History will be made on May 20 and 21 with the inaugural Oregon Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Food & Wine Festival. Taking place at Stoller Estate in Dayton, the first-of-its-kind event will feature five AAPI-owned Willamette Valley wineries and 10 AAPI chefs. Proceeds from the event will be donated to Our Legacy Harvested, a non-profit that facilitates internships for BIPOC individuals in Oregon wine country.
The happening is the latest signal that a major shift is afoot in this corner of the world. Historically, local laws made it difficult for members of the AAPI community to enter the wine industry in Oregon. But the makeup of the state’s wine community is starting to change as AAPI individuals forge new paths and change the narrative of who gets to participate in the wine industry.
A Look at the AAPI Wine Community In Oregon
In some ways, the story of the region’s AAPI wine community mirrors that of Oregon’s early Pinot Noir pioneers of the 1970s and 80s. Those innovators had the vision to grow wine grapes in a state where apples, cherries, filberts and Christmas trees were the norm, and it paid off. In a mere six decades, Oregon’s Willamette Valley became home to more than 700 wineries.
Much like how those early Pinot pioneers had to clear a completely new path, so do today’s AAPI wine professionals. Of those several hundred wineries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, less than 10 are AAPI owned. It’s important to recognize the historical context for why that is: In 1923, Oregon passed the Alien Land Law, which banned Japanese and Chinese nationals from buying and leasing land in Oregon. The law wasn’t repealed until 1952.
“I’ve just expanded our estate vineyards,” muses winemaker Jessica Mozeico, who is half-Japanese and co-founded Et Fille Wines in 2003 with her father. “My grandparents would have been prohibited from owning land in Oregon due to the Alien Land Laws.” Given that turnover in farm ownership is remarkably slow, it’s easy to see how decades of blocking land ownership to Japanese and Chinese farmers could have impacts even generations later.
Another factor that limited AAPI involvement in the wine industry? “A lot of us in the Asian-American community haven’t really grown up with wine,” notes Lois Cho, chief executive officer and founder of CHO Wines and executive director of the festival. “Many of our families immigrated between the 1970s and 1990s and wine isn’t something that’s central to our history. It’s something that we’re embarking on as a new adventure, and we want to bring this culture of wine to the Asian-American community.”
Despite the fact many of these wineries are relatively new, they’re already making waves. For instance, CHO Wines launched in 2020, but their 2017 brut rosé received 93 points from Wine Enthusiast and made Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wines of 2022—the only Willamette Valley wine to make the list.
Changing the Narrative Through Food
Tasting notes have historically been skewed to reflect a Western palate with regard to the fruits, flavors and aromas referenced. But that’s starting to change.
“We were the first Korean-American winemakers in the market and there was a lot of attention drawn to that,” says Cho. “People would ask us how being Korean-American affected our wines and palate. The answer is the food that we grew up eating.” For instance, Cho recommends pairing their brut rosé with haemul pajeon, a Korean seafood pancake.
Mozeico had a similar experience with regard to food and tasting notes. “I used to censor myself and think nobody will know what I mean if I’m talking about calamansi or lychee,” Mozeico says. “But if that’s what I’m getting, that’s what I write now.”
Increasing Representation in the Wine Industry
“The more we heard that representation matters, the more I realized that it was important to celebrate my heritage,” says Mozeico. She is currently the vice president of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association and spearheads the organization’s Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion Task Force. She uses her choices of photographers and caterers, people featured in winery imagery and descriptors for wine tasting notes as opportunities to be more inclusive of underrepresented communities.
Mozeico is certainly not alone in her efforts to make the industry more inclusive. Although Akiko Shiba of Shiba Wichern Cellars has never faced overt discrimination as an AAPI woman winemaker and winery owner, she she does recall visiting one popular Portland restaurant on a sales pitch and being mistaken for a lost tourist.
“I explained to them that I was the winemaker and wanted them to try my wines,” Shiba says. “After tasting, they turned into a very good customer for us.” She sees the story as an example of a microaggression—potentially unintentional, but nonetheless a barrier that could keep marginalized groups from feeling like they belong in the wine industry.
Ocean Yap-Powell, who identifies as Native Hawaiian and Chinese, faced tremendous adversity, racism and othering when she was getting started in the wine industry 12 years ago. Now, working at Portland’s E&R Wine Shop, she is dedicated to educating and empowering communities of color.
“When we see diverse representation behind the bottle, in wine media, in tasting rooms, in organizations and especially in positions of power, we are advocating to all communities that wine is for you,” she says.
Looking Toward the Future
Ultimately, Cho hopes to grow the Oregon AAPI Food & Wine Festival into a month-long event during May, which is both Oregon Wine Month and AAPI Heritage Month, with winemaker dinners popping up through Portland. It’s safe to say that’s a feasible goal.
This year’s Oregon Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Food & Wine Festival features just five AAPI owned wineries, but Cho says she’s constantly learning about more, including Quailhurst Vineyard Estate and Landmass Wines, as well as wines from the vigneron Junichi Fujita. With luck, Cho says, next year’s festival will be even bigger.