Welcome back to my second annual series featuring women in wine who are at the top of their game. This year we have the privilege of hearing from women in various roles – from business operations to vineyard management, cellar masters to winemakers, and even CEOs/Presidents. The accomplishments of women in a male dominated industry is worth celebrating not only on International Women’s Day, but all month and all year for that matter. These amazing women are paving the way for future generations of female leaders and powerhouses in wine. I hope you enjoy learning about their journey and winemaking philosophy and feel as inspired as I do to go after your dreams. Check back here for updates as I continue to roll out these interviews daily on Instagram.
First up, Leah Jorgensen of Leah Jorgensen Cellars
Maker of Oregon’s Premier Cabernet Franc
Oregon is not only cool in climate, but just straight up cool. The state is leading the US in terms of organic vineyards, biodynamics, and sustainable practices. These are some of wine’s biggest buzz words and that’s not changing anytime soon because it’s cool to care about nature. Personally, there is no better sense of the word “terroir” than a wine that is made with minimal intervention and/or biodynamically. Combine this approach with with cool, rainy climate along with pristine soil types and *viola* – world class wine from vine to glass. Leah is a prominent member of the winemaking community in Oregon with deep family roots. Oregon is known for Pinot and Chardonnay that align with Burgundian palates, but what I love most about Leah’s wine is how she is leaning into grapes and styles of the Loire Valley (think Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc). While her Cabernet Franc is hands down show-stopping, I have to give a shoutout to “Tour Rain” which is not only a clever play on words, but truly one of a kind in taste. It’s made with 40% Gamay Noir and 60% Cabernet Franc, which is actually a classic Loire blend. Imagine fresh blooms mingling with bright red fruit and undertones of pepper – it’s enticing. Be sure to check out her wines!
Without further ado, here’s our interview:
Ashley: Why did you choose to become a winemaker?
Leah: Honestly, I grew tired (and bored) with working in winery sales and marketing – which I had been doing for about a decade before shifting gears to work in the cellar. I was always interested in wine production, but having worked my way up the ranks in a steady upper management position (and salary), I was afraid to take the plunge into cellar work. For one, it would be a major pay cut. I was also concerned with the instability of part-time seasonal work that comes with harvest internships – a necessary step in the winemaking journey. When I finally decided to “go for it”, I just trusted the process and turned my attention to learning and studying. I enrolled in a local winemaking program while working local harvests. I managed to pay the bills with part-time evening work at a Portland wine bar while doing some winery marketing consulting on the side. After my first crush, I knew I was headed in the right direction and I made it my purpose to learn everything I possibly could about winemaking. While cellar internships are essential, I found the classroom to be critically important in taking serious steps to become a professional winemaker. So, I guess I would say my obsessive “curiosity” drove me to study winemaking because I really wanted to understand and learn everything I could possibly learn about how wine is made, what can happen during the winemaking process, and most importantly, how to be competent about what is happening during the winemaking process. I tend to believe if you are truly passionate about something, you don’t want to learn a little bit about it. You should become voracious about learning everything about your passions, right? Cutting corners or skipping the classroom experience wasn’t an option for me. By the time I completed the 2year program, it was clear to me that I was right where I wanted to be – and I had the tools I needed to have confidence in my ability to make wine professionally. To this day, I read research assays on winemaking all the time – published via UC Davis, the AWRI, etc. I’m not in winemaking for any other reason but to continue to learn and understand the nuances of a subject that is really exciting, complex, and interesting to me – and then putting that knowledge and expertise into practice.
Ashley: Do you think there’s a stereotype attached to female winemakers?
Leah: Not really. But, I do think it depends on who you’re asking. There are certain consumers out there who would prefer it if my husband was the winemaker in my family.
What do you find to be the most interesting part of your job?
Most interesting: the fact that no two vintages are the same, so my work is never the same. My work as a winemaker is to look closely at what each vineyard site and what each vintage is giving me. I make all decisions based on those two things. It’s never predictable and once the fruit comes in the doors, after deciding when to pick, I get the joy of putting that knowledge about site and the vintage to work to create something that will forever reflect a specific time, place and moment in history. I mean, how many people are lucky to experience something like that? I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a life’s work, a study, if you will, on my chosen discipline.
Ashley: What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?
Leah: It is my intention to see that Oregon is included among the most important places/regions in the world for growing exceptional Cabernet Franc. I am passionate about the vineyards I work with – I’m committed to them, even during challenging times like right now with two years of dangerous drought impacting Southern Oregon. Climate change is affecting the whole west coast – we can’t be complacent and think it’s only a problem in some regions. We all need to consider this impact on American agriculture.
It is also my intention to help reshape the narrative on American Cabernet Franc. California has long held the standard to which American Cabernet Franc style has been expressed. I think it’s time to change the standard. Cabernet Franc is one of the most elegant, ethereal, complex varietals in the world of Vinifera – and I’m definitely challenging the status quo style by not using new oak, picking earlier, using irrigation methods and canopy management systems to influence plant chemistries (especially in reducing the production of methoxypyrazines), etc.
It’s my goal to get credit for pioneering American Cabernet Franc Blanc. As a woman winemaker I have already watched other winemakers take the credit. I’m not interested in being the center of attention; I’m interested in fairness, gender equity, and making sure credit is given where credit is due. This is not just for me but for any marginalized winemaker today and in years to come. If I don’t claim it, someone else will. One way to help put an end to unfairness and challenges for women and other minorities in winemaking is to make sure we amplify their good work, that we probably credit them for the contributions they make.
Last, it’s my goal to create a distinguishable, classic Oregon Cabernet Franc. My hope is that one day when somms and professionals taste Oregon Cabernet Franc they are able to identify it as Oregon Cabernet Franc. Our region is unique. Just as the Willamette Valley isn’t Burgundy, the Rogue Valley isn’t the Loire Valley or Bordeaux’s Right Bank. It’s a special place that happens to have soils and climate and elevations that are home to world class Cabernet Franc vines.
Leah, thank you for sharing your insight and wines with us. The Social Grapes appreciates all that you do to encourage women to meet their full potential, which includes donating a portion of the sales from this rosé to women’s academic scholarships – especially in STEM studies.