The Willamette Valley is famous for its world-class wine, but with over 700 wineries in the area, it’s hard to know where to start. One of the categorizing factors within the Oregonian wine world comes in the form of “AVA’s,” which stands for “American Viticulture Areas.” These designated areas serve as tool to decipher specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish one region of an area from its surrounding neighbors. Oregon might be famous for its Pinot Noir, but the Pinots you sample in one part of the Willamette might taste completely different than the opposite side of the Valley. And getting to know these areas is a great tool for finding that perfect bottle (or bottles) you didn’t even know you were missing. Today, we at The Independence are excited to share with you the wisdom of Wendy Phoenix, the Executive Chairperson of the Eola-Amity Hills Winegrowers Association. Eola-Amity Hills is one of the most well known AVA’s in the Valley, and there’s no one better to keep you updated on all things wine than Wendy. We recommend reading her interview below with a glass of Eola-Amity Pinot Noir in hand.
Independence Hotel (IH): Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you first become interested in the wine industry?
Wendy Phoenix (WP): We are from Idaho. I fell in love with wine for the first time when I didn’t get carded buying a bottle with dinner when I was 19 at a resort my then boyfriend (now husband) and I were eating at. Not sure I should be admitting that, but hey, you asked! It was a 2002 Duck Pond Pinot Noir. Once I turned 21, we took a road trip to Sonoma and the Russian River, and the proverbial snowball formed. In October 2007 I had started working for Koenig Winery and Distillery in Caldwell, Idaho. I had turned 23 that year and was ready to dive head first into a career in the wine industry. I graduated from Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in December 2007, the beginning of a historic recession, it was so hard to navigate what a career looked like when I couldn’t find more than an entry level job, or anything that paid more than $7.75/hr. The winery job paid great but wasn’t full time, so I had a “day job” during the week; working seven days a week was brutal even for a young buck like myself. What was I to do though? Hospitality programs in my local wine industry were so young still and there was no way to make a career in wine in this AVA. What did we do? In September 2009, we moved to the Willamette Valley! All our family and friends thought we were absolutely bonkers, “you’ll be back” they all said. Look at me now ya’ll – ha!
Since then, I have worked so hard to climb every ladder I could in the wine industry. Tasting Room and Private Client Liaison at Archery Summit, Shipping Logistics and Ecommerce at REX HILL, Marketing, DTC, and Analytics at Bergstrom Wines, Finance at Lange Winery, Finance and Logistics at Beck Family Estates, and now Executive Director at Eola-Amity Hills Winegrowers Association. I have obtained my level one pin from the Court of Master Sommeliers and at one point held the Presidential Chair for Pinot365, an organization that promoted visiting estate wineries that were open year-round. I hit it so hard and put myself in every situation I could to grow my network and knowledge.
It has been an amazing journey so far and I am so grateful for everyone who has contributed to my growth. There are so many inspiring individuals I can thank for who I am today.
Wendy Phoenix, the Executive Chairperson of The Eola Amity Winegrowers Association.
In 1985, a group of wineries and vineyards, led by the founder of Glen Creek Winery, now known as Orchard Heights Winery, set out to define their region. They formed the Eola Hills Winegrowing Region.
While Pinot Noir put Eola-Amity Hills on the map, their beautiful Chardonnay has garnered a great deal of excitement and acclaim!
As beautiful as it is bountiful! The Eola-Amity Hills region not only produces world-class wines, but looks good doing it.
IH: You are the executive director of the Eola-Amity Hills Winegrowers Association, what does that position involve?
WP: My tasks are broad and include everything from communications to logistics to marketing to finance. Our board is made of seven members and our general membership is over 100 area businesses. This is a part time position, so time management is incredibly important. It is using all the skills I have obtained over my years in the industry but does not limit me to just one brand. I am doing something I never had before, supporting an entire subsection of the industry I love – what an opportunity! I have taken the past year I have been in this position to work hard with the board to elevate our operations and boost efficiency. This boost has given us enough momentum to take big steps like create committees, grow membership, and refine the image of the AVA. Our plans for 2022 will make lasting change for our Association, I am so excited to be part of it.
IH: What about your work brings you the most joy, and what has surprised you the most?
WP: I get the most joy out of the planning. Our board and committees are comprised of some of the best and brightest in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, the enthusiasm these folks bring to the table is beyond inspiring. We have marketing, viticulture, hospitality, and winemaking professionals at our table that were only legend to me before. Now I get to brainstorm change with these people. It is a truly great experience.
