The queer, outspoken founder and winemaker at Remy Wines, Drabkin is also the mayor of McMinnville, Oregon
If Remy Drabkin is not in the vineyard, checking grape ripeness and plotting when the harvest will begin, she’s in a council meeting or behind her desk at McMinnville’s City Hall. The queer, outspoken founder and winemaker at Remy Wines is also the mayor of McMinnville, Oregon.
A petite firecracker with short cropped blonde hair, Drabkin seems to be in constant motion. She’s approachable and listens carefully, but she’s managing a lot, so make your point and get on with it!
Drabkin grew up in this rural town about an hour from Portland, Oregon. Today McMinnville has about 35,000 residents, but was even smaller during Drabkin’s childhood. In the nearby valleys, farming of grasses and other crops is still the economic mainstay, but in the surrounding hills grape growing and winemaking has increased exponentially.
Pinot Noir is the king of the grapes here, but other varieties thrive in this fertile, windy, fog-laced area not far from the coast. Many wine connoisseurs feel that the Willamette Valley closely mirrors France’s Burgundy region, making it a magnet for visitors and helping build tourism into an important part the local economy.
McMinnville, well-preserved in early 20th Century style, is a jewel of the region with noteworthy accommodations including the quirky Hotel Oregon and the sleek, new Atticus Hotel. The walkable town center is dotted with tasting rooms that exist in happy harmony with mom and pop stores and a dive bar or two that have been here for decades.
Drabkin, who is queer and outspoken, saw a disconnect between her Oregon LGBTQ+ winemaking friends and the wine community at large. While California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys have strong affiliations with nearby San Francisco, the Willamette Valley had no history of drawing attention to its own queer community.
So last year, Drabkin organized the first ever Oregon Queer Wine Fest, beginning what she and her fellow queer vintners feel is part of a larger movement.
“Queer Wine Fest isn’t just a party,” she explains. “It’s a way to build intentional networks between LGBTQ+ wine professionals and to invite the broader community of wine drinkers to join us in making wine more accessible and representative of the diverse folks who make it.”
The June event, which took place at Drabkin’s own Remy Wines in nearby Dayton, Oregon featured 19 queer-owned wineries and music from Portland’s New Wave Indie band Camp Crush. “The networks and community that have grown out of this event are amazing – deeper and broader than I could have imagined,” says Drabkin. “Before I started organizing this event, I honestly didn’t know there were this many queer folks in the wine industry – and I’m so glad there are.”
David Lauer, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Bryn Mawr Vineyards in nearby Salem, Oregon, was among the participants in the inaugural Queer Wine Fest. “I absolutely loved being a part of it,” he says. “My family’s operation is quite a bit larger in scale than the majority of producers represented, and my queerness is more of an accoutrement to our operation than a central force as it is for many of my peers in attendance. That said, it’s so important to remind folks that queerness exists in every different aspect and generation of the wine industry, so I was honored to participate. I was provided the chance to meet and connect with so many people with whom I will continue to support and work with. It’s absolutely necessary to create spaces for fearless celebration and collaboration. Remy has provided us with that opportunity.”
Melaney Schmidt and Malia Myers, life and winemaking partners at Landmass Wines, a much smaller winery from the Columbia Gorge area, have often participated in festivals to expand their reach, but this was the first time they’d participated in a queer-centric wine event. “We weren’t sure what to expect,” says Schmidt, “But it was fantastic. We connected with an interested crowd of wine enthusiasts who hadn’t necessarily been familiar with our label and lots of queer wine professionals we’d never had the opportunity to meet before. “If you’re like us: a tiny wine duo in an ocean of huge established brands, having something so specialized and niche is key to getting our story out there.”
Queer Wine Fest and Remy Drabkin’s highly visible leadership of McMinnville as a queer woman are helping to build the region’s popularity as a tourism destination. “McMinnville is currently the most visited city inside the Willamette Valley by out-of-state visitors and was recently named the second most queer-friendly small town in the nation by Time Out,” notes Drabkin. “That’s not all because of me, but I think I can say I’ve definitely been a part of making that happen. 15 years ago we were asking ourselves how to get the visitor economy to McMinnville…well…check!”
As mayor, Drabkin has had her share of frustrations and challenges. She quickly points to housing as the largest issue facing the city. As in many wine regions, the investment of wealthy tech founders, other wine groups, retirees, and vacation home owners means home prices and rents now price locals out of the market.
Balancing her responsibilities as mayor, the ever-expanding winery, Wine Country Pride, and the Queer Wine Fest can be daunting. But having served on the McMinnville city council for over a decade, Drabkin says she’s developed some rules of thumb that have proved effective in helping to shape the community she loves while working through the minute details that can challenge productivity and progress.
“I keep a tight schedule, but don’t book my calendar too far in advance. I’m clear about boundaries even when it’s dissatisfying for others, which includes saying no when necessary or letting someone know I just don’t have time at the moment.”
“I know when to hand things off to a team or a partner. And most importantly, I remember that I have to take care of my physical and mental health before I can give to Remy Wines, Wine Country Pride, my unpaid job as Mayor of McMinnville or other opportunities that come my way.”
That said, Drabkin’s energy and ingenuity seem limitless. She recently oversaw the expansion of her 5,000 square-foot winery with a building constructed using a new net-zero carbon concrete formula that bears her name. The Drabkin-Mead Formula is open source, enabling other sustainably-minded businesses to utilize this groundbreaking carbon-mitigating concrete.
Given Remy Drabkin’s inventiveness and her dedication to the causes that matter to her, its hard not to believe she’ll be able to fulfill a further aspiration: “I’d love to grow Queer Wine Fest into an international event,” she says. “Just give me a few years!”