DLynn Proctor is one of the co-founders of Wine Unify, a nonprofit looking to increase diversity in the wine industry through education, and the current director of Napa’s Fantesca Estate & Winery.
Proctor’s 20-year career includes leadership roles with Penfolds, a sommelier career in fine dining in Dallas and Los Angeles, building the cellars of private clients and many educational efforts. But Proctor is perhaps best recognized for his appearance in the Somm films and his work as associate producer on Netflix’s feature film Uncorked.
He recently chatted with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about his journey from busboy to sommelier to winery executive and how he’s hoping to give younger people of color opportunities.
Wine Spectator: Where did you grow up?
DLynn Proctor: Wow, I haven’t had to go back to the beginning in a long time. I was born and raised in Dallas. My dad was a mortician for 30 years, my mom worked for the postal service for 35 years. I’ve got a brother and I’ve got a sister and I’m the youngest.
WS: When you were growing up in Dallas, what did you want to be when you grew up?
DP: I always wanted to be an Olympic track runner. I ran track in high school. I played football. I was just focused on sports. I loved being a hurdler. But I guess in the back of my mind I kind of figured that, ok, I’ll probably be a mortician.
I was always asking for stuff. Can I have this, the coolest this or the latest that? And my dad sat me down and said, “Look, you can ask all you want. But unless you start working, it’s not going to happen. We provide what we can, what’s a necessity for you. But all these extra wants because your friends have them? That can happen if you go to work.”
So I found a way to bus tables when I wasn’t in practice or in school. Even if I was out of practice at 4:45, I was bussing tables by 5:30 p.m. My dad got an ID for me that said I was actually two years older. I started bussing tables as a freshman in high school.
WS: When you graduated from high school, was your next step a no-brainer?
DP: I was so sucked into restaurants and the culture and the people and the energy and the diversity of it. I grew up in Dallas, so they were mostly lily-white people and that’s okay, totally fine. But I was drawn to the diversity of what people’s careers were and gauging different levels of wealth that would come in and out of the restaurant.
WS: By the time you graduated, were you serving?
DP: I was a host at that point. But I knew I wanted to be a server really soon. I also wanted a change of scenery. I had Europe in my sights very badly. It would be Mr. So-and-so’s 58th visit to the restaurant this year. He eats here five days a week for lunch. His office is right across the street. And I would be hearing about his second home in Tuscany and his travels to Bordeaux. And I was thinking, why can’t that be me?
I figured out I could keep to this path or get really serious about this path. My next step being that word that I’m just learning how to pronounce—sommelier. So I was looking up what this wine person is about online. I saw stock images of older white guys in suits, but also saw photos of Tuscany and Spain. That’s where I want to go, that’s who I want to be. I’ve got to do this, and I’ve got to get really, really good at this.
WS: So it wasn’t just about money, but about adventure and experience?
DP: Adventure and I wanted to learn. I knew that that this lifestyle of wine and traveling, I could do that.
I went to L.A. I wanted a change of scenery. It has great restaurants. I knew my opportunity was bigger there. Soon I had exposure and was meeting suppliers and distributors that were eager to do things. I was excited about that. My first trips to Europe were because of great suppliers and great distributors saying, “Wow, this guy is selling so much Italian wine because he’s dialed in.”
WS: You’re very friendly and appear extroverted, but you’re also incredibly polite. I imagine that’s part of your training, but is it also reflective of your father and his career? I imagine understanding how to navigate uncomfortable situations is something that he was pretty good at.
DP: Yeah. Dealing with death, he’s got to be very polite and understanding and genteel and show a lot of empathy obviously. That’s one of the number one things in hospitality—the word empathy. I did learn a lot of that from my parents, and I learned by watching people I thought were positive.
Some things you just can’t go look up in a book, but you can watch an individual. Watch how they act, watch their mannerisms, how they talk, how they respond if they’re angry or emotional or excited. I just paid attention. It’s as simple as that.
WS: Let’s talk about the transition from restaurant to Foster’s. How did that happen?
DP: I started working for Foster’s before [their wine division] became Treasury Wine Estates. A lot of people think I got the job at Penfolds because of the Somm movie, but I was already on a trajectory for the Foster’s folks to be like, ‘Who is this young kid in Dallas selling all this Grange?’
