Maze Row Voices New Perspectives


Alicia Towns Franken, executive director of nonprofit organization Wine Unify, talks to Kyla Marshell about race and diversity – or lack of – in the wine business

Perhaps you’ve had a moment like this: a time-stopping, world-shifting, never-be-the same kind of experience that changed your life for the better. For Alicia Towns Franken, it happened in her twenties on the floor of Boston’s Grill 23 & Bar, when a coworker handed her a glass of red burgundy. “I forgot all the things I had to do,” she recalls. “It literally made me stop in my tracks, and all the flavors, the aromas, everything about that glass of wine was just like this epiphany.”

Within the year, Franken, up-to-then unsure of her career path, went from a server to the director of the wine program, transforming it from a two-page list to a 60-page book with over 900 selections. That was over 25 years ago, and in the years since, Franken has established herself as a leading wine professional, event planner and advocate for marginalized communities in the wine industry. In 2022, she became the first executive director of Wine Unify, a nonprofit whose mission is to support lesser-heard voices in wine, with a focus on people of color, through education, resources, awards and scholarships.

For Franken, it was a natural progression to take the helm of the organization. She left the wine world to raise her children, who are now young adults, but in her decision to come back, knew she needed something that would be “impactful and meaningful.” That was Wine Unify, the kind of program, she says, she could have used in her early days. “I was the only Black wine professional in Boston for a long time, and it felt like being on an island,” she says. Where she could, she learned from and worked with others she could relate to – the two female sommeliers she hired at Grill 23, creating an almost-unheard-of all-female team; and the first other wine person of color she met: “I didn’t want to let him leave my restaurant. I was just like, tell me everything.”

Wine Unify was created in 2020 by DLynn Proctor, Mary Margaret McCamic and Martin Reyes, operating as an all-volunteer effort; Franken initially came on as a board member and head of mentorship. Their three-pronged mission is focused on three initiatives: welcoming those who are interested, but not yet professionally involved, in wine; elevating the careers of those who are; and amplifying diverse voices throughout the industry. To date, they’ve given out 142 monetary awards at four different levels which support education, certification, and more. Franken is proud of and confident in their approach.

“What I think makes us successful is that we give them all the pieces, all the resources they need. So yes, we’re paying for your credential, but we’re also giving you extra wine to study. And even glassware to put that wine in. They’re working in a cohort so they’re not on an island by themselves, as I was. Every level gets mentoring. I pair people with the mentors that I think they need. And all of our mentors are of color.”

That approach – “democratizing wine,” as she calls it, also includes skirting the Eurocentric language that is so common to the predominantly white wine industry. “Everyone talks about a gooseberry, but this is something that the majority of people haven’t had,” she points out. “For cultures that don’t have that, we’ve just alienated them. It’s all about meeting people where they’re at and using a language that translates for everyone.”

Wine Unify currently has a 100 percent pass rate for its students. Recent success stories include a 70-something social justice attorney turned bed-and-breakfast owner whose goal was to offer tastings for her guests; and a young woman from Alabama who did a ten-day immersion program in Piemonte, Italy.

Franken has her own initiative she’s undertaken, an extension of Wine Unify she’s operating with her husband, called Towns Wine Company, which will invest in female winemakers of color. Their first wine, out of South Africa, releases this fall.

But her main focus continues to be mentorship. She sparkles when she talks about her work, so clearly aligned with her purpose. “I wake up happy with my job every single day. I couldn’t say that before. I absolutely love what I do.”

Maze Row Voices New Perspectives

Photography ©Alicia Towns Franken

“Everyone talks about a gooseberry, but this is something that the majority of people haven’t had. For cultures that don’t have that, we’ve just alienated them. It’s all about meeting people where they’re at and using a language that translates for everyone”

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