Last week, my team at Wine Enthusiast published my article about Vivianne Kennedy (she/they), owner and winemaker of RAM Cellars and the only openly Transgender winemaker in the US. Every once in awhile I conduct an interview and I find a real connection. Not just a topic or source—I mean a real person-to-person connection. Viv is one of those people for me. We immediately hit it off. Not only is their personal journey amazing and inspirational but her professional journey is as well. I always appreciate it when folks get down in the nitty-gritty details of the viticulture and winemaking process—and Viv is a true wine-nerd at heart.
Following both of our conversations in preparation for this article, I found myself thirsty—thirsty to experience all the hard work and sacrifices she made; thirsty to taste the amazing, innovative wines they were describing to me. I do not join wine clubs easily. I am (now) a member of exactly three and I choose them very carefully: small, boutique businesses with a real story and a winemaker with whom I have a connection. I joined RAM Cellars Cellar Club and today I want to share with you my tasting notes and some of the story behind each of the wines.
Instead of throwing in a few tech sheets or winemaking notes, Viv wrote me a three-page love letter dictating not just where the grapes were sourced and how the wines were made, but how each wine exemplifies a portion of her journey in becoming themself, learning to love herself, and truly embracing themself for who she is. Yes, all the geeky wine-nerd stuff was in there too, but so was her person. That is why I join the wine clubs I do. Personal touches like that.
So, below, I have not just my tasting notes, but exerts about Viv’s story that come from that love letter. Read on, learn more and if you feel so moved, travel on over and buy yourself a bottle. Support Queer-owned businesses like Viv’s. A purchase from her Viv label provides $5 from the sale of every bottle to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and Portland’s Q Center.
#transrightsarehumanrights #transisbeautiful #wontbeerased #pleasestandwthusandforus
A Bit About Viv (excerpt from WE article)
“I am the only openly transgender winemaker on this continent that I can find,” says Vivianne Kennedy, winemaker and proprietor of RAM Cellars, who uses she/they pronouns. “People on the spectrum, by and large, do not exist in wine production.”
When Kennedy came out, her boutique Oregon-based wine business was just beginning to take off. The news had an immediate impact on sales and production.
“Our sales and our presence took a dip after I came out as myself,” they say. “We lost business accounts. Some folks no longer wanted to sell us fruit; we lost DTC because some people didn’t want to associate with me.”
There were times when she wanted to give up, Kennedy says, when the barriers into wine were thought to be too thick to knock down. But Kennedy ultimately decided that her authentic self and existence in the wine industry are not mutually exclusive.
“I’m going to keep showing up,” says Kennedy. “I think being able to make wine and exist in this industry as my true self makes me so incredibly lucky. It’s taken a lot to get here, and I’ve been through a lot to continue to be here.”
Today, RAM Cellars’ portfolio is an eclectic mix of wines that speak to the diversity of Oregon’s terroir as well as Kennedy’s winemaking creativity. They’re creating those wines at Hips Chicks Do Wine, a custom crush facility that works with other winemakers in the queer community.
Besides diversifying the portfolio and increasing business in terms of dollars and distribution, Kennedy has also expanded the RAM Cellars team to include spouse Aiden Kennedy and friend Rebecca (Bex) Fry. Kennedy has taken both under their wing, teaching them to become part of both the winemaking process and business development. Aidan and Bex identify as non-binary and gender-fluid, respectively. Kennedy likes to say RAM Cellars now represents “a whole queer spectrum.” READ MORE HERE…
Welcome to the Cellar Club!
A note about the tasting—Viv’s love letter introduced each of the wines as a step in her personal and professional journey. With respect to that, that is the order I tasted the wines so I could travel with her in mind, wine, and spirit.
According to Viv, this lovely addition to my first club package is one of the last bottles in the cellar. The 2017 Tempranillo grapes were sourced from a “cute little vineyard source in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley,” a partnership that unfortunately ended when they came out at the end of 2018. But the RAM Cellars team is hoping to work with the variety again. Viv says this is one of her favorite wines. It’s made from 100% whole cluster “goodness,” and harvested at slightly lower sugar level to ensure good acid structure. They describe it as “decadence in the glass.”
