By GOSIA WOZNIACKA
NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — Bertony Faustin didn’t set out to be Oregon’s first black winemaker. He just wanted to make good wine. But the disbelief that often comes when customers realize a black man owns the winery has worn on him.
“People are always surprised. Everybody assumes that … I am not the winemaker, said the 43-year-old, who four years ago opened Abbey Creek Winery about 20 miles northwest of Portland. “The image of the winemaker is an old white guy. To see that it’s a black man, it takes people aback.”
The industry’s stereotype, Faustin said, is one of status and racial homogeneity – photographs in wine publications feature manicured homes, expensive tasting rooms and white families touting well-bred pedigrees. Yet, more African-Americans and other minorities are increasingly making and drinking fine wine and wine-tasting clubs for African Americans have proliferated. The shift, many experts say, is making the industry less elitist and attracting a diversity of customers, but comes with its own challenges.
Just last month, the Napa Valley Wine Train in California kicked a book club composed mostly of black women off a tasting tour. The women said it was because of their race; the train spokesman said employees repeatedly asked the women to quiet down. The company later apologized and promised to train employees on cultural diversity and sensitivity.
In the hopes of debunking myths, Faustin is making a documentary film about breaking the racial barrier, with the goals of giving more visibility to African-American, Latino, Asian and gay vintners and empowering the next generation to drink and pursue wine-related jobs.
For generations, social class – and, hence, wealth and race – limited Americans’ access to fine wine.
“The reality is, we’ve been kept out of the industry for a long time. Civil rights is just 50 years old and for us to even have opportunities to dine out at established restaurants is fairly new,” said Marcia Jones, an African-American who hosts the syndicated weekly radio show “Wine Talk,” on which she interviews blacks in the industry. “To share wine for generations to come, a comprehensive story needs to be told.”
Despite African Americans’ strong historical ties to farming – 14 percent of the nation’s farmers in 1920 – they abandoned the work mostly due to the legacies of slavery and discriminatory policies. Today, just 1 percent of all farm operators are black, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture.
In the wine industry, there are only a few dozen black vintners across the country, about 20 of them in Napa Valley. But their inroads into winemaking reflect the country’s massive social changes and increasing economic mobility.
Theodora Lee founded Theopolis Vineyards in 2003 in California’s Mendocino County. The law partner and trial lawyer bottles and markets her wine and is on course to sell about 800 cases this year.
“I’m returning to my family’s farming roots,” said Lee, whose grandfather was a sharecropper in Texas. “The only difference is, I own the land.”
Jerry Bias, a Virginia vintner who grew up in inner-city Baltimore and later became a Wall Street trader, was inspired by a wealthy African-American businessman “to take the shackles off of my own thinking and do whatever my dreams call me to do.” He planted vines in 2001 and runs Wisdom Oak Winery, a 153-acre estate and vineyard just south of Charlottesville. He produces about 2,500 cases a year, and says his focus is quality.
“Excellence is colorless,” he said.
The Oregon Wine Board spokeswoman Michelle Kaufmann admits the images it promotes are of white winemakers, though she said the organization welcomes everyone and has seen a 40 percent growth after the recession that’s more diverse. But of the state’s nearly 700 wineries, the board knows of one African-American winemaker: Faustin.
He’s a winemaker by accident. After moving from Brooklyn, New York, to Portland 15 years ago to be an anesthesia technician, he met his wife and the couple moved to the city’s outskirts on her parents’ property, which is planted on 12 acres of grapes.
With his in-laws’ blessing, Faustin took over the vineyard in 2008, found a mentor and enrolled in a viticulture program. He honed his skills for five years as the tasting room supervisor at a sake brewery and made wine under his own label on the side.
Abbey Creek Winery’s tasting room opened in 2011. The work is hard: Faustin and his assistant, Ocean Yap Powell, do it all planting and pruning, crushing grapes and bottling, tastings and sales. Faustin sells about 800 to 1,000 cases a year directly to customers and he’s sold out of every vintage, he said.
His documentary, “Red, White and Black,” will feature several people of color and a lesbian couple; their stories, he says, prove that despite financial barriers and lack of vintner lineage – himself included -first-generation minority winemakers can succeed.
He also wants the movie to help the industry reflect the consumer population shifts. “We don’t shun history, but we also need to shape the future of Oregon wine,” Faustin said, “so that Latinos, blacks and gay people can participate.”