It’s the first time in 40 years Lynn Penner-Ash can relax. She laughs and says, “Maybe I will go to a Pumpkin Patch.” I’m excited to have my first fall to play. The Willamette Valley winemaker is retiring this September. She has 41 harvests to her name and is ready to move forward.
She has a career that is worth reflecting on. Penner-Ash, a young 61-year-old woman, has played a major role in Oregon’s rise to become renowned for its wine. She belongs to what she calls “the gap generation” of winemakers in Oregon. These are the winemakers who came after pioneers such as David Lett and Dick Erath but before their second generation could take over. She likes to say, “We trained their kids.”
Penner-Ash harvested her first grapes in Napa Valley in 1981 while she was still pursuing a viticulture diploma at UC Davis. At the time, women winemakers were rare. She recalls that it was difficult to convince people that she could handle the physical demands and that she was strong enough. “They wanted you to work in the laboratory, but I wanted to go out to the vineyards.”
She spent three vintages working at Domaine Chandon. Then, she worked four at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and then a year in Sonoma at Chateau Saint-Jean. In 1988, Paul Hart, who was the original owner of Rex Hill, called her, and Oregon became her home. She was one of the first women to make wine in Oregon, and ironically, she had never produced Pinot Noir prior to that.
Willamette Valley in 1988 was an old, tired farm community with more hazelnut trees, Christmas trees, and grass seeds than wine grapes. In 1988, there were about 50 wineries throughout the state. Penner-Ash recalls that the entire Oregon wine industry could fit into the back of Nick’s, a McMinnville Italian eatery frequented for decades by winemakers.
Penner-Ash worked her way to the top of Rex Hill before she left in 2002 to concentrate on her Penner-Ash label. She started it in 1998, along with her husband, Ron. She has never had a wine score below 90 on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. Her 2019s, which I rated at 97 points, are some of her best.
Retirement isn’t something that you would expect. In 2016, Penner-Ash’s namesake winery was sold to Jackson Family Wines, allowing her to concentrate on winemaking. Jackson Family has made significant investments in Oregon in the last few years. The Penner-Ash winery has become a major brand. Kate Ayres, a protégé of Penner-Ash’s, has been handling the day-to-day operations for some time. Penner-Ash feels comfortable with this transition. She understands Penner-Ash style and honors everything I built.” But Penner-Ash is smart enough to know that winemaking is evolving.
Outdoor adventures will be the focus of the future. Penner-Ash has been planning her vacations around wine events for years. She says that her two adult children hated it. “My interest in wine business travel has diminished.”
It’s easy to understand when you know how the Penner-Ash family vacations. Mountain biking, paddle boarding, skiing, and hiking. It’s not exactly a wine-friendly activity. Penner-Ash explains, “We are both young and in good health.” We’re working to paddle on as many bodies as possible. To this end, we’ve embraced the van life. In this case, it’s an outfitted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. She says, “We’ve been to all parts of the U.S. in it.”
She admits that leaving the winery was not an easy decision. Penner-Ash states, “I will miss the camaraderie of sitting with people to taste wine and discussing ideas. I’ll also miss the intellectual and creative aspects.” “I love it.”
She is experiencing mixed emotions as she nears the end of her time at the winery. She will be at the winery on the first harvest day, but then it’s another reality. Penner-Ash explains, “I was asked about my next wine project. I replied ‘nothing’.” “And then I began to cry.”
Here’s my challenge to wine companies in 2022. It’s now time to reach out to younger consumers and listen to them. Offer them quality, affordable wines. It’s time for wine labels to include ingredients. If you use any that you would rather not disclose, it may be time to remove them.
No one is asking you to try some clumsy advertising on TikTok. (Please don’t.) Focus on what makes a wine special: It’s a product that starts from the land, and it has an innate personality. It’s just grapes.
Brunier is also looking at the bright side. He’s grateful that “the Mistral winds blowing intensely since the tornado” will ensure that the fruit that survives will be dry and free of rot. The quality of the grapes is excellent, and they are continuing to mature on other plots, which traditionally ripen later. We also have vineyards in Ventoux and Gigondas where we make red and white Pigeoulet, as well as Megaphone.
Brunier said, “Our profession is one that we are passionate about, which allows us to look at the positives.”