There was a guy who was director of sales back at that time who traveled a lot and spent time in the big markets. He would always hear about this young guy who dressed very well. I should point out I didn’t dress well because I was rich or anything like that. I dressed well because I knew how to buy consignment suits and then get them tailored to fit me so well.
I always wanted to wear suits and be corporate and go into the meeting and have the presentation prepared. I always wanted that stuff and honestly, that’s what happened at Treasury and Foster’s.
WS: Let’s talk for a moment about your sense of style. Did you always like dressing up? You are often the best dressed person in the room, and that’s kind of your signature.
DP: My dad was always impeccably dressed. … He always had suspenders, a suit and a pair of Lucchese on.
There are photos of me, maybe in first through fifth grade. I always had a suit on for my class photos. Even in sixth grade when I had the little Gumby haircut style.
When I became a sommelier and became GM, I got to look better and, you know, I’m making a good salary. … I remember buying suits out of Mervyn’s and getting them altered so they looked custom. Then I remember going to consignment stores and buying designer suits that were probably seven or eight seasons old but getting them tailored.
WS: Is there a performance aspect to putting on a suit? Or do you feel better received when you look your best?
DP: Yeah, it is a performance. I mean every server that you’ve ever encountered, even if they’re not part-time actors, knows this. It is a performance when you have to recite the specials and when you have to talk about the dishes, whether you’re in Eleven Madison or The French Laundry or Massimo’s joint in Genoa.
It is a performance. So I think putting on the suit and getting yourself ready and thinking about the guests that you’ve got coming in tonight and feeling good about it. It is also very important to look the part, feel the part, and act the part too.
WS: Was there ever any confusion about you showing up to a table as the well-dressed Black man on the floor when someone asked to speak to the sommelier?
DP: When I was able to first put that on my business card, I was fortunate that enough of the Dallas diners had introduced me to other people of their ilk, that when people came into my restaurants, they were not surprised to see me. I would step up to their table with the napkin draped over my arm and talk about the current vintage of Opus and Mouton.
Going to trade shows I might have been looked at more funny. I knew how to play the game though. I would go up to the Frescobaldi or Mastroberardino table and say “ciao” and start speaking the best Italian I could. So before they would have the opportunity to judge me and say, “Black guy, huh?”, I disarmed them first. I made them feel that I already wanted to be a part of what they had at the table. So I think I was perceived in a different way.
WS: What was your role at Penfolds?
DP: I worked at every single side of the business. I worked or reported to supply, I reported to commercial strategy, sales and marketing. In my seven-and-a-half-year career at Treasury, I was happy to do all those different roles.
WS: What did Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago teach you?
DP: Peter wasn’t trying to teach me anything. But I spent a ton of time with Peter. I just watched, I absorbed and I paid attention. I never had to ask questions because Peter is a storyteller. … He never sleeps on flights, I don’t care if it’s from Adelaide to Sydney or Sydney to SFO. He will not sleep. Peter just talks.
I learned more about the history of Penfolds, or the Penfolds relationship in Asia, specifically China, our relationships in the UK, how we came about, who owns what. I learned all of that just listening to Peter. And I learned how to properly strategize and forecast and think about what quarter 2 and quarter 3 and the next three years of fiscal would look like, just by being around Peter.
If you want to say he was a mentor, but he wasn’t trying to be. If anything, I was like a nephew, and I still call him Chief. What a remarkable person he is to make everyone in the room feel comfortable, to appear very humble when obviously he has no reason to be humble.
WS: Why did you leave?
DP: I was clamoring to stop the 300,000 to 350,000 miles a year in air travel.
WS: So how did you meet the people at Fantesca?
DP: I met Duane and Susan Hoff back in 2005. I met Kirk Venge, who was making wine at Fantesca before Heidi Barrett. I met Duane first, not Susan. She was still full-time at Best Buy with her dad, who started Best Buy.
WS: There are a lot of brands in Napa and many started by people who have been successful in other ventures. What sets Fantesca apart in your eyes?
