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Oregon Wine Industry Largely White-Dominated: How It’s Changing

Friday, July 17, 2015

 

While Oregon’s wine industry is primarily dominated by the rich, white, and heterosexual, it’s certainly not the only wine producing region to witness this trend. As recently as 2008, there were more than 6,000 wineries in the country, but fewer than a dozen were owned by African Americans. The African American-centered news site Atlanta Blackstar reports there are now more than 8,000 wineries across the U.S., and less than 5% are owned by African Americans. 

After all, when you think of the people who run the wine industry, what sort of faces come to mind? 

For one winemaker, the answer was simple: “You think of rich, white people,” says Bertony Faustin, a Black winemaker and owner of Abbey Creek Cellars

Coming to this realization, Faustin decided it was time to tell the stories of people on the other side of the divide. His new documentary, which is currently under production and is entitled “Red, White, & Black,” will collect the stories of African American, LGBT, Latino, and other minority winemakers. 

The wine industry is full of hierarchies. American wines, minority-made or otherwise, weren’t respected internationally until the 1976 Judgment of Paris in which wines from California beat French wines in a blind tasting. While much younger than California’s wine industry, the Oregon wine industry has started to build a reputation for producing elegant and beautiful wines. But on the international stage, it’s still a long way from Burgundy and Bordeaux. 

To be a minority within an already marginalized winemaking region is to face an extra barrier to being a respected wine producer. For example, many Latinos in California have fought for respect as winemakers and vineyard owners as opposed to being seen as grape pickers and cellar hands. 

Faustin says he first started thinking of the questions of minority status in the Oregon beverage industry before he owned his own winery, back when he worked at Sake One in Forest Grove. Being an African American man selling a traditionally Japanese product was a source of conversation for many of his customers. 

“We were the largest American sake producer, and you walk in the front door and a black man is basically the face of the company.” 

Like wine, the sake industry has dominant insiders and marginal outsiders. In sake, the Japanese command the top production honors, while everyone else makes, well, everything else. Sake One has started to buck the stigma that American sake is an inferior product, and Faustin helped champion that effort early on. 

After moving on from the sake industry to start his own wine label, Faustin says he was having the same conversations with customers about being a minority in the wine industry as he had while working in the sake industry. 

But Faustin says that “Red, White, & Black” is about more than just trying to get people to think marginal winemakers are unique.

“You don’t want people coming to your winery just because you are a minority, you want them to come because you make great wine. But you can’t hide that you’re different, and this is an important conversation to have,” said Faustin. 

“When I first got started in the Oregon wine industry, I didn’t see many other faces like mine and I didn’t know who to turn to,” he continued. “Now I’m looking to the next generation.”

Although the documentary is already being filmed, Faustin and his production crew are also working on an Indiegogo campaign to help build awareness and funding for the project. Jerry Bell will direct the film, with Faustin serving as a writer and producer. Dewey Weddington, founder of Ferment Marketing, and Ocean Yap-Powell will also serve as writers. 

Faustin and the production crew will hold a launch party for “Red, White, & Black” on August 13th at Hip Chicks Do Wine in Southeast Portland from 6-8 p.m. Tickets ($20 per person) will help fund the movie and will include food and wine from labels participating in the film. 

 

Related Slideshow: Great Oregon Wineries Outside the Willamette Valley

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Watermill Winery

The orchards around Milton-Freewater produce some of the best apples in the world. Over the last several decades, the Brown family has developed a reputation for producing some of the highest-quality fruit in the region. And their Blue Mountain Cider Company is renowned for its hard ciders.  Andrew Brown is the second-generation winemaker (and cidermaker) leading the way. Whether it’s the classic

Bordeaux blends or single-varietal wines like Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot, Watermill’s wines are a showcase for the Milton-Freewater area.

Watermill Winery
2011 Mourvèdre
Columbia Valley

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Don Carlo Vineyard

Lori Kennedy grew up making wine with her grandfather, Carlo. An Italian immigrant in

Seattle, Carlo had grapes sent by train every year from Lodi, California. With young Lori beside him, he made wine to last the family all year long.  Named in honor of Lori’s grandfather, Don Carlo wines are among the finest examples of what we’re going to get from the new Rocks AVA.

Don Carlo Vineyard
2012 Estate Chardonnay
Walla Walla Valley

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Bradley Vineyards

Elkton is a small town (population: 194) at the north end of the Umpqua Valley. Situated between Eugene and the Oregon Coast, it’s colder and wetter than much of the Umpqua.  And it’s for that reason that, in 2013, the Elkton AVA was recognized.

John Bradley planted his first grapes in 1983 but didn’t produce his own wine until 2003, when a winery refused to take delivery of a truckload of Pinot Noir. Bradley called the winemakers at River’s Edge (for whom he had managed the vineyard) and they collaborated right then to make the first Bradley Pinot Noir.  Last year, John passed away unexpectedly at age 65. Today, the Bradley label is still going strong, producing wines under the leadership of his wife, Bonnie, and their two adult children, Tyler and Rachel.

Bradley Vineyards
2010 Pinot Noir
Elkton

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Viento Wines

Winemaker Rich Cushman is a Hood River native, and after studying viticulture at UC

Davis and apprenticing in Germany, he decided that he was “a Hood River boy” and turned down job offers that would take him out of Oregon.

While in Germany, Cushman fell in love with Riesling and in 1981, he planted his first vines – still growing strong right next door to the Viento tasting room. As he says, “The vines are now getting old and gnarly but are producing wonderful quality fruit.” And that makes Viento Wines an excellent sample of what you’ll find in and around Hood River.

Viento Wines
2011 Dry Riesling
Columbia Gorge

 
 

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