Perhaps it shouldn’t matter that an Oregon winemaker is black. But of course it matters. It’s America in 2016, after all. We live in a land still sliced by racial distinction and discrimination. Oregon, with its 86 percent whiteness, has a robust history of exclusion. I mention this to the man I’m interviewing, Bertony Faustin, owner of Abbey Creek Vineyard and Oregon’s first recorded black winemaker.
“Oregon has a history of being a utopia to get away from black folks,” he says. “We wouldn’t have [to tell] this story if Oregon was diverse and open.” The state, after all, was founded on racist principles—black people were prohibited from settling or owning land—while segregation lasted well into the 20th century.
And so, here we are, discussing one offshoot of those color-coded policies. Faustin, somewhat inadvertently, has become the go-to guy in any discussion about the lack of diversity in Oregon’s wine industry. It’s not a position he sought, though.
“I didn’t want to be THE black winemaker,” he says, “I’m just hustling to make a little bit of wine.”
Still, it’s a role Faustin has taken to. He gives lectures to the wine establishment in Newberg, he’s been to DC to talk on the topic, and he’s involved in a program at Concordia University to introduce diverse and disadvantaged kids to the idea of winemaking (which is about farming, rather than getting teenagers into drinking). He’s also made his own film, Red, White and Black, about his experiences and those of his peers—Andre Mack, owner of Mouton Noir wines; Jesus Guillen, winemaker at White Rose Estate and his own label, Guillen Family Wine; Jarod Sleet at Argyle Winery, and Remy Drabkin, the woman behind her Remy Wines label.
Sitting in his production facility and tasting room in North Plains (“The black part of town is when I’m here”), the 45-year-old sits in his chair projecting a stolid exuberance. It’s apparent there’s a need for his story. Word about the movie—which is self-financed but needs additional funding for postproduction—went national, then international, and now he gets emails from strangers telling him he’s been an inspiration. Still, when customers come into the tasting room, they ask him who the winemaker is.
“With my name, people are looking for a little Italian guy,” he says. “They weren’t being malicious, they were just puzzled: How does this black dude get to be a winemaker with a vineyard?”
He never planned on being a winemaker. Born to Haitian immigrant parents, he grew up in New York City and moved to Oregon to work as an anesthesia technician at OHSU. The career change was enabled by his in-laws owning land on Germantown Road that included some vine rows. “I didn’t even drink before I started making wine. I saw it as New York hustle for the first three or four years—this is in front of me, what can I do with it?”
His first vintage was in 2008. In time, his passion for winemaking has increased, but not his disdain for the industry. Our conversation is peppered with examples of how the traditional wine world excludes people (intentionally or not) through its narratives, presumptions, and the image it portrays.
“In 2015, the Oregon Wine Board was celebrating 50 years of winemaking,” Faustin says, “and you get the photos of the pioneers and the usual story. I was like, you know what? There’s nothing about that story that is me. That was part of the bullshit of the industry that’s annoyed me throughout.”
Faustin barely mentions his wines—there’s some talk of the varietals he farms (he’s recently planted Gamay and Albariño, a white grape from Iberia) and the 2016 harvest. Usually, you can’t stop a winemaker from engulfing you with talk of clone types, soils, fermentation methods, barrel aging, and winemaking philosophy.
“People want a good bottle of wine,” Faustin explains, “but all the other things that the wine industry puts its onus on means nothing.”
He certainly has no interest in starting a wine dynasty.
“Kids—fuck ’em, let them get their own thing!” he says, laughing. Then, adding, “Again, it’s turning back to that same story—it’s the fourth generation, blah blah. No one says that about the guy who’s a plumber, no one cares if he leaves a dynasty for his kids.”
For all the pugnacious talk, all he wants is for people to have an enjoyable experience.
“Anyone who comes into my tasting room, it’s my responsibility how you leave, whether a beginner or an expert wine taster.”
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“I’m not trying to make wine [just] for black people,” he says. “I want to bridge the gap to where we get that traditional wine drinker to see a different side of things. I think there’ll be more change that way.”