Jeungmi Woo of Traveling Vineyard

Wine Guide Stories: Spotlight on Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we’re sharing stories from four Wine Guides who are making an impact in our wine community through the contribution of their leadership, talent, and friendship. We are proud to stand with the AAPI community, and to encourage everyone in our wine community to explore more about the AAPI history and heritage.

Discovering the Wine Guide Life

Agana Glass of Chesapeake, Virginia, became a Wine Guide in 2013 and is now a Team Leader with Traveling Vineyard. Both of Agana’s parents are from the Philippines and were living in Guam when she was born. At age two, Agana’s family moved to Papua New Guinea, where she spent much of her childhood, returning to Guam at age 16.

So where did an appreciation for wine enter the picture?

“Living in the islands I was used to drinking cocktails and wine coolers. I was probably 24 when I first drank wine, and of course, it was sweet wine. About a year later someone introduced me to Merlot and I was hooked!”

Fast forward to 2013, Agana was raising four children in the States and her husband was away on deployment. She attended a wine tasting and loved the fun and “adult time” so much, that she signed up to become a Wine Guide. Traveling Vineyard’s guiding principle is to “work hard, and be kind,” which has been especially attractive to Agana, because that’s exactly the principle she was raised on by her family. What Agana enjoys most about being a Wine Guide is the tight-knit community and culture of Traveling Vineyard: “Like Lilo said, ‘Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.’” Agana has found this to be true about her wine family.

Elise Wolski, a China-born Wine Guide and One Star Leader from Rochester, New York, echoes that sentiment when it comes to her own Wine Guide Life. “I love the Traveling Vineyard community. Everyone is so positive. I love how we can all come together because of our love for wine.” Most notably, Elise, who launched her business in 2018, says she’s inspired by the way the community comes together when another Wine Guide is in need, whether it’s helping with their business or a personal tragedy.

For Jeungmi “J” Woo, a Wine Guide and One Star Leader in Arlington, Virginia, the flexibility of operating a home business attracted her to the Wine Guide Life in 2014. “I was looking for a way to make a little extra money because being enlisted in the military in my 30s was tough. There were some other direct sales businesses I had looked into, but I was looking for popular consumable goods because we don’t need too much stuff—so wine? Yes, please.”

Korean-born and raised in the States, Jeungmi’s interest in wine began when she realized how much there was to learn about it. “When I was fundraising (pre-military), one of my donors was a woman who had just opened a wine shop and she invited me to a tasting. When I told her, I didn’t like the ones that gave me ‘that dry sucking feeling in my mouth,’ she smiled and told me, ‘Oh honey, those are tannins.’ She is the one who really introduced me to the wide complex world of wine.”

Deliving that a-ha! moment to others tops the list for many Wine Guides. In fact, it’s one of things Wine Guide Nenita Hill of Portland, Oregon, enjoys most. Nenita, a U.S.-born Filipina, attended a Traveling Vineyard wine tasting and was drawn to the educational, entertaining aspect of being a Wine Guide.

“Being able to teach some basics and see the surprise on guests’ faces at how food and wine impact each other is sort of a rush for me, and I feel like I’m enriching their lives in a fun way. I’m always looking for new info and facts to bring to my events, so it’s motivated me to learn more, enriching my life,” she says. “I work full-time as a Product Manager and being a Wine Guide balances me out! I’m also looking to retire in a few years, and I could see Traveling Vineyard being a part of my retirement life being able to do something I enjoy and can do as my time allows,” Nenita says.

Nenita’s interest in wine runs deep and can be attributed in part to her family story, which started in the Phillipines.

“My grandfather served in the U.S Navy so my dad was born in Hawaii but grew up in the Philippines. My mom was born and raised in the Philippines. They were both in the Philippines during World War II which was a difficult time and the stories of what they experienced hiding in the jungle, my maternal grandfather being held in a Japanese concentration camp and almost being killed. My dad came to San Francisco in 1956 when he was 28. He married my mom in the Philippines, and she came to the U.S. in 1965. In our home growing up, we ate traditional Filipino dishes and they spoke their local Filipino dialect, Ilocano versus speaking Tagalog. Because they felt it was important that we ‘fit in,’ they spoke to us in English, and we answered in English so that we wouldn’t have an accent. My younger sister and I can still understand Filipino, but we don’t speak fluently.”

