binNotes | a food, wine & travel blog
by L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
Red Thread™ | Penner-Ash Wine Cellars | Willamette Valley
First in a four-part series celebrating 50 Years of Willamette Valley winemaking history and Oregon Wine Month.
Quick – who holds Oregon’s title as first woman wine maker?
If you answered Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, you are correct!
Her wines, her professionalism, and her generosity of spirit all left a deep impression.
So much so that I vowed to include her when rolling out the Red Thread™ wine maker series.
Here goes…enjoy the ride!
RT ™: Who or what brought you to wine making?
LPA: I originally wanted to be a botanist for the Smithsonian Institute. I was advised by the curators there to head to UC Davis. While at Davis I met a group of outdoor adventurers who were all native to Napa Valley. Spending time with my new friends meant I was also spending time in Napa. One summer I was offered a job working on the harvest deck of Domain Chandon and from there I changed my degree to Viticulture, spent a year working at Chateau St Jean and returned to UC Davis for the Enology degree.
RT ™: Tell readers a bit about the history of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. How did you make the‘leap of faith’ from working at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar in Napa to Rex Hill Winery in Oregon?
LPA: I’d been in the industry in Napa for almost eight (8) vintages, four (4) of which had been year round at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. I wanted more experience and more responsibility but was not being offered the assistant winemaker’s job at Stag’s Leap. When I applied for the job and was told I didn’t have enough experience, but was asked to help train the new assistant winemaker, I realized it was time to make my mark somewhere else. As I was looking to move on, Paul Hart of Rex Hill called and asked if I’d be interested in a winemaking position in Oregon. I interviewed with Paul, he offered me the job the same day and I moved North. I was interested in an assistant winemaker’s position and instead found myself as a winemaker at 25 and the first woman winemaker hired in Oregon! It was a huge leap of faith on Paul’s part and on mine. The WV in the mid 80’s really didn’t have a huge support network like Napa did. It was hard to find equipment. I ordered most of our winemaking supplies from my past contacts in Napa.
RT ™: What things did you learn in Bordeaux-steeped Napa that still resonate for you today as a wine maker in the Willamette Valley?
LPA: I’ve always felt if you’ve got a solid background in winemaking it can be translated to any region. The challenge is to learn that region and respect the place in your winemaking. I’ve never been heavy handed and have tried to let our wines speak of the place. When I was down in Napa it was at the time of the “heated” AVA discussions so I quickly learned that there are strong connections to where your fruit is grown and as a winemaker you don’t want to lose that sense of place.
RT ™: Let’s talk terroir. Penner-Ash Wine Cellars draws from an abundance of quality sites within the Willamette and Rogue Valleys. Each site has specific flavor profiles. What informs your decisions each vintage when choosing what to pull from where? Do you have a favorite site?
LPA: I have sourced our fruit based on what it brings to our blends. I love doing individual vineyard designates that let me honor each vineyard we work with but ultimately, I am trying to make our Willamette Valley Pinot Noir style consistent year in and year out. I’ve focused on sites that I feel will do that for me. Cooler sites, warmer sites, particular clones and rootstocks – it all plays into our decision when selecting a new site to purchase fruit from. I have several sites that I love but my reasons are varied. I have my favorite growers, my favorite blocks with in vineyard sites and favorite sites to visit as some sites will make you stop and enjoy the moment. The correct answer here is of course, our ESTATE site is my favorite site….
RT ™: In your experience, how much of your approach to wine making is science, and how much ‘art.’
LPA: The science is important to know in the back ground but ultimately many of my winemaking decisions are made because the decision just feels right. I’ve made many decisions while standing out in a vineyard tasting fruit that I hadn’t planned on picking. From picking date to an experiment using Whole Clusters or changing the tank style or fermentation regime. Emotionally something has changed my mind. I think that’s the art and hard to explain side of wine.
b/N: You not only make wine, but fulfill various executive roles within the wine industry, including past President and COO of Rex Hill, past Board member and President of IPNC, and current board member for Oregon Pinot Camp. What drives you to engage so deeply in the Willamette Valley wine community? How do you manage it all?
LPA: The collaborative spirit is alive in Oregon. I enjoy working on boards with many of my dedicated peers. The energy and ideas that we generate are always exciting and give me another creative outlet. That said, I’ve spent many years on boards and am now excited to see the younger generation step up with new ideas and new energy. I prefer now to help out on committees, act as a moderator but not with the commitment of boards. The whole industry has benefitted from a lot of very committed winery owner’s and their passion on these boards – it’s now time for the next generation to give some time. Besides, there are many adventures ahead for my husband and I now that our kids are grown. I believe if you commit to working on a board it means you need to be there for the board meetings. If I can’t wholly commit, I won’t serve. Our plans to travel more means I wouldn’t be able to honor a board commitment in the way I feel necessary.
RT ™: You also actively participate the annual ¡Salud! Barrel Auction, an auction that helps fund the Willamette Valley’s eponymous health care program for vineyard workers. Talk about what goes into your decision-making process when you choose your wine for the auction, and why this program matters to you.
LPA: We taste every barrel in the winery. There are several vineyards we think partner very well together and ¡Salud! allows us to put together these vineyards in a special cuvée. We couldn’t do this in a larger volume so it is nice to be able to put together an extraordinarily special wine that is one of a kind. We not only participate in ¡Salud! but hold 1-2 concerts each year that benefit ¡Salud! directly. We are committed to ¡Salud! as our vineyard workers deserve basic health care. Since many crews move between vineyards and don’t necessarily work “full-time” for one site, it makes it hard to offer benefits to these crews. It is also difficult for these crews to make an appointment, take off work to get to this appointment so the mobile services are very important. It is a way we can offer a health care benefit. ¡Salud! is also nice for our harvest crews that only come in for a short period of time, we’ve all benefitted from the mobile van stopping by the winery. Our entire staff gets our flu shots each year. It helps even our full time staff as something as simple as a flu shot can often mean having to take time off work.
RT ™: What are your greatest challenges at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars?
LPA: Compliance and tax laws. We have to be experts in tax and compliance laws in all the places we ship our wine. Many times the state regulators themselves can’t give us a clear answer and we are left trying to guess what the law means. I’ve written checks to states for less than 50 cents to comply with a tax regulation.
b/N: What motivates you to keep going?
LPA: Walking into the winery when everything is quiet and I am the only one here. It gives me personal moment to recognize how much we’ve accomplished and how perfect our winery is. When our customers arrive and are so in awe of the wines, the winery and the vineyard, I understand as I am also in awe.
RT ™: One final question: “If wine making has taught me anything, it’s taught me…”
LPA: There is always more to learn.
More about ¡Salud! here.
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Lynn Penner-Ash | Penner-Ash Wine Cellars