Women in Wine: An Interview with Lynn Penner-Ash
This is a series of interviews intended to capture the wine moments happening in Willamette Valley and beyond. This week, I spotlight Lynn Penner-Ash, winemaker for Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Newberg, Oregon. More than twenty years ago, Lynn’s interest in winemaking grew out of an early passion for the sciences. Through attention to detail, determination and practical experience, she gained the respect as one of Oregon’s wine industry icons.
She grew up in a military family traveling the world as a child. Her family spent time in Germany and France where wine became an integral part of the family dinner. Eventually landing in Washington DC and spending her high school years wandering around the Smithsonian Institute, she accepted a scholarship to intern at the Smithsonian’s Botany Department. After spending a summer of classifying botanical specimens from all over the world, she migrated west to UC Davis to study Plant Science. It was not long before she realized the crush pad was much more interesting than dissecting stamens.
Lynn first started at UC Davis majoring in Viticulture and then shifted to Enology. When she began to investigate job opportunities in the field of Viticulture in California, she ran up against some roadblocks being a woman in her twenties. “I thought if I got a degree in viticulture AND enology I could start in the winery and work my way back to the vineyards. I’ve never left the winery and now enjoy both vineyard and winery with our new estate vineyard.”
It was a smart move for Lynn. While securing degrees in both Viticulture and Fermentation Science she interned at both Domaine Chandon and Chateau St. Jean to gain practical experience. Upon graduating from UC Davis, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars offered her a position as an Enologist and then as the off-site Winemaker for the Hawkcrest brand.
In ‘88, Lynn answered a call to come to Oregon with an offer to become the winemaker at Rex Hill Vineyards. Newly married and ready to start on a new adventure, Lynn and her husband Ron moved from the Napa Valley to the Willamette Valley. Lynn’s arrival in Oregon placed her in the second wave of wine industry pioneers to arrive in Oregon, unique in that she was the first woman winemaker to arrive and test her skills. She spent the next fifteen years working for Rex Hill Vineyards gaining critical acclaim for her wines. In 1993, they appointed her as COO and President along with her winemaking duties.
Adventure called out to Lynn and Ron yet again in 1998 when they decided it was time to launch their own brand, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. Success soon followed with two Wine Spectator Top-100 Wine ratings. They acquired land to plant a vineyard and to site a three-level gravity winery. Lynn’s attention to detail, design sensibilities and practical experience provided the project with the expertise that today is the foundation of her successful consulting services.
Penner-Ash currently produces 12,000 cases with a focus on cool-climate Pinot noir in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Sourcing grapes from a number of different regions, each AVA brings something different to their wines. The Dundee Hills fruit provides the red fruit and texture of the mid palette, while the Yamhill Carlton fruit offers darker fruit and spiciness along with more tannin structure. The Eola-Amity fruit brings focus and liveliness. “It is my job to take the fruit from all of these AVAs and to craft a wine that is of a consistent style every year, no matter what the vintage gives us!” which is evident, as each vintage brings superior product to the market.
It is apparent that Lynn favors Pinot noir. She chuckled when I asked what her favorite grape to work with is—an obvious question, but I had to inquire. “We’ve got over 175 acres that we work with in Oregon and 80% of this acreage is planted to Pinot Noir. If I didn’t love Pinot Noir, I certainly wouldn’t be here in Oregon!”
Amid so much winemaking and viticulture experience under her belt, Lynn has witnessed many challenges since she started in the industry. One of the biggest challenges has been in the vineyard. She belongs to a tasting group that also conducts vineyard experiments, and fifteen years ago, the group conducted a vineyard trial. Lynn points out that, “It is because of the vineyard trial we did back in 1997 that the industry has adopted a whole new philosophy on when to thin our Pinot Noir vineyards.
The collaborative nature of Oregon has helped increase the quality of Oregon wines. We never approach a vintage as a cookbook; there is always drama either during the growing season or at harvest.”
[box]You first started at UC Davis majoring in Viticulture, and then shifted to Enology. Why the change?[/box]
I investigated opportunities in the field of Viticulture in California and ran up against some road blocks being 20 something and a woman. I thought if I got a degree in viticulture AND enology I could start in the winery and work my way back to the vineyards. I’ve never left the winery and now enjoy both vineyard and winery with our new estate vineyard.
[box]You source grapes from a number of different AVAs. What does each AVA bring to the bottle?[/box]
Each AVA brings something different to our wines. I search out fruit sources in the Dundee Hills for the red fruit and texture of the mid palette. Yamhill Carlton AVA offers darker fruit, spiciness along with more tannin structure. The fruit from the Eola-Amity AVA brings fruit with focus and liveliness. It is my job to take the fruit from all these AVA’s and craft a wine that is of a consistent style every year, no matter what the vintage gives us!
[box]What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in winemaking since you started in the industry and where do you think the Oregon wine industry will be five years from now?[/box]
Some of the biggest changes have been in the vineyard. I belong to a tasting group that has been also conducting experiments in the vineyard. It is because of vineyard trial we did back in 1997 that the industry has adopted a whole new philosophy on when to thin our Pinot Noir vineyards. The collaborative nature of Oregon has helped increase the quality of Oregon wines. We never approach a vintage as cook book, there is always drama either during the growing season or at harvest.
[box]Is winemaking an art or a science? Or both?[/box]
I believe it is both and that is what attracted me. I have always been drawn to the sciences but do have an artistic side to me. I think winemaking allows me to be creative but I have the skills to keep my creative side from becoming a science experiment!
[box]What’s your favorite grape to work with?[/box]
Is this really a question? We’ve got over 175 acres that we work with in Oregon and 80% of this acreage is planted to Pinot Noir. If I didn’t love Pinot Noir, I certainly wouldn’t be here in Oregon.
[box]Where are some of your favorite places to dine and drink on your days off?[/box]
Recipe and The Jory in Newberg, Andina, Paley’s Place, Country Cat, Lincoln, Aviary, Le Pigeon, Little Bird, Park Kitchen…it’s a full time job in Portland!
[box]Other than your own, what’s your favorite wine region in the world?[/box]
I have a romantic attachment to Champagne as my husband and I visited Champagne on our first anniversary and were by chance served the exact wine he proposed with!
I am a fan of Champagne on Wednesday nights, Sunday morning and whenever the mood strikes. It should be enjoyed just like Pinot Noir – when you feel like it, not just for special occasions.
[box]Besides wine making, what else do you enjoy?[/box]
My husband and I enjoy adventures outside of winemaking too. Not only have we travelled and tasted our way through France, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Switzerland but have taken the time to climb to base camp at Mt. Everest and Africa to summit Kilimanjaro. When not working, I enjoy all things fermented having made beer, yogurt and now my exploration has taken us to try fermented vegetables from our winery and home gardens.
Lynn, thank you for such an inspirational and insightful interview! Best of luck with the 2016 vintage.