Penner-Ash Wine Cellars
For Lynn Penner-Ash, Winemaking is a Passion, by Cole Danehower
"There is a passion for winemaking that runs really deeply in me," says Lyn Penner-Ash, "If I didn't have Ron around stopping me, I would spend all my time here at the winery because I get so caught up in it all - I constantly want to try something new, or to taste some new blend - it's just that I'm so excited about what's going on and what we can do!"
Lynn and Ron (at right) have good reason to be excited. After a long career making wine under a corporate umbrella, Lynn now controls her own destiny with her own label and a new winery looming in the future.
Though a new name to some, the fact is that Lynn Penner-Ash has been quietly making some of Oregon's finest wines for over 16 years - they just didn't have her name on them.
And now they do! In early 2002 the Penner-Ashs made a big decision to change their lives: they each quit their jobs and went into business for themselves as Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Newberg, Oregon. And Oregon wine lovers everywhere cheered them on.
No Looking Back
What to Lynn and Ron may have seemed like a perilous risk - Lynn had a secure post as winemaker for Rex Hill Vineyards since 1988 and had been named President and Chief Operating Officer in 1993 - appeared to the outside world as a natural next step for a great winemaker.
After all, Lynn had graduated from the University of California at Davis, and had cut her teeth in the wine world working for such prestigious California producers as Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Domaine Chandon, and Chateau St. Jean.
Since arriving in Oregon in 1998, Northwest wine cognoscenti have been cherishing Penner-Ash's consistently succulent and supple wines. National wine critics, too, had frequently singled her wines out for praise and high scores. So why wouldn't she want to stretch her wings some and build her own brand?
"I think the driving force for both of us," explains Ron Penner-Ash, "was that we had worked for other people in the past and we just got to that point in our lives where it was time to work for ourselves. A lot of people have that dream of stepping out on their own, it was available to us, so we just stepped off."
"We stepped off big time!" emphasizes Lynn
"For me, it was a very emotional thing. I was so much invested in building the Rex Hill brand for 15 years, and it was finally hitting... so here we were, finally at the top of our mark - and that's the time to leave. But I left all my babies behind in a great position at Rex Hill, and we're having a lot of fun now. You know, once we took that step, it was fine; I look back and I don't get emotional."
A Love of Site
As a "new" label, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars began life in an enviable position: Lynn and Ron immediately began working with fruit from some of Oregon's most highly respected vineyard sites.
"I had the opportunity to work with many, many vineyard sites at Rex Hill," says Lynn, "and I started to develop an idea of what I'd like to be able to do with vineyards - a kind of palate of flavors I'd like to work with. We're really thrilled that we were able to start Penner-Ash Wine Cellars with some awesome vineyards in our stable!"
The 2002 releases of Pinot noir from Penner-Ash (available after May, 2004) will include wines from Seven Springs, Bethel Heights, and Goldschmidt Vineyards, plus a high-end Willamette Valley blend. "These are all very well established sites that have a great history of producing great wines," she says.
Seven Springs Vineyard, in the Eola Hills west of Salem, has become one of Oregon's premier Pinot noir vineyards - but like Lynn herself, it's reputation is more deep and quiet then loud and brash. Though it does not have the "household name" status of some other vineyards, some of Oregon's best vintners vie for the opportunity to work with its fruit. Having worked with the vineyard while at Rex Hill, Lynn was especially happy to be able to continue to make wine from Seven Springs after starting Penner-Ash Wine Cellars.
Lynn also has the distinction of being the first outside winemaker to produce wine from the Bethel Heights Vineyard Southeast Block. Long produced at Bethel Heights by Terry Casteel, wines from the Southeast Block display an expressive spiciness and elegant fruit character that has given them an almost cult-like following among Eola Hills enthusiasts.
Rounding out her vineyard designate wines will be a release from the Goldschmidt Vineyard, owned by Oregon ex-Governor Neil Goldschmidt. Lynn had made wine from the vineyard for many years when it was under different ownership, and jumped at the opportunity to work with the fruit again.
"I have a hard time," comments Lynn, "because people come to you with a brand new vineyard site and want you to make a vineyard designate from it. My philosophy is that you truly can't make a vineyard designate until you've made wine from that site and you understand that site and see the consistency that is in that site."
With the vineyards she has chosen to work with for Penner-Ash Cellars, Lynn says she knows their character and consistency, having worked with them for many years.
"It's a thrill for me working with these sites," she says. "I'd rather work with three barrels of a great site than 30 barrels of a good site. We come into our cellar on a monthly basis and we taste through every single vineyard so we can see how each one is progressing through its life. That to me is so exciting!"
Variety Makes the Blend
One appealing aspect of owning her own brand for Lynn is that she gets to do things her way.