“The bottle run for this wine happened in late 2018 after I’d already fully socially transitioned and as such this is among the first wines I bottled fully as myself.”
Tasting Notes: Immediately aromatic from the very first pour—blueberry, blackberry, bramble. First whiff of the glass speaks to that and more: add an earthy, woodsy quality—like walking through a forest early in the morning. Fruit freshness takes center stage with those aromas, including black and red plum, along with some deep violets. Swirl and enjoy some dried herbs as well—marjoram, thyme.
Deliciously dry with fine-grained tannins that add structure and a pleasant drying on the tongue. Acidity is indeed high adding a long linearity right down the center. A good solid medium body and a modest, medium level (13.5%) of alcohol perfectly balances with the just-ripe nature of the fruits—which are a perfect confirmation to all notes mentioned on the nose.
The finish is clean, yet long and lingering. Those tannins dissipate almost sneakily leaving the palate still indulging in that beautiful spring forest bouquet.
2018 Petit Verdot
“Among the first wines I was able to craft mostly as myself,” says Viv. The harvest season was a “torturous time” for them as she embarked on taking all the steps to socially and transition by their birthday in November.
Viv calls this a “special project wine”—a last-minute deal they couldn’t pass up, as she loves working with “undersung” Bordeaux varieties (including Cabernet Franc and Malbec as well). “It was always destined to be a reserve or other special designation wine,” they say. And—importantly for the RAM Cellars’ mission, the genesis of Viv label came soon after the fruit for this wine came in.
Released in 2020.
Tasting Notes: What a fun dark fuchsia, almost purple color in the glass. WOW with immediate aromas of fresh and dried violets, chocolate, cedar, sandalwood, cinnamon bark and intense black plum along with its skins. Very fine grained, but assertive tannins, carry the weight of this predominantly savory palate. But the intensity of fruit does not disappoint—black plum, blackberry, boysenberry all seem to have fallen to the moist forest floor for want of being harvested. Acid is a solid medium plus and again a modest, medium-level (13.9%) of alcohol keeps this otherwise brawny wine light on its feet. The finish is the exact definition of decrescendo as all those amplified elements smoothly decline, but again one is left with a beautiful array of aromas and flavors on the afterbreath.
2019 Pinot Noir Blanc
2019 marks the year that Viv’s good friend Bex joined the RAM Cellars team. She comments that they “ran into issues with fruit sourcing” and ended up Pinot Noir only that harvest. “So we crafted it four ways and Rebecca got a crash course in winemaking and helped through a tough but rewarding harvest,” Viv says. With a lot of personal ups and downs, they didn’t feel “100% there as a winemaker.” But, “Rebecca was there to show up for me and help me through it and we did beautiful things that year as a result. From that 2019 Pinot Noir, we released a Noveau, a Pinot Noir Rosé and the Pinot Noir Blanc under the VIV label and have raised over $1000 for Portland’s Q Center between the three of them.”
Tasting Notes: A light, delicate peach color in the glass, initial aromas are spring in the glass—daisies, dewy grass, chamomile, and jasmine flower all touched by the morning mist, now warming in the sun. Fruits hedge between stone and tropical: ripe white peach and nectarine, mango, melon all waft from the glass with a little swirl. There’s even a hint of yogurt—perhaps from a touch of lees aging.
The palate is soft, smooth, with a nice prickly acidity that rides right down the center. It’s got a good solid body—this is no wishy washy pink wine by any means. While it’s completely quaffable on its own, I’m really excited to pair this with our seared swordfish served with coconut rice and mango salsa. The flavors on the palate match the aroma profile perfectly (I’m going to add some citrus fruit here as well that was a bit more evident on the palate than the nose: white grapefruit and blood orange). The best part—that combination of fresh fruit and florals just swirl and twirl on the tongue and on the breath for ever and ever after. (12.9% abv)
2020 Rosé of Tempranillo
“Not only a last minute addition, due to the loss of the rest of contracted fruit due to major fires in the PNW, but a joint project between my then-fiancé Aidan and I!” comments Viv. For this special addition to the portfolio, Aidan took the lead.
Fruit came from a cooler climate area (Willamette), thus the duo decided to only make a rosé from these grapes. The juice was on the skins, whole clusters, for 48 hours before pressing off to tank—hence the deeper hue. Viv puts this wine in the “chillable red category.”
