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Alicia Towns Franken: Pouring Passion into Wine Unify’s Legacy

Alicia Towns Franken

 From accolades to advocacy, a candid conversation on inclusivity, mentorship, and building an inclusive wine community.

By Vanessa Charlot

 

Alicia Towns Franken is not merely a presence in the world of wine; she is a force driving transformative change. As the Executive Director of Wine Unify, her passion extends beyond the vineyards, reaching into the realms of community building, diversity advocacy, and mentorship. Beginning her career as the Wine Director for Boston’s iconic Grill 23 & Bar, Alicia garnered accolades from renowned organizations such as Les Dames d’Escoffier, and Wine Spectator, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe. 

Named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Future 40 Tastemakers of 2023, Alicia Towns Franken has been recognized for her remarkable contributions to the wine world. Beyond her role as Executive Director, she co-founded Towns Wine Co. with her husband Michael Franken, a venture aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices in the industry. Alicia’s commitment goes beyond the glass, as she actively fosters a platform for female winemakers of color, sharing their stories and showcasing their talent.

In this Q&A, we delve into Alicia’s insights on inclusivity, the significance of mentorship, and the transformative impact of Wine Unify on the wine industry. 

Q: You’ve mentioned that “wine is naturally inclusive.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by that, and how you strive to embody inclusivity in the wine industry?

Alicia: I think that it’s as simple as sharing a bottle. Frequently you’re sharing a bottle with a group of people, it’s a way of including people at the table. Personally, I find wine to be an ingredient on the table. It’s nothing precious, it is something that has been made for a gazillion years, it used to be in pig skin. It should not be considered this elitist thing. 

What makes it even more inclusive is that everyone has taste buds, everyone has a palate, and it does not have to be the same. There is no expertise that is necessary to enjoy a glass of wine. It can just be as simple as I like this, or I don’t like that. Wine has a way of bringing people together. I love the friendships I’ve made over bottles of wine. I love how it brings people together. Palates are personal and as long as we are allowing people to truly express themselves, it adds richness to this industry. 

 

Q: Reflecting on your extensive career in the wine business, what challenges did you encounter, and how did you navigate and overcome them?

A: That’s always a really tough question because I started in the wine industry when wine was becoming a thing. Obviously it had always been a thing, but I started in the 90s and people were spending stupid money on crazy bottles of wine, so I felt like I was coming up at the same time as the wine industry. So the rules were a little different. Yes, I was the only wine professional in Boston at the time. I felt like I was on an island, especially as a little black girl from Chicago, whose family did not drink at all.

Then one day, to be bitten by the wine bug by way of red Burgundy, it did not make sense in so many ways. Yes, I was an enigma to people, people would often refer to me as the hostess, when I was actually the wine director with my name on the bottom of that list. 

But what I loved was that the majority of the somms, wine directors, and restaurateurs that I hung out with were female. The three main somms, including myself, were female, and they were my mentors. My assistant somm, of Indian descent, recently told me that she was not on an island because she had me. For me, I had Jeannie Rogers who had an amazing Italian palate, Cat Silirie, who is just all around the queen of wine in Boston, and these two women took me under their wing. They were amazing to me and for me.

I was raised by women, black women at that, so the challenge for me was an opportunity. Working in the wine industry hasn’t been a challenge, it’s been a really beautiful experience for me. 

 

Q: You’ve emphasized the importance of education and building a foundation in the world of wine. How do you believe young professionals can balance the desire for quick success with the necessity of putting in the hard work?

A: You have to build a foundation. You would not build a house without a solid foundation, and that is what education and knowledge is. If you have to assess, teach, sell, or buy, you need to read more than the first page of the article. I am often amazed by the number of people who have come to me and said they’re taking WSET 1 and want to be winemakers. That’s great, but there’s a lot in between WSET 1 and winemaking. I remember once meeting a winemaker who was going to make a pinot gris for the first time. I asked, “what’s your favorite?” they responded, “I’ve never had one!”

