Winemaking as a Minority: Building an Inclusive Industry

Bertony Faustin
2017 Landmark: Connecting Oregonians
Tue, 02/27/2018 (All day)

Growing up in New York, AKA “the concrete jungle,” I never had the real appreciation of outdoor space, but always felt an indescribable happiness when around it. A child of immigrants, I was brought up to work hard and make it work – “The immigrant hustle.” I found myself in jobs that paid the bills, but never filled my soul.

Meanwhile, my future in-laws were in Oregon and had purchased two large, adjoining plots of land. I’m not sure they ever truly had a solid idea about what to do with the land, besides an investment property. Back then, zoning was multipurpose use, so they could have done a few things. When they planted the 5-7 acres of grapes in 1981, it was with the guidance of a consultant that referred to the southern exposure. Planting grapes as a farm incentive sounded cooler than Christmas trees.

After many years on the east coast, I decided to head west to California, but oddly ended up in Oregon instead. I was working as an Anesthesia Technician at OHSU where I would meet my now wife and soon after start a family. In 2007 my father passed away.

It was his passing that made me reassess my life and true happiness. I recall an old quote: “Tragedy evokes change.” So, it was up to me to decide just what that change would be. One day, while sitting on the porch at the outlaws… I mean INLAWS… I was looking over the vineyard that wasn't even being used and said ”I’m going to make wine.” Now never mind the fact that I didn't even drink, nor did I have any idea where to start, but to me, that was half the battle.

There’s an old adage in the wine industry: “In order to make a small fortune, you need to start with a large one.” That’s not true for me. We didn't start with much at all. After years of runarounds with county and government agencies, and even some push-back from 1000 Friends, we decided we won’t be traditional. I thought we would be, but that’s not how it happened – you’ve got to hustle. It’s hard sometimes, and often I am mistaken for a staff person. People will come to a tasting and ask “who makes the wine?” or “where is the owner?” It’s me! We are different, and that’s good. I want to break down those stereotypes about what it is to be a winemaker, or to be a farmer.

You don’t see a lot of people of color making wine, and initially I didn't want to be a “black winemaker/pioneer,” But here I am, bridging those gaps and connecting people to a different, broadened vision of what’s possible or how things should be done. Ultimately, I knew to truly make an impact, this mission was going to have to be bigger than me. I also knew that no one else was going to share my story, so that’s why I set out to produce Red, White & Black, my upcoming documentary. This passion project, now turned movement, identifies and tells the story of minority winemakers. Through this process, I’ve made it a mission to connect with people in any way I can.

One of the many ways that I connect with people is through different events. Brunches, dinners, international film nights. I solicit local talent, and intentionally seek People of Color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community as my chefs, musicians, and artists. Whenever I partner with said groups, they share their circle of friends with me so we can always have a more diverse attendance. I’ve personally witnessed people’s perception of each other change while enjoying a meal at a long family style table (wine also helps).

As for the film, I knew my story was a very important one. But, I also knew that by adding other minority groups I would bring the true message of inclusion to the forefront. With more and different voices, we can remove the stigma of white guilt, or defensive feelings about the subject matter as if it were just a “black thing.” The image of wine right now is hipsters in hats having a picnic in a field or ultra-pretentious in a dimly lit wine cave, but winemaking is becoming more diverse, and that’s why I’m very excited for the future.

My plans are to eventually have a foundation that introduces kids of color, and those in diverse social, gender, or economic demographics to the farming world. This is a part of my journey that I truly love. As a kid in New York, I didn't get to see farms, or experience natural open spaces regularly. When I think about the demographics of our current local neighborhoods with low-income families, especially the gentrified ones, I think it’s a lot like my childhood. Now the only options are either Whole Foods or fast foods. There’s no concept of farms, seeing crops growing, even something as simple of having chickens and knowing where your food comes from. In Oregon, food is in close proximity to these urban neighborhoods.

Part of my desire is to bring these kids to a property like ours to show them the meaning and cycle of life through a grapevine. I don’t just show up and grapes appear, cared for, ripe and ready to pick. It’s a sequence of stages, steps, knowledge of the land, and techniques that, back in the day, were passed on through generations. Farming is a parallel to real life and it isn't as untouchable as it seems. What makes this truly feasible is that we’re not hours away in some mythical farmland – we’re fifteen minutes from St. Johns!

Not many can afford to have any type of acreage with land prices going up, let alone within the city. That shouldn't discourage young people, and particularly those that haven’t seen themselves in this work, so emphasizing my role and using my platform can help shape the future. Being the “first” is truly a special and humbling situation, but it’s even more important to make sure that I’m not the last.

About the author: Bertony Faustin is the owner of Abbey Creek Winery with a tasting room and event space in North Plains. He is leading the creation of the documentary, Red, White & Black, which chronicles the stories of minority winemakers working in Oregon or with Oregonians. This writing first appeared in 1000 Friends of Oregon's 2017 Landmark publication