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Proud of its variety: Winemaking Diversity and Equity in the Willamette Valley

winemaking diversity and equity

When it comes to winemaking in the Willamette Valley, there is a rich history that often gets left out of the conversation. It is diversity and equity in the winemaking industry. The variety of diverse voices and histories makes the Willamette Valley stand out from other wine-growing regions. It is the voices of these diverse people that will continue to enrich the industry for generations to come.

A new generation of wine growers and makers who are diversity and rewriting the narrative. In this blog post, we will be meeting some of the amazing women and people of color who are leading the way in making the Willamette Valley a more inclusive place for all. So grab a glass of wine and let’s get started!

Who are the women who have helped shape the industry in the Willamette Valley?

women in Willamette valley wine industry
JackF | Getty Images

Since the very beginning, women have been a driving force behind the success of Willamette Valley wineries.

Diana Lett

In 1965, David and Diana Lett had a vision. Against advice to the contrary, they moved to Oregon wine country and began cultivating pinot noir and pinot gris in the Willamette Valley, becoming the very first winemakers to do so. This pioneering effort turned out to be a very successful endeavor indeed – so much so that David earned the nickname “Papa Pinot”.

Alongside David’s well-deserved reputation, it is also important to credit Diana for her initiative and bravery in helping to create what has become one of the most renowned wine regions in the world. At Eyrie Vineyards, both David and Diana Lett were able to create something truly remarkable that has since thrived for nearly 60 years.

Lynn Penner-Ash

Lynn Penner-Ash is a pioneer in Oregon wine culture, blazing a trail for women winemakers and creating a substantial legacy as an ambassador not only for great Willamette Valley pinot noir, but for women in winemaking. Following her passion, she and husband Ron founded Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in 1998.

It was here where Lynn soon gained recognition for her skills as a ‘master blender’ and champion of Oregon’s unique terrior. With a strong vision and devotion to high quality, Lynn achieved success and raised the bar for the next generation of regional winemakers.

Mary Olsen

As the proprietor of the 100% women-run winery Airlie, Mary Olson is a shining example of the talent and hard work women can bring to the Willamette Valley wine industry. Mary’s long-held vision was one that she refused to let pass her by.

In 1997, she decided to take the leap and move back to Oregon – the place she’d always adored – to realize her dream of owning a winery. Today, Airlie winery is well-known not only for its trailblazing efforts as a women-owned and operated winery, but also for its consistently high-quality wines.

Head winemaker Elizabeth Clark meticulously crafts unique wines that showcase the best of each vineyard and vintage. Combining her unique knowledge and passion for viticulture with a forward-thinking approach, she carefully creates beautifully balanced and fresh wines that encompass minimal handling of the grapes. 

Remy Drabkin

Remy Drabkin is nothing short of a visionary. Highly specialized in crafting unequaled wines, this proud Oregonian and lesbian winemaker shows what’s possible by willfully acting against conventions and exploring innovative approaches. Her winery, Remy Wines has become well-known for its high-quality, non-traditional grape varieties.

Not one to be pigeon-holed, Remy is committed to capturing the flavor of Northern Italian varieties in the Pacific Northwest as well as to challenging industry norms wholeheartedly and she remains an inspiring example for women’s place in oenology.

Indigenous and black winemakers who are re-writing the story of winemaking in the Willamette valley

Despite long-standing traditions and expectations, the Willamette Valley is now home to groundbreaking changes in the winemaking industry. People of color are re-writing the story of winemaking in the valley by following their passion and allowing their creativity to shine through in innovative ways.

They are taking what was once seen as an antiquated industry and reinventing it as a progressive, forward-thinking one that looks toward global connection, environmental protection, and social justice.

Indigenous and black winemakers
JackF | Getty Images

Bertony Faustin

Faustin’s journey to become Oregon’s first recorded black winemaker in 2008 began with a tragedy—the death of his father in 2007. This event acted as a catalyst for Faustin, inspiring him to pursue his dream of owning a winery and to honor the legacy of his father.