This is a desirable industry, it’s amazing, and fun, but there are times that I don’t think people know the work that goes into any part of it. Knowledge is power. And being able to walk into a room, command that room, and know the answers, or at least knowing where and how to find them, that is important. Do the work.

 

Q: How do you think diversity contributes to creating a well-rounded and appealing wine list?

A: It’s important to have a balance of things. When things become homogenized, it’s kind of boring, and there are so many different ways of creating a list and it depends on your concept, volume, etc. It also depends on your food. It’s important to bring in different regions, and different price points. I was in New York yesterday at one of my favorite restaurants, but their wine list has just become painful. I think there were 4 bottles under $100 and everything else was $200 and up. It’s a small list, so how can people drink? For that reason diversity of price point is critical.

Additionally, different winemakers have different stories to tell. There has been a French/European perspective for so long, and I love French wines. There is very much a European perspective on wines, but there are so many other places to find wine and stories. And these are stories and representations that may bring more people into the industry. These are especially the stories Gen Z wants to hear. They don’t care about the big chateau and that your family has been doing this for 10 generations, what else? What’s the real story? Boomers are 28% color, Gen Z is nearly 50% – how do we onramp them?

 

Q: Can you tell us more about your Towns Wine Company Pinot Noir? What do you want our readers to know about this wine?

A: This wine is an opportunity for my husband and I to work together. It was an opportunity for us to give back in a meaningful way. We are partnering with female winemakers of color and reinvesting the profits back to them. Our inaugural release, South African producer, who’s building her own winery, doing all the things, and doing them well, and the idea that we get to support her in a meaningful way is just so incredibly important. 

Being able to tell the story of what we’re doing to our. I was at a dinner where I was asked to explain what we are doing. It turns out, the VP of Vintus was there and immediately turned to me and asked “How can I help?” I love the generosity of the wine industry as well.

The wine is providing a platform to hopefully help these women rest a little bit and know that they are supported. 

 

Q: In your view, what role can mentorship and support play in helping BIPOC individuals succeed in the wine industry?

A: It is absolutely one of the most important things. It is one thing to give people all the resources, it’s another to develop a community.  Why Wine Unify is so special and has pretty much 100% pass rate is the mentorship portion. Additionally, recipients are a part of a cohort, so having that network creates a support system. People come for the education, but stay for the community.

What I did not have was a network like we are creating here. If we don’t know the answer to something, someone does. We have 3 Masters of Wine as a part of Wine Unify, we are touching every aspect of the industry. You can learn from their lives – mistakes and successes. But you also have someone supporting you and someone who knows what you’re going through  is so incredibly important. 

Mentorship is a gamechanger. 

 

Q: How would you like to see Wine Unify grow and evolve in the coming years, and what impact do you hope it continues to have on the industry?

A: I love the idea that we are helping create a new generation, and that generation could be of whatever age group they are, of wine professionals. The idea that we are changing what leadership looks like, and access to jobs. It’s been amazing to watch this unfold. This was a conversation that had been happening for years, and obviously in 2020, it became an immediate need. We are an organization of education and community.  

As the years go on, it won’t be about why it started, it will just be that it’s here, and will continue to be here and grow. We are very focused on what we are doing – WSET. Because it is the universal language, and helpful toolbox to pull from. But as we continue to grow, it’s about that network that’s forming across the country and across the wine world. We are constantly tweaking and fine-tuning Wine Unify, listening to people to hear what they need beyond what we offer. This is one of the reasons we are offering executive coaching. Also a part of the reason why we are offering diversity, equity, and inclusion training with our mentors. Because we are blending marginalized groups.

 

Q: What advice would you offer to aspiring professionals, especially women and BIPOC individuals, who are passionate about pursuing a career in the wine industry?

A: Taste everything (in moderation). Be kind. Be welcoming. Sharing knowledge is important and not making it a competition.

Reach out to people. Reaching your hand upward so people can pull you up. Then don’t forget to pull someone else up on your way. 

And just be kind. This industry can be hard, and what has gotten me through it is the kindness of tons of people. There are people who could have shut me out and did not, and I am forever grateful for that. 

In the end, know your shit. Read, taste, and experiment.

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