DP: We’re all about sustainability. We’re all about this family. And I think Spring Mountain is a very special place. It has always been my favorite AVA in all of Napa. I remember back to the days of collectors bringing Philip Togni wines, and I fell in love with not only Napa but Spring Mountain. So I think Spring Mountain makes Fantesca special. I have to be honest, last but certainly not least, I think Heidi Barrett makes Fantesca special.
WS: So what is your role?
DP: I’m director. But any smart or wise person will tell you my day-to-day job is the staff, vineyard crew, DTC sales, marketing, distribution. If the internet goes out, that’s me. With Duane and Susan, we sit down and talk about the strategy of the next year, the next six months. What markets would we go into?
WS: What is something that people misunderstand about the wine industry?
DP: I think people don’t really realize, apart from the restaurant side, the amount of strategy and planning and programming that goes into it. Getting your wines priced for each of the markets, whether it’s on premise or off-premise, and prognosticating the type of inventory that you think New York is going to need versus Illinois versus Florida versus Texas versus California—all that strategy that goes into it.
And then new product development. I was a part of five or six of those at Treasury. I remember the early days of 19 Crimes. People don’t realize the amount of strategy that goes into that. I think what I’m really gifted at is strategy and marketing and what the market will receive, and how you go into the market and what you prepare and present. That’s something that I didn’t even know I had a knack for.
WS: How did Wine Unify start?
DP: I met [fellow board member] Mary Margaret McCamic back in 2017, and we immediately clicked. We were talking about the fact that only white people—white men—were in the senior vice president, CEO, vice president roles. Why are they the only ones at these levels in the supply world and the distribution world?
Why is that and how will we be able to change that? How are we going to bring a new set of optics to that? She and I just continued to chat and have glasses of wine whenever we’d see each other.
We talked about it even more seriously around 2019, but I was fresh into my job at Fantesca. Of course 2020 rolls around. The world stops on March 15th. Everything is uncertain and then George Floyd. Mary Margaret and I get on the phone. Now it starts—a nonprofit, giving access to people of color, to change the optics, change the access and reshape the aspirations of people in this industry. It’s as simple as that.
WS: Wine Unify gives educational support to minority individuals who want to learn for new roles in the industry. What has the response been like and what progress have you’ve seen?
DP: The response has been absolutely amazing. In our first round, we were only going to give Welcome Awards to 10 recipients. We don’t call them winners or losers, they are recipients. No one shouldn’t win access. We were able to give 20 Welcome Awards to individuals.
Maybe they’ve been bussers, maybe they have a full-time job and they also host at a nice restaurant on Saturday and Sunday just to make some extra cash. Maybe they are not in the wine industry, but they want to be, and this gives them something to look for.
We were set to give five of the Elevate Awards [the next highest level], but because of generous donors we gave out 10, including one-on-one mentorship with Annette Alvarez Peters, Alicia Towns Franken, and others.
WS: When you were getting the applications, were there any common threads that you saw?
DP: The applications were 100 percent objective; we read them all blind. People wrote about being in the industry for 14 years or 24 years, and a lot of the stories were how they didn’t feel like they were being paid well, or they are trying to get ahead. They would really like to be the wine guy or the wine girl and it’s not happening.
After the Elevate level, we’re going to do the Amplify level. We’re looking at people that are in the industry. They have some confidence. Maybe they run cool bars or maybe they run cool restaurants and they feel good about what they’re doing. But no one knows them. Think about all the Black and brown faces that do all these amazing things everywhere.
While my day job is very important, I think my most important contribution is Wine Unify. I didn’t have what I’m fortunate to be able to give people. I’m fortunate to now give someone an opportunity. All of the introductions that were made to me were made to me by white men. I’m not ashamed of those, that’s not a bad thing. But now it’s time for more brown and more Black people to be in high positions to be making these great introductions, you know.
WS: Have you seen more Black and brown people in the industry since you’ve been in it?
DP: In the last five years, absolutely, and probably because of the Somm film, because I’ve been told a million times that some black sommelier exists because of my face.
So you see more Black men and women and more wonderful individuals that are just wanting to be everything and anything they can within this beautiful industry, whether it’s cork maker, barrel maker, label maker or GM of the St. Regis. I mean, whatever you can dream of.