Changing the Game to Make Wine More Diverse

How an Oregon winemaker found success with a new type of winery experience

The wine industry has a motto: In order to make a small fortune in wine, you start with a large one. That really just tells you that it’s a bunch of rich white guys throwing money around! I’m from Brooklyn—our motto is: If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. On the one hand, the wine industry is one of exclusion, pedigree, and status. On the other, it can be so hyper-focused on the “what”— soil, barrels, and so on—that we forget about the who that’s drinking the wine.

Becoming Oregon’s first black winemaker was definitely an undertaking for me. I didn’t want to be anybody’s pioneer or trailblazer, but the moment came when I had to decide to own that. Once I did, there was no turning back—the qualities that make me unique in the industry, and as an individual, are also what make me successful.

When I started the Abbey Creek label, it wasn’t because I was passionate about wine. It was simply my passion for the hustle—more specifically, the “immigrant hustle” that was bred into me by my father, a Haitian immigrant who came to the United States in the late ‘60s with no formal education. He understood the need to be successful in spite of all the obstacles ahead.  

I’ve come to learn that tragedy evokes change. It was my father’s passing in 2007 that made me reassess my life and my happiness. At that time, my in-laws had between five and six acres of fruit that were planted as a farm deferral. In years past, some of the fruit had been sold. The instinctive hustler in me saw an opportunity that, pardon the pun, was ripe for the picking. I didn’t even drink alcohol at the time. But I was looking for a change and thought, if Pops could do what he did in the past, I can definitely make wine. And I quickly realized that for me, making wine successfully meant staying true to who I am and what I stand for. I had to truly own who I was. It also meant being transparent about it.

Abbey Creek has been at its current location since 2012. Back then, customers would come in and ask, “Who’s the winemaker?” I’d say, “It’s me.” The expression of disbelief on their faces… that’s what I’ve been up against, and likely why you don’t see more brown and black winemakers. “You don’t have a vineyard, do you?” they’d ask. “I’ve got 15 acres,” I’d say. Sometimes, that still wasn’t enough. “Well, you must have gone to UC Davis.” “No, I’m self-taught.” I spent a lot of time validating my position, but that got old. So I shifted my focus in a more positive direction, to creating the kind of environment I wanted in wine.

You’ll notice this the moment you walk into my winery. I play hip hop and R&B. I’m always in my overalls and Timberland boots. The first comment I get from customers is, “It just feels good in here.” I call it the ghetto cheers. What’s more, we don’t talk to you about wine. I know you came in the door for wine; I don’t need to talk to you about soil and barrels, or about ratings and points—you can Google that shit. I want to make you feel welcome, not perpetuate that feeling of exclusion.

By doing this, I’ve created my own market. I accepted the fact that not everyone was going to be my customer. That gave me freedom to do what I do, and do it the way I want to do it. And that speaks to people. If you come to one of our winery events, the diversity representation is amazing. My clientele is largely black and brown customers of all ages, as well as millennials of all shades. But I’m building the bridge to the older white generation that came up in the more “traditional” wine scene. These days, I’ve got 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old white folks who are ambassadors of both Abbey Creek and me and my mission. At the end of the day, I’m bringing good people together, regardless of their demographic. It’s this community of diversity that I create and that I call success.

People buy with their emotions, and with their hearts. That’s what we’re catering to at Abbey Creek. And so can you. By opening up your environment to be more inclusive and engaging to a broader, more diverse audience, you’re creating a positive, memorable experience for your customers. It’s good for your business, and it’s good for the industry.

I believe that we’re not just making wine—we’re making memories. And through our efforts, we can change the industry, one experience, and one memory, at a time.

Bertony Faustin is the proprietor of Oregon’s Abbey Creek Vineyard, as well as the state’s first African American winemaker, and is the producer of Red, White & Black, a documentary that tells the stories of minority winemakers.