Building a boutique winery from the ground up is incredibly difficult. It requires immense levels of investment physically, mentally and financially. Successfully completing that endeavor while undergoing a gender transition is a feat of courage. Vivianne Kennedy is the winemaker and owner of RAM Cellars in Oregon, an esoteric producer of small-batch wines. She also happens to be one of the few prominent transgender members of the wine industry.
Wine Spectator's April Louis recently spoke with Kennedy about her personal journey, winemaking ventures and the future of RAM Cellars.
Wine Spectator: How did your journey from social worker and wine lover to winemaker start?
It was about 15 years ago that an epiphany hit me upside the head like a ton of bricks. I was doing a wine tasting at one of my favorite wineries up in Washington on Red Mountain. We were tasting the same wine in different barrel treatments—new French oak, new American oak and neutral examples of both—speaking to the winemaker about what they were choosing for the final blend. Examining the process side of things led me down a rabbit hole. I realized that I had a deep passion to explore wine further.
Did you jump right into wine as a career?
I did a combination of studies, and then free and really low-paid labor for wineries. I went to an 18-month program for viticulture, and then studied the science of winemaking from 2009 to 2013. In 2014, a unique opportunity came up at a winery that I was working for in Portland, and I was able to rent space from them and bring in our first harvest, a paltry 1.5 tons across three varietals. In 2016, the RAM Cellars wines hit the marketplace.
How tough was it to make this your full-time career?
The running joke with the other small winemakers is: “When is this going to hit the point where it pays for itself?” I've got a pretty solid community of folks in Oregon wine who look out for each other and help with sharing equipment and tracking down varietals and things.
What attracted you to grapes and styles of wine that aren't necessarily mainstream?
I want every vintage to be unique and reflective of the individual factors of that year and also place an emphasis on off-the-beaten path varietals. There are so many incredible, cool-climate Oregon varietals up here. We released our first Counoise this year, and in 2021 we were able to work with Roussanne for the first time. What really excites me is getting my hands on and showcasing these varietals that folks may not have seen or had the opportunity to enjoy outside of a blending grape.
In the last five years the market has shifted, and there's greater consumer awareness and a market for producers who are showcasing off-the-beaten path grape varieties. It's been really lovely to see that positive reception and have folks excited about the opportunity to branch out.
I like to talk about low-intervention [winemaking], because really, when I think about it, we're stewards of the process, right? We're trying to showcase everything that the grapes and the season have to offer and not get in the way of that. We do use minimal amounts of sulfites. I want to make sure that the wines I'm putting on the shelf have staying power and are not going to degrade when exposed to oxygen.
How does your identity play into your experiences as a winemaker?
As someone who is visibly queer, there are different choices on how to move through the space. I recognize that folks choose how to do that based on what feels safe and what feels right for them. I am really up front about it. My take is that it's going to end up being a part of the conversation either way. I would rather get ahead of that narrative and talk about how being able to fully exist as myself has unlocked my potential, both as a winemaker and as a member of the industry.
We have a second label that we specifically use to do fundraising for queer communities. We fundraise for the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, specifically in support of its Name Change Project initiative. It's important to use the platform that we have to do something supportive for communities that we're a part of.
Have you faced any discrimination or difficulties in the industry after coming out and transitioning?
I lost some sales relationships and I had some vineyards that chose to no longer work with me. When folks choose to vacate those relationships, that's just opening the door for the next great connection down the road. For every account that I have lost because I am a visibly and outspoken transgender woman, I have had the time to go and talk to folks who are better partners to work with.
I think there's an education piece industrywise, where so many folks whom I've encountered in the wine industry just did not have experience interacting with trans folks. I'm happy to sit down and take the time and talk about it. I've had the opportunity to have some good, hard conversations. In this industry, there's room for all of us.
What's next for RAM Cellars?
We don't have a physical tasting room. I'm looking at all of the different potential options for 2023 around what would it look like to open our own brick-and-mortar tasting room, whether it's a shared space with other queer winemakers or a space to showcase producers coming from a variety of marginalized identities. I want to make sure we offer our space to other winemakers who see the same challenges to get on the shelf that we see.