Very few winemakers can have the pedigree and unique vision of Remy Drabkin. Born in the small town of McMinnville, Ore., Drabkin was surrounded by the world of wine from a young age. By the time she was 16, she was working harvests for some of the Willamette Valley’s heavy hitters, including apprenticeships at Ponzi and Erath.
Drabkin founded her own brand Remy Wines in 2006 with a portfolio that is unique for the West Coast, let alone Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With a focus on Italian varieties and esoteric winemaking methods, Drabkin has blazed her own path in a region known almost entirely for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
She’s also extremely active in the local community, and is one of the few openly out LGBTQ+ winemakers. Drabkin stays active in promoting equality both in the wine industry and rural Oregon as a whole. In 2020, she founded Wine Country Pride, an organization dedicated to bringing a yearly Pride celebration to rural Oregon. This includes a Queer Wine Fest event that celebrates LGBTQ+ diversity in the wine industry by showcasing queer-owned and queer-produced wines from across the country.
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In November last year, Drabkin was formally elected as mayor of McMinnville after serving as president of their city council and interim mayor since May of 2022. She is the first queer person to be elected mayor in the town’s history.
VinePair chatted with Drabkin about growing up in the Willamette Valley, being a queer member of the wine industry, and what’s next for Remy Wines.
1. What was it like growing up in McMinnville just as the Oregon wine industry was hitting its stride?
It was wonderful as a child because it was such a small industry. And so, it was family. You had all these families that were doing really fun stuff like driving tractors around and picking fruit and cooking all this good food. My mom worked at Nick’s Italian Cafe, which is a restaurant in downtown McMinnville.
Everybody hung out, we spent holidays together, there was a lot of celebration. I loved growing up here, and I think it’s very natural that I would have wanted to be a winemaker because winemakers had more fun.
2. Were there any specific mentors that really got your love for winemaking going?
Dick Ponzi right away started giving me a lot of direction: “Do that, kid; don’t do that” kind of stuff. And then I worked for Rob Stuart, who now has R. Stuart & Co. that he and his wife, Maria, started. But at the time, they were both working for Erath.
I kind of had this wraparound mentorship. Rob brought me into the lab, but he also gave me a ton of responsibility. I remember really clearly that by the time I was 16, I was running the bottling line at Erath. All of that, the direct winemaking and indirect winemaking experience, had wraparound effects.
3. How did you go from working for Oregon Pinot Noir producers to founding a brand based on Italian varietals?
A couple of different factors. One relating to the Willamette wine industry founders is that they were very experimental. Ponzi and Erath planted Dolcetto. When Chateau Ste. Michelle bought Erath, they tore out that Dolcetto, but Ponzi’s is still in the ground. Later on, Myron Redford was very experimental in his wines and his plantings with Amity Vineyards. So there had not been a focus on Italian varietals, but there was a focus to push boundaries and evaluate and learn from it. So that was part of it. And then the second part was [that] Nick’s Italian Café had a big influence on me. I loved everything about Italian culture, food, wine, etc.
4. How hard is it to convince customers to try varieties not common to your area?
I’ve always been sensitive to the economics of it. I had three jobs during the first many years of the winery. I didn’t have a paid employee until 10 years ago, and that first employee is still with me. We’ve grown in a very fiscally responsible way. I’ve always kept one wine almost falsely priced from what it should have been as an accessible entry into my wines.
People in the wine industry have been interested in what I’ve been doing because people like to see other folks experimenting and want to know the results of that experimentation. When Appellation America did a story on Lagrein in 2008, I remember thinking, “The problem is solved; everyone will remember Lagrein is grown in Oregon.” But people just haven’t heard of Lagrein outside of Alto Adige. The important part is you have to make really good wine, and that makes it easy.
5. How does your identity as a queer winemaker play into your business?
I’m just being myself, but I was scared to be out in wine for a long time. I closeted myself regularly, especially on sales trips and when meeting with distributors. Really conservative areas were important to have business in. I had someone really push me to be out in business, and it was a very scary shift. When you’re closeted, you just don’t really address it and just kind of pretend it’s not there. Some of my fears were actual loss of business, negative feedback, things of that nature, and those things still happen.
There was this other part of it where a weight was lifted off me, even when the negative stuff came. I was speaking my truth, and it was affecting people around me. That energy continued to build on itself, and I started doing fundraising events for queer nonprofits like the Cascade AIDS Project. Then we started talking about doing our own pride celebration at Remy Wines because there was no pride celebration locally.
6. What new projects get you excited moving forward in the wine business?
I’ve just built this new incredible sustainable winery and by happenstance invented a carbon sequestering concrete that I’m trying to promote. I sought out a particular contractor because I knew he was making carbon- neutral concrete. I approached him and said, “Do you think we can build this winery in a more sustainable way physically?” And he came back to me and he had this concrete idea. There’s also a lot of sustainability throughout the winery that addresses workplace health and safety standards and longevity for our bodies, because those are all parts of sustainability as well.
7. How can consumers find sustainable wineries like yours?
If you want to really start digging into equity, then let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that small producers are where you’re going to find most of your underrepresented communities in the world of wine. If I don’t have the opportunity to sell directly to a consumer, or directly to trade, then that puts me at an even greater disadvantage. There are many, many things that have made it harder for us to access the traditional channels of selling wine. I think it’s important to open that up. My wine would be in so many more places if it wasn’t for the systems that keep me out of those markets.
8. Has it been tough balancing being a mayor and running a wine brand?
Yes, plus being an active board member of a nonprofit. It’s a lot because I do the job to the fullest. I could certainly do a lot less as mayor, but that’s not my style — if you’re going to do it, do it well. I took a strong lead with the city and dived right into solutions for some longtime issues. I told my team at the winery that the opening of the legislative session is like a second harvest for me. I couldn’t do it without my teams.
9. Anything exciting in the works from that additional effort outside the winery?
Queer Wine Fest returns June 25, 2023, and winery registration is now open!
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