When the pandemic first hit last spring, wine expert and consultant Alicia Towns Franken took a lot of long walks around Boston, where she lives with her husband, 18-year-old son, and 15-year-old daughter. She called them “ugly walks,” sometimes logging eight or ten miles a day as she ventured away from the scenic water to escape the crowds. The city’s beauty was not the point; her walks helped her clear her head.
Towns Franken also started drinking a glass of Champagne almost daily. “If I only had to drink one thing for the rest of my life it would be Champagne,” she said. “I told myself, ‘you can’t be too sad with bubbles.’”
The bubbles definitely helped, but it was an undoubtedly difficult time. “When the second pandemic hit with the murder of George Floyd, that was hard,” Towns Franken said. “We were all home and we were all watching. As a mom you put on a brave face, but I was struggling.”
As a black woman and the mother to two interracial children, she asked herself how she could help and what she could do to give back. Towns Franken got involved with the new organization Wine Unify, which works to welcome, elevate, and amplify the voices of underrepresented minorities in the wine industry, where she sits on the Board of Directors. (Check out Wine4Food’s profiles of Wine Unify mentors Anna-Christina Cabrales and Annette Alvarez-Peters.)
“It’s amazing how you can really connect with people through wine,” Towns Franken reflected. She was having a tough day when she was tasked with calling some of the recipients of Wine Unify’s 20 Welcome Awards. Each award includes a fully funded Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 1 Certification course through the Napa Valley Wine Academy, additional funding for supplemental study wines, and mentorship with Wine Unify’s team of wine professionals, including Towns Franken.
Her hard day turned around right away. “I felt like Oprah, giving out awards” Towns Franken exclaimed, “Suddenly I was laughing…the joy! These recipients are the face of the wine industry. They are here to do what they love. They are all so different and there is a place for each one of them.”
Towns Franken’s love for wine is rooted in joy. I felt the same way chatting with her on the phone—my own tough day almost instantly improved.
“There is real community here,” she said about Wine Unify, “It’s not just about the awards.”
Like so many, Towns Franken started working in hospitality to support herself as a young woman. In the 1990s, she paid her way through college with restaurant work. It was “something I knew very well but didn’t realize it was how I would make my career,” she remembers. She loved connecting with people; “as the wine person, everyone wants to talk to you.”
Towns Franken drinks seasonally, although she’s always up for some bubbles. She loves high acid whites and white Burgundy (really anytime) in the warmer months. Come winter, you’ll find her cozied up with a glass of Nebbiolo. She believes in supporting our local winemakers; “Our friends in Napa and Oregon need our help right now.”
After years in the restaurant business, Towns Franken worked her way up to the position of Wine Director for Boston’s famed Grill 23 & Bar (the steakhouse has been a fixture in Boston for more than three decades), where she sold 3.5 million dollars of wine a year. It was thrilling to have access to such a deep collection of fun and incredible bottles at her fingertips. Towns Franken tasted hundreds of bottles of week. She was a rare woman sommelier, and her team consisted of two other women, one from France and the other of Indian decent. “We were quite the crew,” Towns Franken says. Mentorship was invaluable to Towns Franken mastering wine and thriving as a sommelier.
Eventually Towns Franken found the antisocial hours of restaurant work incompatible with raising a family. Yet she knew she would stay in the wine world. Towns Franken pivoted to working as a wine educator and consultant. She currently runs her own consulting and events business, Towns Franken Consulting, where she hosts private and corporate wine events. She also collaborates on a wine tasting platform called Life in Vino.
Towns Franken believes that “wine is naturally inclusive, as it’s about your palate.” She also believes that change in the wine world is necessary. Marketing to communities of color is about more than just paying lip service. She talked to me about changing the way we talk about wine. “I grew up in Chicago, where there is no forest floor,” she explained. Wine lingo can feel intimidating and insider-y, but there’s no reason it has to be that way. “If you can taste a hot dog, you can taste wine,” she urges. Wine can bring people in, rather than keep them out.
“Wine is about emotion. It can make people happy.” As for the future of wine (and beyond), Towns Franken is cautiously optimistic. “with the current level of engagement, I am hopeful that as a society we will come out of both pandemics stronger and better,” she told me. “It’s painful right now, but just like the civil rights movement of the 60s, hopefully something meaningful may come out of this.”
Hannah Howard is a writer and food expert who spent her formative years eating, drinking, serving, bartending, cooking on a hot line, flipping giant wheels of cheese, and managing restaurants. She is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen. Hannah is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. She writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.