Winemaking, especially the best examples of it, occurs somewhere at the intersection of art and science, something Lynn Penner-Ash knows well. A student of the sciences turned wine pioneer, Penner-Ash is more than a little familiar with the often winding road that so many of her industry colleagues – both past and contemporary – have taken as they forged onward towards eventual success. Her journey was anything but direct, but those twist and turns make for an inspiring story and some very delicious wine indeed.
A Rose by Any Other Name…
A plant is a plant is a plant, or so it would seem, and perhaps that’s why it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that one of the foremost winemakers in the Pacific Northwest (and, arguably, beyond) began her education in the botany program at the University of California, Davis. UCS is well-known for its wine program; according to the university itself, some 80 percent of the world’s winemakers are in some way linked to UC Davis, and in her junior year Penner-Ash switched her major to Viticulture and joined some rather auspicious company. There was to be a third change in major, this time inspired by a sting working crush (basically the harvest portion of the wine growing and winemaking cycle) at Domain Chandon.
The Enology major stuck, and Lynn Penn-Ash graduated and went to work, quickly garnering experience at some of California’s most noted wineries: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Domaine Chandon, and Château St. Jean. While it was certainly no small feat to gain positions within the walls of such undeniable juggernauts, Lynn and her husband Ron were beginning to see what winemakers from all over the world would soon notice: Something special was happening up in Oregon.
And so in 1988 the couple went north, where Penner-Ash joined the ranks at Rex Hill vineyards, first as winemaker – the first female with that position in the state of Oregon – and then in 1993, after the creation of several award-winning vintages, as the winery’s President and Chief Operating Officer.
Branching Out – The Birth of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars
Lynn Penner-Ash was still at Rex Hill in 1998 when she and her husband began concocting their own wines on the side, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the duo realized that their so-called “side project” was growing into something much, much more. Penner-Ash left Rex Hill in early 2002 and her husband, himself a well-respected and sought after wine educator, joined her so they could finally concentrate fully on a new, exciting future. In 2005, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars had a beautiful new home, built on the prime, lush land it was created to honor.
As a company, Penner-Ash released a miniscule 125 cases of their signature Syrah/Viognier blend in 1998 – not bad for an inaugural vintage, but certainly not competitive or even marketable by many standards. Today, what began as a garage-based hobby has grown to a beautiful well-staffed enterprise, and case production is 10,000+, a number that includes bottling of Pinot Noir and Riesling in addition to Syrah and Viognier.
The Penner-Ash Philosophy
In a 2013 interview with Forbes, Lynn Penner-Ash said,
“Wine is alive. It’s always evolving and presenting a different experience each time we taste. I enjoy sitting down and tasting a wine the day it goes to barrel and imagining what this wine will eventually become and how many people’s lives it might touch. Even to this day (after 32 years of winemaking) I am still in awe of how many people we make happy with what we do – and that makes me happy!”
It’s a seemingly simple, people-forward point of view, but in that same interview she also speaks of the science behind nature’s beauty, of being “in tune with your vineyards and your winemaking,” and of listening to each grape in order to honor and preserve its most intrinsic qualities.
It’s not surprising then that the vineyard itself is sustainable and engineered with preservation and conservation in mind, especially given Penner-Ash’s love for the outdoors. The vineyards are constructed using three flights of stairs, and trekking up and down those hillsides helped the energetic winemaker train for backpacking trips to New Zealand, Machu Picchu, and Kilimanjaro.
As for the wines, they’re created with a deft hand with balance and focus as the end goals. The Pinot Noir is fermented and aged separately depending on the vineyard from which each batch of grapes was harvested, creating what many see as an Old World like sense of terroir and vintage. Fermentation occurs using natural yeast and extended cold soaks, techniques that Penner-Ash feels contribute to that aforementioned focus and a rich (but never over complicated or muddied) finish.
There is also an eye forward. Penner-Ash has mentioned an interest in cultivating Albariño in Oregon, and if that day happens, there will plenty of people in line to give it a try.
Try the Wines
Critically acclaimed and rightfully so. A striking example of what Willamette Valley Pinot can – and should, by many standards – be, this wine is supple and silky, drinking like a spice-tinged parfait of juicy dark berries layered with chocolate-covered cherries, all grounded (ahem) by the scent and sundried soil.
The decision to forego malolactic fermentation and age this Viognier in stainless steel barrels leaves the varietals signature stone fruit, citrus, and heady perfume-like aromatics on full display. Well balanced on the palate and showcasing a long, lovely finish that highlights both the grape and the winemaker’s consider talents.
Dark, complex, and mysterious, this Penner-Ash Syrah captivates with its intriguing interplay of smoke-tinged flavor and bright acidity. There’s touch of Viognier added into the mix with pumps up the floral quality and helps keeps the wine from turning into something more murky than magical, but it’s taste-bud tingling salinity and slightly bitter cacao that keeps us coming back for more.