"I've had people tell me I should really make my wines this way or that way because they'd sell better," says Lynn. "Well, what I really don't like is the monster wines. For me, I want my Pinot noir to be elegant. I think that's what Pinot noir is. They call it the feminine grape and there's a reason for it. I feel it is more balanced when it is on the feminine side, so we do source from vineyard sites I think produce a more feminine style of wine."
Besides the single vineyard-designated Pinot noirs, Lynn and Ron consider their Willamette Valley blend to be their "flagship: Pinot noir.
"I think what Lynn has done so well over the years is blending of the lots," comments Ron. So to achieve her stylistic vision of Pinot noir, Lynn blends from a variety of sites, soil types, and clones.
"I love texture in Pinot noir - mid-mouth feel is everything for me," she says. "It has to smell good, but if you don't get that really wonderful feel front and back, then I think I have failed as far as achieving our winemaking stylistic goal. We look for vineyard sites that will help contribute texture - front, middle, and back. That's why we are in the Dundee Hills, we're in the Eola Hills, we have our estate vineyard planted, all because they add a different element to the cellar."
For instance, the future home of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars - a 12-acre planting on an 80-acre estate - gives Lynn the chance to work with sedimentary WillaKenzie soils. At the same time, she is happily working with fruit grown on the same soil series from renowned Shea Vineyard. Together, these wines give her a very different kind of wine than what comes off the red volcanic Jory soils in her Dundee Hills vineyard sources.
"I think it's much spicier, aromatically, it's a little bit more chewy," comments Lynn. "People love the fruit and the finish is wonderful. The big challenge is to balance the hint of tannin on the finish with the fruit component."
To help give her additional blending components to round out the wines, Lynn can also draw from the more red-fruited and sometimes lighter fruit from the Jory soils of the Dundee Hills. She is also working with fruit from Momtazi Vineyards. "That can be a monster wine," she says, "but it adds to the balance in our portfolio."
Variety of fruit is he key to Lynn's cellar. "We don't look at our cellar as being uniform: all young vines or all old vines, or all Dijon clones. We want a mixture of place, mixture of clones, and mixture of age in the vineyard."
And while Lynn admits that it's "kind of fun" to have many differently styled wine lots to play with, "it does make the blend challenging." But it's a challenge she relishes.
"I just love the days when we get to come into the cellar and just taste," says Lynn with a smile, "because you get to see how each wine is transitioning, you can experience each wine and an individual, and you can see how each one changes in a test blend. It is just so exciting!
A Willingness to Experiment
One challenge for Lynn and Ron in running their own business is achieving a balance between process and intuition, between regimen and experimentation.
"I have certain protocols that I feel really strongly about," says Lynn, "and my attention to detail can be pretty phenomenal."
"I think it's all about not compromising," explains Ron. "We're not going to veer off the track. Some people will be more flexible and will bend. But when you're on top of your wines day after day, as Lynn is, there's a cumulative affect - I think it shows in the final result. When you look at Lynn's wines over the years, there's been a consistency throughout."
And yet despite the focus on detail, Lynn admits that much of her approach to winemaking is based on experience and gut feel. "Much of what I feel our winemaking is," she says, "is that it has become intuitive more than anything else. And Ron's having a hard time with that! He's trying to learn and during the pressures of harvest he'll ask my why I'm, doing something and I answer that it was because it seemed to be the right thing to do - it emotionally felt right, based on my experience!"
One of the key positives of this attitude is that it frees Lynn to explore new ideas in her winemaking. For instance, some years ago, as part of a tasting group that included such respected Oregon names as Ken Wright (Ken Wright Cellars), Ted & Terry Casteel (Bethel Heights Vineyard), and Steve Dorner (Cristom), Lynn participated in vineyard trials to test the affects on wine of the timing of vine thinning.
Before the trials, conventional wisdom held that early thinning of vines in Oregon was undesirable because it would stimulate vegetative growth on the vine, ultimately adversely affecting ripening times. In fact, after extensive tests at multiple vineyards - including at Rex Hill under Lynn's management - Lynn and her cohorts found early thinning to be beneficial, actually speeding the ripening process in the Willamette Valley's cool climate without encouraging a vegetative response.
Thanks in part to her willingness to test and experiment, Lynn has helped change a long-accepted accepted vineyard practice in Oregon
"I'm amazed at all of the definitive statements being made by individuals who have come into the industry recently," says Ron. "Being a newbie myself, I sit with Lynn's tasting group and sometimes they're not real sure why something has happened - so they'll experiment to find out. I think this helps define the core of our industry: experimentation to learn
"There's is nobody here who knows the formula," affirms Lynn. "None of us have the answer - and that's what, for me, is really exciting!"
Looking Forward to Keeping Oregon Special
As they look ahead at the future of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Lynn and Ron want to help continue the quality rise in Oregon winemaking.
