At RAM cellars, the owner-winemaker Vivianne Kennedy is wonderfully designated as the “Maven of Mirth + Darling of Delight.” Kennedy, with all her fiery passion and zest for life, is all of that and so much more.
While still working as an assistant winemaker in 2014, Kennedy rented production space from the Portland, Ore., winery she was at, to get her first wines started for RAM cellars. Today, at her very own small-batch winery, Kennedy lovingly crafts low-intervention, natural wines that are known for their bracing acidity and divine aromatics.
The winery’s name comes from her departed Grandfather’s initials, RAM, in an effort to pay homage to him. Kennedy, a proud transgender woman, once carried those initials herself. “[I’m] thankful that they live on through the winery,” Kennedy says. “Although my grandfather did not live to see the winery come to fruition, or see me fully shine as me, I’d like to think that his legacy of care, kindness and support lives on through me and through the winery.”
In 2018, after a lifelong struggle with her identity, Kennedy came into the light as herself, a transgender woman. Over the years, RAM cellars blossomed from a one-woman show to a wine production team, the entirety of which falls somewhere on the transgender spectrum. In 2019, Vivianne’s dear friend Rebecca “Bex” Fry (she/they) joined the team, followed by her spouse Aidan Kennedy (they/them) in 2020. Vivianne hopes that, “one day that there will be safe opportunities for other trans folks in the industry. While I might be the first openly transgender winemaker in the U.S. that I can find information about, what’s most important to me is that I’m not the last.”
We spoke to the winemaker about her passion for winemaking, running RAM cellars and using her winery platform to create awareness for LGBTQIA folks.
Sip: How were your growing-up days like? How did you develop an interest in wine?
Vivianne Kennedy: I grew up in rural Eastern Washington and had my first introduction to wine in my early 20s, around the time that I moved to Portland, Ore. Growing up where I did and knowing I was different from an early age was at times very tough, but it’s helped shape me into the person I am today. My love of wine was sparked by a tasting at a spring barrel event at Kiona Winery on Red Mountain in Washington in 2008. An interactive tasting event featuring Cabernet Franc aged in different oak treatments was the gateway to a long, in-depth conversation with the winemaker about wine production choices and the impact of oak on wines. This led me to realize that I was developing a love of not only the art, but the science, behind wine. Soon after, I enrolled in back-to-back programs for viticulture and enology through Washington State University’s extension campus program which at that time was based in Prosser, Wash. Eventually, I began working for other wineries, also adding a gig as an assistant winemaker at another Portland urban winery on top of my coursework and completion of my enology program in 2013-2014. It feels like I’ve been deeply in love with wine for a very long time and I have days where it strikes me how fortunate I am to be able to continue making and sharing wine.
Sip: What is the most interesting part and the hardest challenges of your job?
VK: As a small producer who also self distributes the wine, I have to wear many hats on behalf of the winery. From trucking the grapes back to the winery from the vineyard, to selling the wines wholesale, to keeping up the website, and staying on top of taxes and business licensing. I end up doing it ALL. Sometimes that can get pretty hectic. I’d say my biggest challenges in the last few years have been logistics, from changes in grape availability due to wildfire, to shortages of trucks to rent for hauling the grapes. It keeps me on my toes and helps me stay agile, I suppose.
I am truly in love with the lifecycle that the grapes traverse from vineyard to the finished bottle, so to me the most interesting part is that confluence of science and art where production choices are made. Over the past several years I’ve found so much joy in guiding our wines through the fermentation process and have specifically really been enjoying making our orange wines and rosés. The interplay between the juice contact with the grape skins and the resulting flavors and color imparted to the wines based on the length of time on the skins has been my favorite part of my vintner duties.
Sip: How did RAM cellars come to be? What makes RAM cellars special?
VK: RAM Cellars originated thanks to my love — dare I say obsession — with the nuances of wine production. I’ve been working in some capacity on the production side since 2012, first at short-term harvest internships and then as the assistant winemaker for another Portland winery from 2013-2018. When an opportunity presented itself to partner with the winery I was working for in 2014 for access to space and equipment to craft RAM Cellars’ first vintage of wines, my little Portland urban winery was born.
As for what makes RAM Cellars special, we as a winery team, as a group of folks across the transgender spectrum, are navigating uncharted territory. When I came into the light and came out as myself — a proud transgender woman — in 2018 I was the only openly transgender woman winemaker I could find in the United States and among only a few around the world at that time. It’s really important to me to create space for other queer folks in the wine business. Our “VIV” label raises $5 per bottle sold for one of a few of our partner non-profit organizations that provide direct support to queer and transgender folks, both locally and nationally. We currently raise funds for Portland’s Q Center as well as the Transgender Legal Defense and Education fund in support of their Name Change Project initiative via our VIV label. In an ideal scenario, where we are successful enough to open our own space, I have goals to utilize that space as an incubator space to help other queer- or trans-owned wineries get their start in a safe, affirming space.
Sip: What’s your favorite season in the wine world and why?
VK: Harvest is my absolute favorite season in wine, although it’s certainly the most exhausting, as well. The connection point at harvest between us and our growers across Oregon and Washington brings together the incredible work the growers have been doing to showcase not only the varietals we work with but the season they were grown in. It’s an incredible honor to then guide those grapes to finished wines reflective of the combination of our work in the cellar, our growers work in the fields, and the unique conditions of each vintage. It’s very special, hectic, fast-paced, and is a time filled with what feels like infinite potential while at the same time being one of the most challenging times of the year to keep up on sales and distribution.