Nenita says her family gatherings were large and multi-generational. “We all grew up spending a lot of time together which is a wonderful thing,” she says. Her maternal grandmother made and sold Basi, a wine made from sugar cane, in the Philippines. “My interest in wine began when my husband at the time worked in the Sonoma/Napa wine industry. We were able to try several wines and then there was Sonoma County’s Annual Barrel Tasting event which I still attend every year.”

Educating others about AAPI heritage and history

When these women are conducting wine tastings out in their communities, sometimes the education is about more than wine. It’s also about sharing their heritage, and teaching others about cultures and experiences. “Just like with other groups that immigrated, there is often a history of struggle and the challenges that still exist,” Nenita says.

She recalls a story that her son experienced on his honeymoon in Hawaii.

“My son’s wife, who is not Asian, overheard a group at the luau they attended make comments to how their mixed marriage would result in their having unhealthy children! These individuals were clearly not aware that my son is half Filipino/half Italian.”

These types of experiences are micro-aggressions that build up over time and are harmful.

Jeungmi explains that she chose to shorten her name to “J” in college to make it easier for one of her professors to pronounce. She still goes by J today but appreciates when people use her given name. “I’ve been learning that I don’t need to change myself or my identity to make other people more comfortable.” Jeungmi has also struggled to feel at ease with groups at her tastings from time to time. However, she has found that when she shares the story of her military service, it sets people at ease—but she doesn’t think it’s fair that she needs to do that.

Jeungmi says she seeks to educate others and spread awareness about racism and discrimination against the AAPI community. One way she does this is by making herself available for honest conversation.

“It’s okay to not know all the things, it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s okay to realize you’ve said and done things that are racially insensitive—if you’re willing to learn,” Jeungmi says. “I grew up in an area without many Asians (if they were Asian, I probably knew them) so I understand that not everyone knows ‘what to do.’ We can all educate ourselves.”

“We’ve all heard it, but education is key. Understanding how Asian Americans have contributed to American history is one part. Did you know the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history is the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the segregated unit of second-generation Japanese Americans who were initially denied entry into the military because of the racist fears after the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Among those soldiers, was the late Senator Daniel Inouye who served in Congress for 58 years and never lost an election, after he lost his arm fighting in WWII. That’s not Asian history, that is part of American history,” Jeungmi says.

Elise, who was adopted from China by her Swedish mother and Polish father and raised in the States, has made a point to stay connected with her AAPI heritage through Chinese language studies, connecting with the AAPI community, and honoring her birthplace through art, namely tattoos that represent her heritage. Her tattoos have become important conversation starters in her own effort to educate others. One tattoo features her Chinese name, which means “lucky moon.” Another of her tattoos reads, “Made in China,” which illustrates Elise’s sense of humor and easy-going nature. She has found that humor creates an approachable space for meaningful conversation.

It’s not always easy to speak up, but it has been important in each of these women’s lives to do so.

“Something found throughout so many Asian cultures is the whole is always greater than the self, that means the family and country always come before any individual. This is why so many Asian Americans have been afraid to speak out or rock the boat, because it’s been engrained in us that putting my own identity and needs above making other people comfortable brings shame and disrespect. I’ve learned there is a healthy balance between honoring your family, serving your country, and being confident in your own person and identity. Regardless of your own ethnic background, be an ally. That means standing up for people who may not be comfortable doing it themselves and using whatever platform you have, to bring awareness to things you see that are unjust,” Jeungmi says.

To that sentiment, we raise a glass! Thank you to each of these amazing women for sharing their stories and experiences with us.

Learn more about Asian American Pacific Islander history and heritage.

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