the wine's about. And if that's off message, that doesn't matter what you do in the background. People are going to be like, "Well, that wasn't fun. They treated us a certain way. Let's not do wine tasting anymore. Maybe let's go to a brewery; it's a lot more relaxed there. It's a lot more fun."

In my own communities they're like, "Oh, you work in wine? So you pick grapes?" Well, no. That's a big part of our history. We are very proud to be a big part of the agriculture industry and getting the grapes to the winery and help build this industry. But why aren't we also saying, "Oh, you can pick grapes. You can also be a vineyard manager; you can also be a cellar master; you can also be a winemaker … and a wine executive, and a wine brand owner."?

Elizabeth Barnard
Sales director Elizabeth Barnard believes wineries need to embrace diversity to earn consumers' trust. (Photo Courtesy of Klinker Brick)

JS: We're in Lodi. One thing I hear is growers—who tend to be Caucasian—saying they're selling their grapes but they can only get so much for them. Do you know where that wine, your grapes, do you know where it ends up? I'm telling you right now, the grapes do not end up at the French Laundry restaurant. They end up in a community where the people don't have the same economic status. They're the ones that consume most of the wine that you're producing.

These people would taste wine and they may say, "Hmm, this is pretty good. Wow, where's this from? Oh, it says Lodi. Maybe I should go up there and see what's going on in Lodi." They come here, what do they get? You go into the tasting room, if you are not greeted [as if you are a wine lover] that's where the problem is. If I want to do better, I got to make sure someone of color coming through the door is treated as, "Oh, they know something about wine—that's why they're here."

It's a cycle; if you treat those two people well and give them an experience, what do you think is going to happen? You now expose a whole new group of people to your wine.

FFJ: When I first started on the road 11 years ago, you didn't see a lot of young women. When I was at trade shows, sometimes I was the only female behind a table representing a brand. As the years went on, I started to see more women as supplier reps, as well as moving up in distributors, in moving up in more roles on the supplier side, and it was really exciting to see.

But what I also see is that we need to change how we're writing about wine and looking and talking about wine. There's a new buyer out there: Millennials. They're looking for really great stories and want to try different wines and see different things.

EB: Can I piggyback off that for a second? When we were thinking about what our mission was as a winery, in terms of diversity and inclusion, we absolutely wanted to present ourselves as a welcoming and open environment. Not just for hiring, but for people that walk into our tasting room. That involves representation at a tasting room level—that is something we're actively incorporating.

In regard to sales and marketing, if you're not pivoting to Millennial [consumers] right now, you are going to be losing at some point. Millennials tend—this is what I've gleamed from not only being a Millennial but reading a little bit about our generation—to buy into the ethos of companies. We want to be a winery that Millennials can get behind; not just the product that we make and what we're bringing to the table, but who we are and what we stand for.

FFJ: What's really been exciting to see, is seeing younger people coming into the tasting room that never did before. They're getting interested in wine. And I see diversity coming in. What's really neat is seeing the tasting room staff getting excited because the demographics are changing. People are getting interested at a younger age and trying different things.

Farrah Felten-Jolley
Farrah Felten-Jolley is excited to see younger people coming to the tasting room and trying new things. (Photo Courtesy of Klinker Brick)

WS: What are your goals to be more inclusive?
CR: When this national conversation took place, it was the first time I felt that Joseph and I looked at each other like, "How does this affect you?" Because most of the time we let things roll off our back.

But what happened is that [the Feltens] just wanted the best people for every position so they can make their winery grow. It's America; we have different genders, different backgrounds, different colors. I thought it was so interesting that we never made the effort, necessarily, to be diverse. It was just a natural evolution when you're open to new experiences and new ideas.

JS: Exactly. If naturally you're a person of character and you don't pre-judge, you don't see things in black and white, you see things as a whole, I think that's what gives you Klinker Brick.

CR: We have some personal goals—I have my own brand that I make. I wondered how to speak to my own community. When I look around, I don't see many Latino-centric brands. So how do I be a part of that? About a year ago, I thought I can't do anything, I don't own a company or anything. That led me to think, why don't you start doing something on the side that lets people know that wine is out there, and it's meant for you to enjoy?

Klinker Brick has been very gracious to let me do that. I hope that as people see my wines on a shelf, they might see something that looks appealing to them, the Latinx community. Hopefully when they taste my wine, they'll discover they like wine and try other wines, and other regions.

That's how this is going to grow, that's how we're going to pull all these people into wine. There are millions of people that don't drink wine that are supposedly not predisposed to drinking wine. How do we work on them?

EB: If you look at the extension of the original decision to hire Joe, to hire Chris, look at what that pure representation has now brought to the industry. Chris has his own project for a Hispanic community, tailored to a Hispanic community. And Joe's family who didn't even drink wine now own a business in the wine industry. It just starts with making a decision to include people and to accept them and hire them.

CR: It's empowering right? We're not sitting here criticizing and telling people they have to do better. We just feel really empowered to say we get to tell the story, and it's my story.

JS: Right now we see the industry is latching on to buying from Black-owned wineries. I love it. It's great. Is that something we're going to keep sustaining? Or is it just, two months from now we'll forget? And why does it take such an event before we get this type of interest? The media can help. They can keep this story alive.

CR: I think the important thing to sustain this is that it grows organically. I saw that [Monte Rosso vineyard manager] Brenae Royal laments that when people see her, they assume it wasn't because of her skill and drive that she got to where she is. That it's because of the tokenism of trying to be diverse.

Joseph and I, we don't want that. I think most people would tell you, we don't want you to go out and just hire people because of their color when they're not the right fit for you. That's not what we're looking for. We're looking for organic growth and opportunity.

That really comes from fostering youths' interest in this industry. When I was looking at all those vintners and Black-owned wineries, I thought it was amazing. I shared it and I also bought some wine myself. There were some very well-known people that already made their money from being athletes or in the entertainment industry. And if they weren't, they still made a good amount of money in another sector and were able to cross that barrier. There's a high cost to pay to try to get into the wine industry in our minds. So that's beautiful but not sustainable.

We can't just hope that every CFO of a tech company in the Bay Area who happens to be a person of color, might want to open a winery. We have to start fostering organic interest in this.

We're going to get together and we're going to offer a field trip for local youths [from nearby Stockton]. Joseph said, "Hey, why are they so close yet it feels like their ability to get into this industry is so far away?" Why? It's not on purpose, but it's just more of an afterthought.

But what about if we get proactive about it? We say, "Hey, we're going to bring these kids in and know that they can get into the wine industry." You don't have to be a multi-millionaire. You don't have to necessarily work in the agricultural side if you don't want to. There are all these different things. You can work in distribution, you can work in sales, you can work in marketing, social media. They might know these careers exist, but not how it pertains to wineries. I think that's an organic way to grow and make sure that this is sustainable and not just something that happened in 2020 and then we kind of went back to our old ways.

EB: I think as we've grown what we've realized is that diversity and inclusion have been part of our DNA from the get-go. It continuously pushes us to work harder, to see things from different angles and create what we do.

People Black Voices Petite Sirah Zinfandel California

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