DAYTON, Ore. — Accomplished winemaker; dedicated public servant; advocate for acceptance; environmental educator — in the Pacific Northwest wine industry, Remy Drabkin commands unicorn status.
The interim mayor of McMinnville, Ore. — who is up for election in November — pulls it all off with aplomb while proudly flying a rainbow flag and another for Black Lives Matter from the century-old farmhouse that is the home of Remy Wines in the Dundee Hills. (Editor’s note: Drabkin was voted to a two-year term via the Nov. 8, 2022 election.)
“It doesn’t take a lot to make big changes,” she often says. “It just takes some intentionality.”
She provided another poignant example this summer when she cut the ribbon inside the 5,000-square-foot production facility on her 27-acre estate, signaling her winery’s move from McMinnville’s Granary District. It is seemingly beyond state of the art for its approach to one of the most sinister construction ingredients on the planet — concrete.
“It’s responsible for 7 to 9 percent of all of the world’s C02 emissions; enough concrete is poured every day in the world to cover the entire city of Portland,” Drabkin says. “With Remy Wines as the pilot program, our concrete costs were only about 10 percent higher than conventional concrete. Yet we sequestered 10,232 pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere.”
The secret sauce mixed into the concrete is biogenic carbon from municipal waste generated in the Bay Area.
In Drabkin fashion, she reached out to a longtime friend, John Mead, owner of Vesuvian Forge Concrete Surfaces Co. in McMinnville, to include nearby Wilsonville Concrete Products. LaFarge North America, one of the world’s largest building material suppliers, helped with the dozens of tests. BioForceTech in San Francisco used pyrolysis to turn the waste into biochar. The Bay Area company believes enough in Drabkin’s project that it sent two scientists to attend her ribbon cutting. (Yes, municipal waste includes what you think it might.)
“Wilsonville used iron slag to replace half of the mix in the concrete and used limestone cement from LaFarge that replaces unbaked limestone in place of some of the cement by 15 to 20 percent,” Mead said. “And then by adding the biochar, it completely offset and brought this slab’s carbon footprint to negative levels. We’re super excited about that.”
As a result of the project, the Drabkin-Mead Formulation led to the creation of Solid Carbon, a company in McMinnville ready to implement the new structural concrete for commercial and home construction. And Mead relishes the opportunity to share the story about a Christmas gift he received years ago from his sister soon after he dedicated his career to efforts such as the one at Remy Wines.
“It was a T-shirt that read, ‘Green is the New Black,’ ” he chuckled. “By putting biochar into this concrete, we would love for people to say, ‘Black is the New Green.’ ”
Drabkin’s dream is that the interest and demand will prompt two or more businesses in each state to enter the biogenic char arena and turn local waste into biogenic carbon for local concrete companies. The timing seems ideal with the federal government’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“The great thing about our process and our product here is that it can be replicated anywhere,” Drabkin says. “Anyone in the wine industry around the world can do this.”
Among those supporting her mission by attending the ceremony surrounding her latest groundbreaking project were Dick and Nancy Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards and Rob Stuart of R. Stuart & Co. Winery. Those famous figures in the Oregon wine industry have been in her corner and part of her life since she was a child.
Trailblazing, advocacy worth the risk
Drabkin is a woman, she’s queer and she’s Jewish. Any one of those might make her stand out in any industry. While she’s seen as a lightning rod for her many causes, she’s content to embrace the current.
The buzz around her continues to grow. This year, Wine Enthusiast magazine selected her for its Future 40 Tastemakers and Innovators series. Her supporters, however, undoubtedly scratched their heads when that same publication did not list her among the nominees for Social Visionary of the Year for its Wine Star Awards next year.
“I know that we have peoples’ attention at different times, whether it’s because people send notes of gratitude or because they let me know they will no longer be buying my wines,” she says. “That’s a regular happening.”
Earlier this year, Remy Wines played host to the inaugural Queer Wine Fest, an event to showcase work by vintners, winemakers or vineyard managers who are queer. In 2020, Drabkin helped launch Wine Country Pride as a celebratory and community-building event for her region. Queer Wine Fest naturally folded into that.
