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Pam Walden’s Bitter to Sweet Journey
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When life throws challenges at us, it’s easy to falter beneath the pressure. But when you are winemaker Pam Walden, owner of the Willful Wine Company, you simply bounce back better than ever, proving that sour grapes can, indeed, become very sweet.

Walden grew up in Leicester, England, dreaming of a career in film production. She vigorously pursued this passion until a layoff put a halt to an otherwise promising career. Still in her twenties, she decided to use this time of her life to explore the world; by 1996, Pam had landed a job as a waitress in France’s Dordogne region. There, as fate would have it, she met a handsome young winemaker named Aron Hess, and that would change everything.

Hess was traveling through Europe, visiting vineyards. Still, the smitten pair built a long-distance relationship until moving to Oregon together in 1997. After the couple married in 2000, they took an important step further, planting their own vineyard and creating their own label, Daedalus Cellars.

will•ful (adj): determined; pertinacious; unruly; wild

Willful Wine Co. is the passion and frustration of owner and winemaker Pam Walden. When life serves you bitter grapes, turn them sweet.

While Walden undoubtedly loved both the man and the wines, she eventually chose a practical path in advertising while Hess worked at other vineyards over the next few years, learning the business and honing his craft. He began his career working at Flynn (now Firesteed) before capturing the Assistant Winemaker role at Rex Hill Vineyards in nearby Newburg, Oregon. A few years later, he would make a variety of wines for various labels while working at 12th & Maple Wine Company. By all accounts, Aron Hess was emerging as one of Oregon Wine Country’s most successful winemakers, a role he relished.

As a couple, Walden and Hess were riding high. After all, they both had successful careers, were the proud parents of two young boys, and their Daedalus Cellars (named after a character in one of Hess’ favorite books) was becoming a popular label. In fact, the duo decided to produce a higher-volume, lower-priced wine under the label Jezebel. Little did they know that life was about to throw them a twist.

 

In 2009, Walden returned to England to see her ailing father. What was initially intended as a relatively short visit turned into five weeks of caregiving. When she returned to her home in America, she learned that her marriage was over.

Pam Walden's story exerted her will and perseverance to be one Oregon's top winemakers

Pam Walden’s story exerted her will and perseverance to be one Oregon’s top winemakers

Divorce can be messy business, especially with the division of assets, but the split between Walden and Hess was amicable. However, when the time came to decide how the business would be divided, Hess found that an already full plate left him little time to care for their wine labels. Production at Daedalus ceased, and ownership of Jezebel as well as the 17.3-acre property (on which the 7-acre vineyard was planted) all went to Walden. Suddenly, she was the chief winemaker at an already successful label.

The accidental entrepreneur found herself feeling much like a fish out of water, despite helping with the business part-time and taking vineyard management classes at a local community college. She found a great deal of help from her ex-husband along with a support from fellow winemakers in Oregon’s wine country. She continued to hone her craft and to grow the business, despite the odds.

This January, as Walden continued developing the Jezebel label at a steady pace, she was dealt another blow the day Walden arrived at Hess’ home to discover his lifeless body. His sudden demise was attributed to a toxic combination of drugs, including a potent pain killer Hess began taking to cope with debilitating back pain.

Along a pathway riddled with twists and turns, Pam Walden continually beat the odds, even when her own doubts emerged. The single mom’s success as a vigneron is as much a testament to the craft of wine-making as it is a testament of enduring against the odds. Walden continues to prove, both in her personal life and in business, that the smell of success remains life’s sweetest aroma.

 

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