Ken Evenstad, who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical business before building one of Oregon's most prominent wineries, Domaine Serene, died at his home Oct. 21 after a long history of chronic pulmonary issues. He was 77.
Oregon's wine industry was young when Ken and his wife, Grace, arrived 31 years ago, looking for land to plant a vineyard. They settled on a 42-acre property on the southernmost peak of the Dundee Hills. The Evenstads grew the business over the years and today own 1,000 acres, with 300 planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Domaine Serene is a popular tourist destination in the Willamette Valley, and the couple has also been instrumental in promoting Oregon wines outside the Pacific Northwest.
"There are many things about Ken that I admired," said Ken Wright, the vintner who was Domaine Serene's first winemaker. "He dared to trust his palate, which told him that Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley was absolutely world class. That trust led to a very serious investment in the Oregon wine industry that helped raise our visibility. He believed in quality in all aspects of life and work, and that example will follow him in the lives of those he touched."
Evenstad was born July 9, 1943 in Baudette, Minn., a small town on the Canadian border. He put himself through the University of Minnesota and graduated with a degree in pharmacy in 1967. He and Grace met during that time and were married seven months after he graduated.
In 1969 the couple bought a struggling Minneapolis pharmaceutical company, Upsher-Smith, from Grace's uncle. They scraped together all their savings for it—$1,500. During the next two decades, Evenstad created numerous innovations and was awarded scores of drug patents, eventually building Upsher-Smith into a business worth $1.5 billion.
The Evenstads' interest in wine began in the mid-1970s. "I started out with California Cabernet. I remember a '68 Charles Krug that was incredible," he recalled in an interview in 2018, when the couple was honored with Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award. It wasn't long before Evenstad's interests turned from California to Burgundy, then eventually to Oregon.
Over time, the Evenstads transformed and expanded their original estate on a grand scale. And Domaine Serene has twice earned a spot among Wine Spectator's Top 10 Wines of the Year, ranking No. 2 in 2016 with the Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve 2014 and No. 3 in 2013 with the Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evenstad Reserve 2010. They also sparked wine tourism in the region and helped create the Center for Wine Education at nearby Linfield College. They retained a love for France, too. The couple bought Château de la Crée in Burgundy's Côte d'Or in 2015.
The couple has been widely involved in charitable activities, particularly the Naples Winter Wine Festival and Emeril Lagasse's Carnivale du Vin, donating more than $15 million to local and national charities in the past 20 years.
In addition to his wife, Grace, Evenstad is survived by their daughter Serene and son Mark, as well as six grandchildren.