Why restorative justice is imperative

What if the wine and spirit industry emphasized correction over corporate cancellation

To say the wine and spirit business is undergoing a necessary and long overdue reckoning is an understatement. The last few weeks have been no kinder than the last couple of ugly years. Sexual harassment is rampant from California to Vermont.

This is not strictly American exceptionalism. Last year, the exploitation of migrant workers in Italy forced us to ask if the sins of a father should be laid upon his daughter?

Winemakers aren’t alone in their transgressions; one sommelier after another has been accused of heinous acts, ranging from the morally reprehensible to the legally damning. A distillery owner was charged in the 2019 college admissions scandal. The repeated patterns of problematic behavior point to a systemic issue that goes beyond a “few bad apples.”

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Given the widespread nature of these troubles, it is unlikely that employees at importers and distributors are immune to such offenses; it’s just that they haven’t garnered the same type of media attention. We’re likely seeing the tip of the iceberg.

How is it that we, as an industry, have proven ourselves incapable of learning from past mistakes? Are we too obsessed with talking shop that we can’t bother to question our collective failure?1

Ashtin Berry, Julia Moskin, Miguel de Leon, and Julia Coney are but a few of those who have worked tirelessly to warn us of the perils of the status quo. Their bravery can not be overstated. Talking, writing, and advocating on these issues is not the type of work that makes you friends in an industry that doesn’t like to reflect on its own sexism, racism, classism, exclusivity, machismo, gatekeeping, and biases.2

It took time to name these problems. It took months to report and corroborate accusations against offenders. It took years to identify the patterns and recognize the problems as systemic. We must make good on this work and it will take time.

Wrongs are not made right by simply dropping a supplier in light of a scandal or canceling a pariah.

Service must be rendered by the businesses and/or colleagues who work(ed) with the offending company or person. That service requires more than an apology on Instagram or a 30-minute sexual harassment seminar. That service looks like three things that have been conspicuously absent in past fallout.

First, we all must learn what an apology looks like. It doesn’t require a PR company. It does require thought. It doesn’t come with terms, conditions, or “but’s.” A real apology demands both ownership of the mistake and vulnerability from the party asking for forgiveness. A real apology must be made to the victim, not performed on TikTok.3 A real apology starts with words and finishes with actions.

The second aspect is that too many companies and people confuse cancellation with rectification.

As per Professor Loretta J. Ross’s sage wisdom, we need to learn the limits of cancel culture. Instead of calling others out—a toxic act—we’d be wise to call them in. Restorative justice is about repair which requires work. It’s much easier to cut ties, but that solves only your problem, not the problem. Figure out how to repair some or all of the damage perpetrated. Remember that being hurt by the offender is not the same as being collateral damage from the offender being caught. Be able to know or learn who the real victim is. Be prepared to help them.

Lastly, an apology and an attempt at rectification mean little if preventive measures aren’t put in place to protect against future infractions. We must erect safeguards from lessons learned. Lapsed judgment is too tired and thin an excuse when we know better. Our industry deserves more from us.

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1

I write this piece as I have others with the acknowledgment that I am privileged in many ways: my whiteness, my identification as a heterosexual, cisgender male, and my relative wealth. These factors, as well as luck, have all likely contributed to my success in this business and allowed me to get up on this soapbox.

2

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is the beginning of this journey and not the end. An exploration of these topics will unleash a torrent of anger, sadness, denial, and grief. The key is to not let those feelings end the dialogue. As Professor Kelly Oliver of Vanderbilt University has said, “If unexamined outrage is the new truth, then we are moving dangerously close to a form of reactionary politics that closes down difficult discussion and prevents us from distinguishing between sexism or racism and critical discussions of them.”

3

Some will be frustrated that their regret is not outwardly and obviously displayed to the public. Too bad! This isn’t about your frustration.