“We’re creating safe spaces and also we’re educating people that we as queer people, as historically disadvantaged people — we live in this community. This isn’t somewhere else. These aren’t other-place problems,” Drabkin says. “We are every people, every race, religion, age, ability, political party and socio-economic standing and we are out here running businesses, lives, dealing with the pandemic, having relationships and friendships and simply living our lives while ‘out’ in the world. There’s a lot of backlash for it. It makes the work as a collective even more important.”
In the past three years, she has become a vocal champion for the concept of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Last year, she delivered a DEI training presentation for the Washington State Wine Commission.
As a result of her advocacy, her time in political office and her charisma, few winemakers in the Pacific Northwest have received as many headlines and attention in the past few years. She’s in the enviable position of making styles of wines she wants. She doesn’t chase points, enter judgings or deal with a middle man.
“My goal is to make about 3,500 to 4,000 cases between all of my brands,” she says. “It’s a good amount; it keeps our team busy, and it is all sold direct to the consumer. Everything is done in-house. That means we carry a larger team, which is great and gives me opportunities that smaller wineries my size might not otherwise have.”
Those include health insurance, a savings plan and DEI training. In the spirit of a socially good company, Remy Wines produces a blend called Pride Red that raises funds for Wine Country Pride. The 2019 vintage ($35) was made with two Italian grapes close to her heart — Lagrein grown on her estate and Dolcetto from Jubilee Vineyard.
“I’m certainly a lot further along in educating myself than I was two years ago with how I understand systemic racism,” Drabkin admitted. “This property is a blessing to me in many ways, including creating visibility, but we’ve also been vandalized at both of our locations.”
An affinity for Italy
Drabkin produces wines under three labels, and her portfolio represents Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. There’s the entry-level Three Wives blends and her young Black Heart Series, which includes methode Champenoise from estate Pinot Noir, work with Malbec and tributes to Super Tuscan styles. Her eponymous brand focuses on varieties native to Northern Italy — Dolcetto, Lagrein, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese — and they rarely exceed 200-case lots. Most of the time, the alcohol levels of her bottlings are below 14%, ideal for the dining table and the cellar.
Arneis, a white variety not often grown outside of Italy, is from Aurora Vineyard — a Ponzi planting. For the Sangiovese, she’s found a sweet spot on Washington’s Red Mountain amid the plantings for Kiona Vineyards.
“Remy has purchased our Sangiovese for a long time,” JJ Williams, general manager for the three-generation Kiona program. “We have also been very impressed with her stuff, especially as it ages.
“There are a lot of domestic Sangioveses where they’re ripening so far and so late that the wine comes off as an alternate-universe Cabernet, which is not what we need/want here on our hill,” Williams continued. “In our own program, we view Sangiovese as one of the earlier wines we’d pour in a lineup; the rare Red Mountain red wine you can see through, so to speak. Remy seems to prioritize low alcohol, moderate ripeness and minimalist ferments, so it all aligns pretty well.”
Drabkin wouldn’t think of second-guessing the Williams family either.
“They’ve been farming it for so long, and I like the way they farm,” she says. “I go up and visit once during harvest to evaluate ripeness because I often pick earlier than others.”
In her early days as a winemaker, she came across Lagrein, a variety rarely seen outside of Italy yet a pet project of the late Bryce Bagnall at Witness Tree. During the years, Drabkin forged a kinship with famed Alto Adige producer Martin Foradori Hofstätter. She’s benefited from the research they’ve shared, which led to plantings of Lagrein at her estate.
“It has genetic relationships to Pinot Noir and Syrah and I think it shows that — fairly delicate with this incredible backbone,” she says.
Travel has long been a passion of hers, and she uses trips to California, Massachusetts and New York to grow her wine club — “spread the gospel of Remy Wines,” as she puts it.
Organized pop-ups in legal settings don’t allow her to sell bottles, but she can pour samples. For those who admire her bright and age-worthy wines, she simply adds their names to her mailing list.
“I am selling the brand, then I come back to those contacts to pursue relationships,” she says.
The Mayor of McMinnville
Even though Drabkin no longer produces wine in McMinnville, she remains committed to the city that helped make the Oregon wine industry famous by attracting the late David Lett and Ken Wright.
Remarkably, she’s been a part of the Oregon wine industry before she was a teen. Class of ’98 at Mac High — of course she graduated a year early — Drabkin then matriculated at Linfield College.
