Oregon winemakers wrestle with issues of diversity
Settling in for a wine tasting in Newberg, Dundee, McMinnville or elsewhere in the state, one is likely to find picturesque views of Oregon's natural splendor and rows of grapes stretching to the horizon.
Someone in a nice shirt or blouse will bring wine glasses and pour a quality vintage for a tasting experience rivaled by few regions in the world outside of France and Italy. They explain the wine to patrons in rich detail, noting the unique soil composition of the land or the exact kind of fermentation required for a specific taste.
Far more often than not, however, the person who made the wine is white. In fact, most of the people profiting from the wine or directly involved in the winemaking process in Oregon are typically white and male. This is the reality of an industry that largely caters to a white, wealthy clientele in a state with a population that is 85% white.
There are significant exceptions. Bertony Faustin of Abbey Creek Winery in North Plains is the state's first recorded Black winemaker. The late Jesus Guillén of Guillén Family Wines in Dayton was the first known Mexican winemaker in Oregon. In McMinnville, Remy Drabken of Remy Wines — a white woman — is one of Oregon's few LGBTQ+ winemakers. When Lynn Penner-Ash joined Rex Hill in 1988 before starting her own winery 10 years later, she was the first female winemaker hired in Oregon.
During a time of national reflection on racial injustice and the pursuit of equity among all people, some in the wine industry believe now is the time for vineyards and wineries in Oregon to reevaluate what their business's leadership and patrons look like.
"I think any industry can be thoughtful of how diverse their potential audience is and ask itself how it can more accurately mirror the potential audience in its employee composition, supplier choices and marketing," said Jessica Mozeico, chairwoman of the diversity task force at the Willamette Valley Wineries Association and winemaker at Et Fille Wines. "I think we, as an industry, can be more disciplined about creative recruiting rather than using the same old job boards and lamenting that people of diverse background weren't waiting for our posting, more thoughtful about education and fostering conversation about how to better welcome customers and employees of diverse backgrounds, more aware of suppliers of diverse backgrounds, and more questioning of whether the imagery and stories we tell in marketing are making everyone feel welcome."
Everything starts with the people making the wines and facing the public. In Newberg, Jarod Sleet is an assistant winemaker at ROCO Winery and one of few Black winemakers in the Chehalem Valley. Sleet took part in a documentary in 2018 about diversity in the Oregon wine industry called "Red, White and Black" — an effort led by Faustin to highlight the issue. Sleet said there are multiple ways the industry can tackle its lack of diversity among its leadership and patronage.
"The Oregon wine industry is not very diverse, but it makes sense because Oregon as a state isn't extremely diverse," he said. "Since I started working with the crew for "Red, White and Black," I have seen more people of color enter the wine industry or consider it. That's on a national level. Here locally, not so much.
"The issues I've faced have been minimal. I feel that the Oregon wine industry has been very accepting of me and I feel like a lot of my struggle has been internal. It's been a struggle to feel like I belong or that I deserve a seat at the table. When I go to events or functions, I tend to be the only person of color in the room, so there is a lack of representation that creates an internalized feeling of whether or not I belong."
Land ownership is at the center of Oregon wine's lack of diversity, as with many industries in the state. Oregon's history of Black exclusion laws and measures aimed at preventing Black people from moving to the state and owning land lasted for decades after slavery was abolished in 1865. The effects are still felt today from the Portland area down through the Rogue Valley.
The "founding father" of Oregon wine was a white man named Richard Sommer, who first planted wine grapes in the Umpqua Valley in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Faustin didn't open his winery in North Plains until 2008. Barriers, largely economic, still remain for people of color to enter the industry and feel accepted once they do.
"Oregon's first state constitution banned Black people from entering, residing in, or owning property in Oregon," Mozeico said. "White male settlers were given 650 acres of land and doubled it if they were married, which was taken from Native people originally. From that historical lens, it is easy to see how land ownership was tilted toward whites for generations. Land is an important part of accessing the potential to create wine."
The WVWA is in the process of developing a diversity pledge, along with an "equity toolkit" for wine businesses to reexamine their hiring practices, take steps toward inclusion and equity, and improve understanding about the barriers to entry for winemakers and patrons of color.
"Will any of these actions magically erase history or transform the industry? Of course not," Mozeico said. "But if many wineries like Et Fille and our friends sign on, I hope that it will start us all thinking about what we can do if we work together to create change at many wineries in the Willamette Valley."
'I think it's changing'
After briefly pursuing a culinary career, Sleet studied enology and viticulture at Oregon State University before taking the assistant winemaker job at ROCO. His first taste of the wine industry was working for Cana's Feast Winery in Carlton in 2008, where he fell in love with the winemaking process.
Sleet was born and raised in Kentucky and moved to Oregon more than a decade ago to pursue his culinary interests. But working a harvest at Cana's propelled him to where he is today, playing a key role in the creation of ROCO's wines.
"For most of my life, I didn't know much about wine except for the horrible wine we'd take at communion for church," Sleet said with a laugh. "But I've always been into plants and the outdoors, and I think that's why I took the viticulture focus at Oregon State instead of the enology focus."
Opportunity is key. Sleet was one of few Black people hired in an industry that Mozeico and others admit can be insular and is not always filled with unique perspectives. Despite the number of new wineries and vineyards popping up around the state every year, wine is a legacy business in Oregon. It is a luxury product that attracts people with expendable income on the consumer side and those with the capital to start a business on the winemakers' side.
Oregon winemakers can't fix income inequality or the wealth gap between white people and the rest of America. But Mozeico insists that stakeholders in Oregon can do more to create an inclusive environment and hire more people of color, along with elevating those people to leadership positions.
Sleet said change will require a two-pronged approach of access and representation.
"Accessibility is a big component," he said. "I think it's a socioeconomic issue rather than a Black and white issue, and I think more people need the opportunity to be in those spaces and enjoy all the great wines the state has to offer.
"Representation is another important piece. Young people of color can see people like Bertony (Faustin) and myself and see it as an option for themselves. The more I go out in the wine community, the more I am starting to see faces of color out there, whether that's on the sales side or production side. I think it's changing, but it's definitely been a slow process."
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