This is the first October in 40 years that Lynn Penner-Ash can relax. “Maybe I’ll go to a pumpkin patch,” she says with a laugh. “I’m looking forward to having my first fall, just to play.” The winemaker and Willamette Valley icon is retiring at the end of September, with an impressive 41 harvests under her belt, and she’s ready to look forward, not back.
I wouldn’t let her get away with that, of course, because hers is a career worthy of reflection. A youthful 61, Penner-Ash has been an active player in Oregon’s rise as a world-class wine region. She is part of what she calls the “gap generation” in Oregon, winemakers who arrived after pioneers like David Lett, Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi, but before the second generation was old enough to take over. “We trained all their kids,” she likes to say.
Penner-Ash’s first harvest was in 1981 in Napa Valley, when she was still working on her viticulture degree at UC Davis. Women winemakers were a rarity at the time. “It was tough convincing people that you were up to the physical demands, that you were sturdy enough,” she recalls. “They always wanted to put you in the lab, and I wanted to be out and in the vineyards.”
She worked three vintages at Domaine Chandon, then four at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and finally a year at Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma. Then, in 1988, she got a call from Paul Hart, the original owner of Rex Hill, and Oregon became home. She was among the first women winemakers in Oregon and, ironically, she had never made Pinot Noir before that.
Willamette Valley was a tired old farm community in 1988, with more hazelnut orchards, Christmas trees and grass seed than wine grapes. There were only about 50 wineries in the state back then. “The entire Oregon wine industry, we used to say, could fit in the back of Nick’s,” Penner-Ash says of the McMinnville Italian restaurant frequented by winemakers for decades.
At Rex Hill, Penner-Ash worked her way up to president before leaving in 2002 to focus on the Penner-Ash label, which she started in 1998 with her husband, Ron. Her wines have rarely scored below outstanding, or 90 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. Her 2019s, a vintage I rated 97 points, are among her best ever.
Retirement is not altogether unexpected. Penner-Ash sold her namesake winery to Jackson Family Wines in 2016, freeing her from business demands to focus on making wine. Jackson Family has invested in Oregon extensively in recent years, and the Penner-Ash brand has been a star. Protégé Kate Ayres has handled the day-to-day for a while, and Penner-Ash is comfortable with the transition. “She understands the Penner-Ash style and is honoring everything I built.” Yet Penner-Ash is savvy enough to know how winemaking evolves.
As for the future, it’s all about outdoor adventures. For years, Penner-Ash took vacations around wine events. “The kids hated that,” she says of her two grown children. “My enthusiasm for wine business travel is kind of limited now.”
Easy to understand, knowing how the Penner-Ash family vacations: mountain biking, paddle boarding, skiing, hiking. Not exactly wine-friendly activities. “We’re both young and healthy,” Penner-Ash says. “We’re currently working on paddling on as many bodies of water as we can.” To that end, they have embraced the “van life,” but in this case it’s a decked-out Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. “We’ve been all over the U.S. with it,” she says.
Still, she admits walking away from the winery is not easy. “I’ll miss the camaraderie and sitting down with people and tasting wine—the intellectual and creative aspect,” Penner-Ash says. “I love that stuff.”
Her feelings are mixed as she approaches her final days at the winery. She plans to be there on the first day of harvest, but after that, it’s a new reality. “I was asked what I was going to do for my next wine project and I said ‘Nothing,’” Penner-Ash says. “And then I started to cry.”
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