“My mom was the original culinary director of the International Pinot Noir Celebration, and I was volun-told — that’s when you tell your kids they are going to volunteer — from the time I was 9 years old,” Remy said. “I was helping to stuff envelopes at the IPNC office.”
She worked both the front of the house and in the kitchen at the renowned Nick’s Italian Café. There was vineyard work for the Ponzi family, and she helped run the bottling line as a high school student at Erath Winery when Rob Stuart was the winemaker.
“The Stuarts and the Ponzis really folded me into their families early on. That continues to influence me,” she says.
Formal training in winemaking led her to France and the Domaine du Lycée Viticole de Beaune. On her path back home, she managed an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pa., before launching Remy Wines in 2006 in McMinnville.
“It’s important to me that downtown McMinnville continues to be a place with a diversity of businesses that both support and benefit from the wine industry — providing value for the local community and tourists alike,” Drabkin says.
She’s been active in city government for more than a decade, starting with consecutive appointments to the planning commission. Drabkin then won two terms on the McMinnville City Council, which twice has voted her as its council president. She received a governor’s appointment to serve on the Oregon Wine Board.
This spring, Drabkin was unanimously appointed as interim mayor. The promotion meant that, under city bylaws, she had to resign from the Visit McMinnville board. Among her key issues are affordable housing for the workforce, houselessness, increased utilization of the McMinnville airport, conservation and DEI awareness.
“I’m developing a lot of projects from my past two terms, and I have more work to do,” she says. “I’m not looking to leave the city of McMinnville anytime soon, but as long as the electorate will have me, I’m probably a lifetime or majority-of-my-lifetime politician. I enjoy the work, and I’m good at the work. I find it rewarding, and it’s good for my community.”
Her years of being re-elected to represent her precinct on the city council indicates that Drabkin has a decent shot at getting the “interim” tag removed and continuing to use the Instagram handle of @MayorRemyDrabkin.
Meanwhile, she’s looking to the next generation to help her effort by tasking Opal Primozich, a senior at McMinnville High, to be her campaign manager. Last year, Primozich won her own election to serve as state president of the Oregon Association of Student Councils.
Rather than micromanage, Drabkin refers questions about her campaign to Primozich or playfully points at her rescue dog — Judah Drabkin.
“He has a QR code on his back,” Drabkin quipped. “That was Opal’s idea!”
Drabkin takes practical approach to Dayton
With the 2022 vintage, the new facility in many ways caters to her team more than her many customers.
“I love to talk about my bathroom,” she deadpans.
Among the many subtle changes on the estate that folks may notice is the removal of the portable bathroom near the gravel driveway.
“We want our vineyard stewards to have an easily accessible and hygienic restroom available at all times, which may sound obvious, but it actually isn’t in the wine industry,” Drabkin says. “Many vineyard stewards are asked to use portable facilities that are not protected from harsh sun or heat and can run the gamut of cleanliness. Our new bathroom prioritizes the needs of our employees first, and there is just one of them — for everybody.”
The carbon-negative sinks and carbon-neutral floor are courtesy of Mead’s business. The tile came from a rejected order Drabkin learned of via a friend.
“It’s one bathroom for everyone — wherever they are on the gender spectrum,” she says. “There are four stalls that are ADA accessible and a floor drain so this entire thing can get hit with a pressure washer.”
Other touches in the former pole barn include using discarded pallets for the hand railing for her new winery’s second-floor offices. Welding students at nearby Dayton High School helped transform scrap metal on the property into other features in the new facility.
But the day before demolition/construction began, Drabkin took a few minutes to sit on her front porch, bask in the afternoon sun and taste through some of the Sangiovese from her library. She sported a pair of reddish-brown Doc Martens. The British steel-toed footware made famous by London bobbies and punk rockers has protected Drabkin’s well-traveled feet for more than a few vintages. Those with a pair know them to be comfortable and practical, fashionable in their own way and able to withstand almost anything life can throw at them. Perfect for this never-stand-in-place winemaker.
“They are my favorite shoes,” she said with a smile. “Doc Martens are my shoe of choice since the mid-90s. I’ve had a lot of pairs.”
- Remy Wines, 17495 NE McDougall Road, Dayton, OR 97114, RemyWines.com, (503) 864-8777.