The social unrest and debate over structural racism sweeping the country in recent weeks has swirled into the wine industry. Statewide winery associations, individual wineries and even one of the most prestigious professional associations, the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, have suddenly been challenged to deal with issues of inclusivity and diversity they have ignored for far too long. And lest you sit back in your easy chair with a glass of rosé to watch the fracas, let me assure you: This discussion involves us, consumers, too.

The issue of racial bias in wine broke into public view June 8 after Dorothy J. Gaiter published “Being Black in the White World of Wine” on the wine news website, SevenFifty Daily. Gaiter, who co-wrote the Wall Street Journal’s weekly wine column from 1998-2010 with her husband, John Brecher, wrote of her frustration over the killing of George Floyd, the resulting protests, and the very real possibility that after the anger dies down, life returns to “normal.”

In the wine industry, Gaiter wrote, “leaders profess over and over that they want more diversity in their ranks. It’s an empty promise. Which is both maddening as well as foolish for an industry that needs to grow its consumer base.” The wine world, she continued, “lives on its curated image of an exclusive club, with gatekeepers male and female. White.”

How white? A survey of more than 3,100 professionals in the industry published in October by SevenFifty Daily found that 84 percent of respondents were white, and only 2 percent identified as black or African.

“That number’s probably more accurate than not,” says Julia Coney, a Washington, D.C., writer who is compiling an online database of black professionals working in various levels of the wine industry. Once it is posted, “People won’t be able to say they can’t find us.”

Two years ago, when the #MeToo movement brought attention to the glass ceiling women often face in wine and other industries, Coney memorably wrote a piece she called, “Your Wine Glass Ceiling is My Wine Glass Box,” about the lack of visibility of women of color in wine. She has been a vocal advocate for more diversity in wine ever since.

Coney told me she routinely encounters microaggressions from winery staff, retailers and other consumers. “It’s the person following you around the store, the tasting room staff who assume you know nothing about wine, or the winemaker at a tasting who ignores you while devoting attention to white guests,” she said. At a Napa Valley tasting room last year, she says, another customer turned to her and said, “I didn’t know you people drink wine.” The winery staffer assisting her didn’t know how to respond.

Writer J’nai Gaither recounted on Vinepair.com her experience working in a Napa Valley winery tasting room. Some of the incidents she describes sound like customers being surprised to see a black woman working in wine, the type of encounter that seems benign from the other side of the counter but indicates inherent bias, lack of respect or low expectations for people of color. When she complained to her white colleagues and supervisors, they said she was overreacting.

A major entry obstacle for people of color interested in the wine profession is money. It is expensive to learn about wine, from tasting rare, famous bottlings to taking classes for professional certifications. Aspiring winemakers and other wine professionals build their résumés by traveling the world and working harvests in France and elsewhere. Opportunity comes with money.

Some people are taking action, explicitly rejecting the idea that minding one’s own business means keeping wine separate from contentious social issues.

When he read the SevenFifty survey results showing the lack of racial diversity in the industry, Jay Youmans, owner of Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C., announced scholarships for people of color to take the Wine and Spirits Education Trust diploma course, a prestigious professional accreditation.

The Oregon Wine Board, a state-sponsored trade group that represents more than 800 wineries, released a statement titled “Our Commitment to Change.” The group pledged to educate the industry on diversity, equity and inclusion, promote minority-owned wine businesses, and focus more of its branding and advertisements on communities of color.

One organization that came under criticism for its response was the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas. Three of its 172 master sommeliers resigned, saying the court had been slow to speak out and did not reflect their personal values. The court responded by announcing a diversity committee and saying it would no longer call its members master, favoring instead the full title of master sommelier.

Carlton McCoy, one of three African American master sommeliers, was appointed to the court’s diversity committee. In a Zoom chat, he defended the court’s response amid the controversy, as well as the importance of the pin to minority professionals.

“There are several people of color at the advanced level who are sitting for the masters,” he said, adding that the master pin can help a sommelier of color overcome the skepticism many consumers display toward minorities. “Without the pin, people are not going to believe the black sommelier when she comes to the table,” he said. “That pin shows you know your stuff. It’s like the medical degree hanging in your doctor’s office.”

The court has pledged to sponsor scholarships and sensitivity training to boost diversity efforts in the industry, McCoy said. Clearly chafing at the criticism the organization faces for acting too slowly, he said the proof will be in the results.

“I don’t want to be looked upon as a guy who just put Black Lives Matter on his social media account,” he said. “Momentum is a very powerful thing. If you don’t grab it, you lose it. We’ll see in a year.”

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