When it comes to promoting inclusion and driving change in the wine industry, it takes a village… and a vineyard. Enter Equilibri, a new direct-to-consumer charity wine label that starts shipping this month.
Born out of a shared sense of community and a commitment to change, Equilibri (the Catalan word for “balance”) is a partnership between The Roots Fund—a nonprofit organization that empowers communities of color through educational scholarships, mentorship, and job placement in the wine industry—and California’s Bokisch Vineyards, a family-owned winery that specializes in Spanish varietal wines.
In 2020, the two companies came together via the Lodi Appellation Inclusion Collective (LAIC), a group of Lodi vintners who are passionate about fostering diversity in the wine industry. Conversations started flowing, and in June 2021, Bokisch Vineyards hosted five Roots Fund scholars for the inaugural “Rooted in Lodi” enrichment trip.
The multi-day event included an educational session on Spanish varietals by winemaker Elyse Perry and lunch with the president of the Association of African-American Vintners, Longevity winemaker Phil Long, among other activities.
Two weeks later, a different set of scholars gathered at Bokisch to collaborate on a project that had been pitched during the enrichment trip: a group wine collaboration. Students would try their hand at blending Spanish varietals, and the winning blend would be bottled as Equilibri’s first vintage.
The session started with a crash course on mixing different grapes, vintages, and flavor profiles. Students were then given winemaking tools such as graduated cylinders and pipettes and instructed to apply what they’d learned to create their own blends. Following two rounds of blind tasting, the students and the Bokisch winemaking team voted on a favorite blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha and Zinfandel, created by Roots Fund scholar Daren Clark.
Bottled in December 2021, the first vintage features a colorful, abstract label designed by Roots Fund scholar and artist, Aaron Monu, and digitized by Lodi-based Bottle & Brand graphic design firm.
“Outside the winemaking process, I really enjoyed learning about the labeling process and being in the room to hear conversations about marketing the wine,” says Clark, who is now completing his final year of the UC Davis winemaking program and working at a Napa Valley winery.
Meanwhile, Monu, who is currently working at a wine bar in Atlanta, GA, plans to pursue the creative side of the wine industry. He praises the Roots Fund for helping scholars to expand their professional choices beyond the retail and hospitality opportunities that are typically marketed. “The label design process was fun and involved a lot of dissecting of the Roots Funds’ message to translate it into visual form,” he says.
For Roots Fund founders Ikimi Dubose-Woodson, Tahiirah Habibi, and Carlton McCoy, the Equilibri label is the latest in a string of successes for the organization, which has already provided 111 scholarships since its founding in summer 2020. There have been international harvest opportunities and industry certifications like WSET. A “Rooted in France” scholarship was recently announced in partnership with Domaine Dujac and the Burgundy school of Business. Scholars also receive foreign language services and can take advantage of mental health programs.
Dubose-Woodson, a Johnson & Wales graduate and an avid world traveler, was the first woman to complete the prestigious Marriott & Ritz Carlton management training program, while Habibi—a 40 Under 40 Wine Enthusiast Tastemaker—is a sommelier and CEO of Hue Society, a hub for Black wine professionals. And McCoy, who was named a Master Sommelier in 2013 at just 28 years old, was one of the youngest people and the second African American to earn this prestigious title.
The trio are passionate about mentoring the next generation of wine industry leaders and widening entry to an industry that’s historically been closed to minorities and other underrepresented groups.
As an immigrant to the United States, Spanish-born Markus Bokisch knows all too well the challenges of being seen as an outsider. In 1995, the UC graduate and his wife Liz created Bokisch Vineyards, in the Clement Hills AVA of Lodi, in an effort to produce Spanish varietal wines in California. The pair started with only 20 acres of imported budwood from specially selected vineyards in Spain–an arduous and unprecedented undertaking at the time. People were skeptical that Albarino, a cool-climate, Atlantic varietal, could be successfully grown in California’s Central Valley. Or that Tempranillo, a high-elevation varietal, could be successfully grown near sea level. Hurdles included rootstock selection, pruning methods, and decisions on yeasts, fermentation temperatures, aging and barrel selection. Despite the naysayers, they now farm more than 2,500 acres in four counties and provide ultra-premium and production wine grapes to more than 60 wineries.
Markus and Liz Bokisch perfectly summed up the Equilibri partnership: inclusivity brings a wave of creativity, new ideas, and energy into this beautiful world of wine—a must for the industry!
The impact of this collaboration is far-reaching. Says Habibi: “What you see now is only the beginning for us and our scholars.” As for what’s next, “look for more creative wine partnerships, endowments, thousands of flourishing scholars, and future vintages of Equilibri,” she says.
Much like the challenge of growing Spanish varietals in Lodi, harvesting a new generation of diversity in the wine industry is an ongoing battle. The Roots Fund is committed to investing in those who have been traditionally excluded from the wine industry. We can try to create change alone, but what we really need is community.
Click here to purchase the 2017 Equilibri Red Blend and be a part of the change. Exclusively available at Bokisch Vineyards, a portion of the proceeds will directly benefit future Roots Fund scholars. Visit the Roots Fund at www.therootsfund.org to get involved today. For more on Bokisch Vineyards visit www.bokischvineyards.com.