Black winemakers look to change industry's stereotypes

NORTH PLAINS, Oregon (AP) — 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. “The image of the winemaker is an old white guy.”

The industry’s stereotype, Faustin said, is one of status and racial homogeneity. Photographs in wine publications feature expensive tasting rooms and white families touting well-bred pedigrees.

But more African-Americans and other minorities are increasingly making and drinking fine wine, and wine-tasting clubs for African-Americans have proliferated. Experts say the shift comes with its challenges.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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 “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. He produces about 2,500 cases a year.

“Excellence is colorless,” he said.

The Oregon Wine Board knows of one African-American winemaker: Faustin.

He’s a winemaker by accident. After moving from New York 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.

With his in-laws’ blessing, Faustin took over their vineyard in 2008, found a mentor and enrolled in a viticulture program. Faustin now 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, first-generation minority winemakers can succeed.

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