- Written by Amy Milshtein
- Published in Farms and Forests
- 0 comments
Bertony Faustin crushes stereotypes.
Bertony Faustin doesn’t stop moving. At the Abbey Creek Vineyard winery/tasting room in North Plains, he exudes warmth and charm, greeting guests by wrapping his large hands around theirs for a meaningful two-fisted shake. He hauls cases of wine to cars and sweeps the sidewalk after they leave. At his vineyard, 20 minutes away in Multnomah County, Faustin is a one-man crew: driving the tractor, spraying vines and pulling leaves. During crush, he works the fermenters and barrels, bottling a small batch of boutique product that fetches a handsome price.
“I’m a hustler,” Faustin says proudly.
That’s not a moniker commonly thrown around in the stately world of wine — even in Oregon, a scrappy West Coast upstart compared to Washington and California. But Faustin, 44, is not your everyday winemaker. Sharp, funny and charismatic, the ex-anesthesia technician had yet to imbibe a single drink until he fell into the wine business almost 10 years ago. His operation in North Plains, a “Coors Light kind of town,” according to Faustin, is far from other Willamette Valley wineries.
Oh, and one other thing: Faustin is black.
The state’s first African-American winegrower, according to the Oregon Wine Board, Faustin knows he is blazing a trail into a white man’s territory. Abbey Creek is one of just 10 black-owned wineries out of a pool of 7,500 in the U.S., according to V. Sheree Williams, publisher and editor of Cuisine Noir, an Oakland Calif.-based food and wine lifestyle publication for African-Americans.
Groundbreaking as it is, Abbey Creek is merely a jumping-off point for Faustin. He is filming a video documentary showcasing Oregon’s other minority winemakers, is participating in a wine-themed reality show and is preparing to launch a second label. Like other small, family-owned wineries in Oregon, Faustin is fighting for his place in the state’s rapidly changing wine scene. Like other black entrepreneurs in Oregon, he is fighting for acceptance at the table.
“When they find out I’m the winemaker, they look puzzled,” Faustin says of his wine guests’ experience. “When they find out I own the vineyard, too, they pause with a look in their eye.”
Born in Brooklyn, NY, to Haitian parents, Faustin fell into the wine business by happenstance, turning his in-laws’ seven-acre hobby farm into a production vineyard. In 2007 Faustin, along with a full-time assistant, took over the operation, caring for the grapes and learning the craft. He started the wine studies program at Chemeketa Community College but quit after one semester. “I didn’t need a degree because I wasn’t looking for a job,” he says.
During this period, Faustin did have an important day job: tasting room supervisor at SakéOne, Oregon’s only sake-brewing facility. As the face and personality of the Forest Grove maker, Faustin represented SakéOne at food and wine shows and interacted with customers and cellar members.
He also gained experience and confidence. When Abbey Creek’s first bottling came out in 2008, Faustin had his business plan in place: selling directly to the customer. “It’s not the perfect model for the industry,” he says, noting that traditional success means a presence in grocery stores, wine shops and restaurants. “[But] that’s too many middlemen,” he says.
So Faustin did what he says he does best: work the system. He showed at every food and wine event, from the Portland Seafood and Wine Festival to the McMinnville Sip, with the goal of selling Abbey Creek wine club memberships. He planted eight additional acres of grapes at the vineyard — at a cost of $40,000 an acre — increasing production from 500 cases a year to 1,200. In 2012 he bought the North Plains property.
His wines sell in the $20 to $35-a-bottle range, with some going for $50. Two years ago, his accountant called with monumental news: Abbey Creek was in the black.
Faustin estimates the worth of his operation at $500,000; small, but not uncommon. (Most of the state’s wineries are small, family-owned businesses according to the Oregon Wine Board, with 70% producing 5,000 cases or fewer a year.)
To date, Faustin has 75 club members, who commit to a yearly bulk buy with the promise of a discount, and collectively generating about 40% of Abbey Creek’s total sales. The rest is sold on-site at his 2,500-square-foot North Plains facility, nicknamed the Crick. There Faustin pours samples and shakes hands at monthly events and weekend tastings.
He also changes his guests’ expectations about African Americans in the state’s wine industry.
Both Williams of Cuisine Noir and Faustin say there is a widespread perception that wine — as a drink and an industry — is still not “for us.” That notion is compounded by the media and marketing that surrounds the product, Faustin says. However, he is also noticing a shift in the demographic makeup of his patrons. “About 15% are African American,” he says. “That’s up from 0% six months ago.”
Faustin credits the uptick to other black Oregonians learning about and supporting his work. However, it appears to be a real trend nationwide. “More African Americans are drinking wine, especially women,” says Cuisine Noir’s Williams. “It is definitely a growing segment that should not be ignored by the industry.”
With a 88% white population, according to the 2014 census, just being black in Oregon is unusual. Being black and running a company is even rarer. “People in Portland think that a business is owned by a white male by default,” says biracial Beaverton native Stephen Green, the co-founder and community director of Elevate Capital and treasurer of the Oregon Public House, a not-for-profit brewpub that is located in Northeast Portland and serves Abbey Creek.
“People are quietly surprised when I walk into the room,” Green says. “They’re not expecting a person of color.”
Faustin says African-Americans in Portland often acknowledge one another with “the head nod,” a subtle gesture of recognition and implied solidarity. “We don’t know each other,” Faustin says. “It’s just to acknowledge that ‘I see you.’”
To further break down barriers, Faustin is working on a documentary, Red, White and Black, which tells the story of Oregon’s other minority winemakers. “I’m trying to shape the face of the Oregon wine industry with hopes of starting a movement,” he says.
Participants include Jesus Guillen, the state’s first Mexican winemaker, lesbian winemaker Remy Drabkin and two other African Americans in the business, Jarod Sleet and Andre Mack, owner of the Mouton Noir wine label in McMinnville. The latter is already a powerhouse, producing 30,000 cases a year of Oregon-sourced wine.
Red, White and Black, directed by Jerry Bell, Jr., a black actor from Hillsboro who is enjoying a moment of national fame as Swiffer Dad, will be released in May. Faustin has a verbal agreement with a Los Angeles media company for distribution and marketing.
Faustin is also putting his talents to the test as a contestant on the first season of wine-making reality show Best Bottle. Produced by Sony Entertainment, the show will pit Oregon winemakers against Californians. The show is taping now, and Faustin says he’ll play to win.
But the real goal is generating interest in a second label. “I’ll buy fruit and start modestly, around 5,000 cases,” he says. He plans to price this yet unnamed product at $20 to $25 a bottle and keep Abbey Creek as his estate brand.
While his wine journey remains unique, Faustin faces the same challenges as the rest of Oregon’s winemakers. Presently, the industry has a $3.35 billion impact on the state’s annual economy, but climate change, rising land and grapes prices, and sharpened interest from outside forces are already changing the shape of the 50-year-old sector.
Today most of Oregon’s wines don’t leave the state but according to Michelle Kaufmann of the Oregon Wine Board, outside investors will increase national and global distribution, further driving interest in Oregon wine. The attention will surely burnish the credentials of all of the state’s wineries. It may also price some small producers out of the game.
For now Faustin keeps hustling, continuing the tradition of Oregon’s independent winemakers while reforming it from within. But with all of the attention Faustin is attracting, is he afraid that an outsider with big pockets will disrupt his niche business? “No one’s coming for me,” he says. “I’m still underground.”
Correction appended: This article has been amended to reflect accurate demographic figures. Oregon has an 88% white population, not 98%.