The surprises never stop, so I will keep you posted when I figure out what surprises me the most…
Eola-Amity AVA –
- 1960’s – first vineyards were planted in the Willamette Valley
- 1984 – the Willamette Valley AVA established
- 2006 – the Eola-Amity Hills AVA established
- 100+ vineyards
- 33 wineries
- 26 tasting rooms
- 40,000 acre region
- 3,000+ acres of planted grapes
- 80% of grapes are Pinot Noir; 8.3% Chardonnay; 3.3% Pinot Gris
- 2 wines from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA – scored in the top 100 wines in the world according to Wine Spectator (2021)
- 45 – the paralell for growing great wine that goes through the Eola-Amity region.
IH: How do you see the wine industry evolving in the next 5-10 years?
WP: I see things like an expanded number of varietals being grown and more sparkling out of this valley. That being said, my fingers are crossed for more Gamay! While our climate is changing, and we are seeing extremes, I see the resilience of the industry in this area. I also see the continued big names coming in and purchasing some of the smaller guys. There are mixed feelings on this, I know, but I like to think optimistically. More money in this valley means more resources, means more accolades, more industry growth. If your industry stops growing, it starts dying. Some folks see dread in growing to a Napa level but think of what Napa is to those who love it. The Willamette Valley has earned its spotlight. It is going to be a great opportunity to be here and watch how this area evolves.
IH: What do you think is the biggest threat to Oregonian wineries at the moment, and what are the best ways fans (like me) can support local wineries?
WP: Bring a bottle, share a bottle, open a bottle. Repeat. I send Oregon Wine to everyone I can. Any time I travel I bring bottles for gifts for my hosts, I take a bottle to a restaurant and leave the last third or quarter of the bottle for my server to enjoy a glass after his/her shift. Social media is obviously another great way to spread the word, but when it comes down to it – you simply must taste it to know what you’re missing.
The full effects of the pandemic have not yet been fully exposed, but there is no denying the inflation all around us. The other threat of course that we are all still very aware of is the climate. Our growing season is becoming less predictable, and smoke from fires can severely damage a vintage no matter what the rest of the year had looked like until that point.
As the region grows and evolves more varietals are being produced, including the expansion of sparking wines. Cheers!
Splashing one another may not be the preferred method but there is no wrong way to enjoy your wine!
IH: If you could make your own wine, what varietal would you choose, what would you call it, and what would you want on the label?
WP: I do love Pinot very much, let us not forget. That being said: Gamay all day. I love so many varietals, but Gamay’s versatility and approachability has always been attractive to me. I have no idea what I would call it, so many good names are taken already! We love the outdoors, so that imagery would be important to me to incorporate to our branding.
IH: What makes the Eola-Amity Hills unique?
WP: The geographic size, elevation, and proximity to the coastal range gives the grapes grown in this AVA a unique growing and ripening season year after year. Other AVAs are known for their unique climates as well. I have, personally, always been drawn to wines produced from this AVA. They are, typically, lower in alcohol, higher in acidity, and easy to appreciate whether you open it young or let it age.
IH: How many wineries are within the Eola-Amity Hills AVA?
WP: More are added every single year, but I believe we are currently at more than 30 wineries and recently topped 3,000 acres planted.
Just one hour southwest of Portland, the Eola-Amity Hills is a dedicated American Viticultural Area within Oregon’s Willamette Valey thanks to its unique blend of geology, soil, and climate.
IH: Why is sustainability important?
WP: Sustainability is a term important to more than the vineyard; it should be applied to the entirety of the wine industry. Sustainability is important because that means it has a future. If it is not sustainable, it will not survive. Our soils grow excellence year after year because we feed our dirt, our sales grow year after year because we care for our people. Sustainability is being thoughtful with our practices from the dirt to the consumer.
IH: What is one thing about the wine world you wish everyone knew? What is one urban legend about wine you’d like to debunk?
WP: The wine world welcomes you. In my years in this industry something that is still so surprising to me is how intimidated people are by drinking wine. Just drink it! If you’re not ready for a tasting room experience, that’s fine, start small. Grab a bottle from your local store or buy a glass out at your favorite restaurant. Ask people for recommendations or buy a bottle just because it has a pretty label – we’ve all done it before. Heck, I just had dinner the other night with one of my favorite people, the Direct Sales Manager at a high end winery, with tons of wine higher education certificates, and he bought a bottle of wine just because the lion on the label was awesome and had blue claws – we all do it.
IH: Do you have any favorite wine movies, shows, facts, quotes, or jokes?
WP: Wine movies and shows haven’t evolved enough for me to feel real or relevant, maybe one day we will have a show like “The Office” but about the winery instead. There is plenty of material there. If any producers are reading this – I have so many ideas – give me a shout!
Varnum Vintners invites you to explore their old vine Riesling, Pinot Noir and Sparkling wines.