Faustin was determined to take the wine-making traditions that came before him and re-imagine them, putting into motion a vision for a complete winemaking business. From the corner store to the communal tables to the vineyards, his winery, and tasting room, Abbey Creek Vineyard is known for doing things differently and working with a sense of purpose.

Channing Frye

A trailblazer in every sense of the word, Channing Frye has a passion for creating quality wines that is as deep and expansive as his exemplary career accomplishments. As CEO of Chosen Family Wines, he focuses on crafting a portfolio of truly distinctive wines that are meant to be enjoyed with friends and family.

The former Portland Trail Blazer might have an NBA championship ring that serves as a reminder of his impressive professional victories, but he believes there is nothing like the thrill of finally tasting the finished product of his wine-making journey.

From beyond-the-court success to breaking down racial barriers in the wine industry, Channing Frye is committed to building a community of people of color who are creating their own successful stories in the Willamette Valley.

Brandy Grey

When Grey, a member of the Cherokee Shawnee Tribe, was inspired to learn more about the people who first set foot in the Willamette Valley — and the legacy of environmental stewardship those people left behind — she embarked upon a journey to revive and celebrate those ancient lands, now transitioned into a world-renowned wine scene.

Having now lived and worked in the Valley since March 2016, Grey is uniquely positioned to commemorate its history through her work as tasting room manager and events coordinator at Fairsing Vineyard.

The passion with which she speaks of this place has been described as visionary; it’s clear that Grey truly understands how intimately connected to our past we remain when stepping into these beloved regions.

How to get involved in supporting diversity and equity in winemaking

Creating a supportive and equitable space in the winemaking industry starts with making sure everyone is included. Taking the initiative to advocate for diversity and equity requires collective commitment to breaking down existing structures that don’t allow everyone a seat at the table.

A more equitable industry means bringing in all key players, from workers in the vineyard, to traders and marketers, to distributors—all of which play important roles in creating a vibrant economic landscape. To begin this transformation, it’s important to be open-minded—openly listening to perspectives from all sides of production as well as diversifying talent pools when it comes to hiring and recruiting.

Entering into conversations with an attitude of collaboration can go a long way in finding lasting solutions. Everyone has something unique to bring to the process — by embracing this journey we can create a brighter future, one where wine is considered not just a drink but a powerful tool for social change.

AHIVOY aims for more diversity and equity

With the creation of AHIVOY, viticulture in Oregon is on the cusp of a great change. By empowering vineyard stewards – who work day and night to bring us the perfect sip of wine – this nonprofit organization is investing in a more equitable and prosperous future for all those working in vineyards across the state.

They are providing the foundation for individual success through professional development opportunities and education that open up doors to previously inaccessible career paths. This type of forward thinking investment leads to a wider variety of perspectives, greater collaboration between peers, and dynamic innovation throughout the entire industry.

AHIVOY’s mission fueled by its passion for equity has made it an inspirational model for other non-profits everywhere. AHIVOY’s vision is to help Latinx and Hispanic workers build long-term careers within the wine industry. And when you look at the successes of Latina-owned wineries like Cramoisi and Gonzalez Wine Company, you can see that AHIVOY is working to make that vision a reality.

By supporting AHIVOY, you are helping to build a stronger, more inclusive community for all workers in the Willamette Valley. To learn more about how you can get involved in promoting diversity and equity in winemaking, visit Ahivoy today!

Final thoughts

At Wine History Tours, we acknowledge the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of winemaking. To help create a more equitable industry for everyone, we offer guided winery tours of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which allow visitors to learn about the history and culture of wine-making in Oregon.

Our team has a deep-rooted commitment to providing private tours that embrace the beauty and culture of Oregon, while also promoting equity within the local wine industry. Through our Willamette Valley wine tours, we create opportunities for people from all backgrounds and walks of life to engage in conversations about the impact diversity and inclusion can have on our communities.

We are dedicated to empowering both winemakers and visitors by creating a welcoming environment that fosters cultural awareness and understanding. If you’re looking to support diversity and equity in winemaking, we invite you to join us on a guided Willamette Valley wine tour.

Discover the vast potential of Oregon from Wine History Tours with us as your companion. Book your Willamette Valley tour today and help us build a more inclusive future for the world of wine!​

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