"I think we've been lucky to have had a number of easy vintages," says Lynn. "When you look across the last couple of vintages, there have been challenges and issues to worry about, but in general they've been a kind of nirvana. We've had the luxury of waiting out hangtime, which hasn't always been the case in Oregon - remember 1997, 1991, and 1995 and 1996 - those were really hard vintages!"
Yet, the string of warm vintages does give Lynn cause for concern about the nature of wines Oregon produces. "The challenge I think Oregon is being confronted with is that if we continue to have these really, really warm vintages, we could loose the beauty that is Oregon wine. For me, I don't want to loose the liveliness and vivacity of the wines. I feel us maybe moving in that direction..."
And if Lynn has anything to say about it, the wines she makes each year under her new label will be true to her style: elegant, feminine, balanced, and full of silky texture.
Adding Syrah to the Mix
Lynn, like a number of Willamette Valley Pinot noir producers, is excited to be working with a relatively new red varietal for Oregon: Syrah. "It's a whole new challenge," she says with a sparkle in her eyes.
The Syrah fruit for Penner-Ash Wine Cellars comes from two sources, both climatically different from the cool Willamette valley region. From Southern Oregon, Lynn obtains her Syrah fruit from Del Rio Vineyards, outside of Medford, and from Northeastern Oregon, the Syrah comes from the Lews and Pines Vineyards outside The Dalles.
"Del Rio is a hunkering, lumbering, and brooding Syrah that I really like," says Lynn. :"But to give it some more definition we add fruit from The Dalles that tends to have a brighter, wild framboise note to it, and a little better acidity."
For Ron and Lynn Syrah is no passing fancy. "It is definitely a hot varietal right now," says Ron, "and it is an important part of our business plan."
Plus, its fun! "Syrah is such an interesting grape to work with in the cellar," says Ron. "Sometimes we taste though the barrels and find that it fluctuates so much during the ageing process. And. After being used to Pinot noir for so long, it is kind of bizarre to get these big, meaty flavors and aromas!"
Lynn agrees: "Syrah allows us to try our hand at something that's very different from Pinot noir and see if our skills translate. And so far, I think we've done a great job of translating!"
Rising to the Challenge of 2003
For many years the criticisms of Oregon's Pinot noirs have had as much to do with irregular winemaking as it did with variable vintages. But by the 2003 harvest, two things had clearly changed in Oregon: a string of strong and warm vintages, and a broadened base of top-quality winemaking experience and judgment.
Tasting through the 2003 Pinot noirs made by Lynn Penner-Ash is a case in point. Faced with harvest conditions that she concedes had no parallel in her sixteen years of making wine in Oregon, Penner-Ash's Pinots-in-barrel prove she was up to the vintage's challenges.
Balance seems to be the byword for Penner-Ash's 2003 pinot noirs - but it was a balance that was hard won. Tasting through the cellar in January, even at this early stage in their development, was a lesson in winemaking.
"I have to say, this year I was nervous because of the high, high sugars" concedes Lynn. Preferring to use indigenous yeast, she was concerned that the sugar levels might overpower the yeast, leaving the disaster of stuck ferments. As it turned out, Lynn only had a small lot of three barrels that "struggled" to complete fermentation, finally finishing a few weeks after harvest had been completed.
Another issue for Lynn was the amount and quality of fruit entering the winery for processing. Early in the growing season "it appeared we were going to have a huge crop again, so we made the decision to drop everything in our sites down to one cluster per shoot," explains Lynn. As the fruit developed, Lynn decided to drop even more green fruit because of excessive cluster weights.
Then, as harvest began, excessive heat and some rain provided distinctly mixed blessings. Ripeness was easily achieved... and then some! Sugar content rose precipitously and the combination of warmth and damp resulted in some botrytis and cracked skins. "Another question we had to confront was whether we were going to have a raisiny note to these wines," recalls Lynn. "We did a huge amount of sorting," adds Ron.
Once in the winery, the grapes were, simply put, out of balance. Lynn's standard operating procedure is to run a complete analysis on her musts so she knows their exact composition before she decides on taking any action. What she saw in 2003 was extremely high sugars and very low acids. Action would definitely be required to make the most of he vintage.
"We acidulated pretty much everything," says Lynn, "I don't see how you couldn't have this year."
Tasting the Penner-Ash wines, you wouldn't know they were the result of anything more than a warm vintage. "
The wines were uniformly darkly hued - from deep purple to nearly black in color - and they had huge, rich aromas of ripe fruits. Naturally, the wines are big in the mouth, with lush velvety textures and a kind of succulence not normally associated with Pinot nor.
But as big as these wines are, they do not taste of excessive alcohol (even one that had a remarkable-for-Oregon16.2% alcohol level) or out of balanced acidity (whether too much from over acidulation, or too little). Rather, they simply taste like massive, lushly fruity, and unusually dense Pinot noirs - probably the kind of wines that will turn the heads of Cabernet-besotted wine reviewers.