Some of the Black women who were KICKED OFF the Nappa Valley Wine Train.
Visitors to Bertony Faustin’s winery assume he just works there but African Americans are not only increasingly consumers of fine wine but producers.
Bertony Faustin didn’t set out to be Oregon’s first black winemaker. He just wanted to make good wine. What he hadn’t anticipated was the disbelief that often comes when customers realise a black man owns the winery.
“People are always surprised. Everybody assumes that … I am not the winemaker,” said the 43-year-old, who opened Abbey Creek Winery four years ago. “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 ethnicity; the train spokesman said employees repeatedly asked the women to quieten down. The company later apologised 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 black people in the industry.
Despite African Americans’ strong historical ties to farming – 14% of the nation’s farmers in 1920 – they abandoned the work mostly due to the legacies of slavery and discriminatory policies. Today, just 1% of all farm operators are black, according to the 2012 US agriculture census.
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 colourless,” 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 anaesthesia 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 programme. 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 colour and a lesbian couple. Their stories, he says, prove that despite financial barriers, first-generation minority winemakers can succeed.