Tasting Notes: Indeed, a very pale ruby in the glass. Not your stereotypical rosé, at least visually. Aromas are quite floral to start—roses, gardenias, cherry blossom are followed by the ripe red voluptuous cherries, raspberries and wild strawberries with just a suggestion of the tarter cranberry in the mix as well. Again, as with previous wines, there’s a fun “earthy” quality to the nose here in the form of a damp, fertile soil. I’m once more taking that walk through the forest. Except this time, I feel like I’m walking through as the sun is setting and the stars starting to alight…
The palate does indeed have that sparkle. I sense just a twinge of effervescence in the otherwise smooth palate that give just a prickle and tickle to the tongue. Tannins are present, but just enough to brush the tongue as if with a soft piece of corduroy. Those red fruits are front and center, but there’s a hint of fresh herbs and maybe just a subtle note of baking spice as well as a potpourri of fresh and dried florals mentioned above.
Fun, vivacious, and yet there’s a darker quality that makes you take this wine more seriously. Enjoy it. But contemplate it. Find its nuances and ponder on them.
2021 Orange Fraiche
With great pride, Viv mentions that their orange wines are RAM Cellars’ most popular and that they now have a reputation for it. This bottling is a 100% skin contact fermented Riesling—”showing what 17 days on the skins and whole clusters can do.”
Tasting Notes: Yes, it is orange! None of that wishy-washy suggestion of gold. This. Is. Orange. And upon first sniff, it is indeed a Riesling—just-ripe white peach and nectarine, orange blossom; orange pith, skin, and oil.
The palate is gloriously dry. And if you think that a white wine can’t have tannins—here this: there is a good dose of medium tannins from start to finish. They coat the tongue like an elegant spring time shawl. As per all of Viv’s wines, the acidity keeps all the fresh fruits alive and forward throughout the length of the tasting. I love how those floral notes intermingle—intertwine—with the fruit components for such a lovely bouquet that again leads toward very long, long finish.
For a food pairing, Viv suggests spicier and fattier dishes.
“I have loved Rhône whites for a very, very long time and have longed to work with Roussanne,” comments Viv. A last minute issue with contract fruit last August meant a swap to a Washington vineyard site for some of the reds, which ultimately opened the door to a source for the Roussanne grapes via that vineyard as well.
Because the tonnage came in after initial contracts had been pick, it came in at higher Brix than Viv normally prefers for her white wines.
The majority of the grapes were fermented whole cluster and sits as part of the Orange wine program, though Viv adds they did pull a barrel’s worth of juice immediately to craft a classic white Roussanne that vintage as well. The winemaking proved to be a challenge: the yeast died off after a high temperature drop as it was “rounding the corner” to the final quarter of fermentation, notes Viv. But with long nights and right yeast strains, it was revived. Viv emphasizes that it is very rare for her and the RAM Cellars team to use commercial yeast in winemaking—but here, it was necessary.
The story ends with the Roussanne finishing gracefully just before the last wine of the season, making it the first in the door and nearly the last to finish. It is dubbed “pineapple express” due to the consistent pervasive pineapple aroma given off by the juice during ferment.
“It makes me think of warm summer days with people I love,” says Viv. “It may be my favorite wine I’ve made to date, not in spite of the last minute nature of its addition and the troubles with its ferment, but because of it. It feels serendipitous on some level to finally get my chance to work with Roussanne and have it be one of the most interesting, frustrating, and rewarding journeys during my saga of wine stories.”
Tasting Notes: It shimmers like the morning sun through your window on a warm summer day. Hello persistent pineapple! Indeed, that is the first thing you will smell. But I also get slightly under-ripe mango, white grapefruit, and a beautiful bouquet of orange and cherry blossom in the mix. There’s also some vanilla tones, and maybe even just a slight hint of toasted brioche.
Smooth, nearly creamy mouthfeel—again with that nice line of central acidity. The medium body and slightly higher-for-Viv alcohol lends good weight to the wine that can keep up with those hearty fruit tones—all of which perfectly parallel the aroma notes.
If a massive struggle can produce something this beautiful, then indeed life is worth living.