Replenish with the delictable charcuterie and tasting flight at Bjornson Vineyard.
With over 30 wineries and tasting rooms the Eola-Amity Hills AVA has a wine for every palette!
IH: As head of the Winegrowers Association, what is your relationship with the wineries and winemakers?
WP: I like to think of myself as a resource to wineries and winemakers. I have always found joy in connecting those with a common goal to one another. I have worked with some of the best of the best in this industry and I am proud to spread the knowledge I have gained through this time.
IH: For someone planning a trip here, when do you recommend visiting Oregon wine country?
WP: September, no question. The leaves are changing, harvest is happening, temperatures are cooling, crowds are less likely, you need a light sweater in the evening. All the good things… If you can hit a good weekend in October, that is also pretty amazing, but never a guarantee.
IH: What is one of your favorite activities within the Eola-Amity Hills AVA outside of drinking wine?
WP: One? Seriously, we are in Oregon there is so much. Farmer’s markets, any u-pick farm (I’ll eat anything locally grown), hops farms are SO cool especially during their harvest, the river trails in Salem, and while I haven’t done it yet, I am looking forward to spending some time watching live music at the outdoor amphitheater in Independence.
IH: What is the funniest or strangest moment you’ve had involving the Oregon wine industry?
WP: I was once chased through the caves at Archery Summit by a bat that got in during harvest. It was equally the funniest, most terrifying, and strangest thing that has ever happened to me in general. Turns out bats are a thing in the wine industry, they like fruit flies, and fruit flies like grapes.
Wendy recommends skipping the store and checking out one of the numerous Farmers markets in the valley.
The amphitheater at Independence’s Riverview Park hosts a summer concert series annually and adds to the charm of visiting the Eola-Amity region.
IH: What is one of your favorite memories that include a glass or bottle of wine?
WP: I have rarely consumed wine alone, so most of my best memories involve a glass of wine and special people. Examples? Sharing a bottle of wine on the beach with my husband at sunset. Birthdays and holidays with loud conversation, laughter, and amazing food around a giant table of friends and family. Educational tastings with the winemaker and viticulturist telling me from vivid memory exactly what the challenges were in the vintage and how they navigated it to make what was in my glass that day. Meeting new people is easier with a glass of wine, “what are you drinking?” is possibly the best icebreaker into what could become an awesome conversation.
IH: Do you have any advice for beginner tasters?
WP: Drink what tastes good, try everything, don’t be too serious, enjoy every drop, definitely don’t forget to eat good food too – pretty simple stuff really. Wine should be easy. All of us started with a joy of wine, some of us just turned it into a full-blown obsession. I discourage things like “oh, I don’t drink Merlot” or “I only like sweet wines” open your horizons and allow yourself to expand.
IH: What would you say is the biggest wine faux pas?
WP: Judging a wine you haven’t tasted. Tisk tisk!
Look at that beautiful fruit! Harvest in the Valley is in late summer, early fall and is the perfect time to visit.
Did you know? The Eola-Amity Hills AVA was established as a sub-AVA of the Willamette Valley in 2006. This blustery sub-appellation gets its name from the Greek god of wind, Aeolus.
If you’ve ever visited the region, you’ve experienced the power of the wind and know that it lives up to its name!
IH: What is your relationship with The Independence?
WP: I have been newly introduced to the city of Independence and The Independence Hotel as of about six months ago, I can’t believe the diamond in the rough this area is.
Matt Smith, General Manager, and I started working together after being introduced by Shawn Irvine, the Economic Development Director for the City of Independence. We are very interested in creating opportunities to partner the Eola-Amity Hills Winegrowers Association with The Independence Hotel and other local area businesses to create education, trade, and tasting opportunities for locals, tourists, and industry professionals. It is going to be a great partnership!
IH: What would be your ideal day/experience for drinking wine?
WP: Always start with a solid breakfast, hit two wineries, lunch, two more wineries, dinner, and close the night at a wine bar for some live music.
Don’t forget to drink water, and share tastings if you think you need to – don’t get too tipsy! My husband and I almost exclusively share tastings these days, that way we can have a glass of our favorite at the end of the flight.
When I go tasting I like to hit only one or two wineries I have been to before, “staples” if you will, but I always go to at least two wineries that I have never heard of and know nothing about. I love finding the smallest, newest place in town. Ask someone at your “go-to” wineries what new tasting spots have opened recently. Tasting room staff always has the best leads on new places – always ask them!
IH: Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with the guests of The Independence?
WP: Thank you for supporting hospitality and tourism, this industry has some of the hardest working people I have ever met. Enjoy your time in our Valley, it is like no place else on Earth, we are so glad you are here!