2017 Oregon Winery to Watch: Willful Wine Co.

March 13, 2017 

Owner and winemaker Pam Walden.

GARY NOLTON — Courtesy Willful Wine Company

  • Willful Wine Co.

    willfulwine.com

    (503) 577-8982

    Contact her to arrange an appointment at the SE Wine Collective, 2425 SE 35th Place, Portland, 97202

— Pam Walden readily admits to a life full of impromptu, and an early career as a film producer in her native England seems to have prepped her for what seems to be her calling as a successful Oregon winemaker.

“I’ve had so many adventures as a result of being spontaneous,” Walden said.

Her path to the Oregon wine industry began in 1996, a chance meeting in a French restaurant with a would-be winemaker from Pennsylvania who talked her into driving cross-country to the Northwest. Two decades later, Walden is well on her own, and the inspiring path surrounding her young Willful Wine Co. brand explains her selection as the 2017 Oregon Winery to Watch.

“Being a film producer was exciting and meant dealing with a new set of challenges the whole time,” Walden said. “You have to solve problems, and you are constantly doing something fresh. I’ve never been good at sitting down at the desk and dealing with the same crap every day.”

It would seem as though what Walden, 48, pours into a wine bottle is proof that she can still juggle almost anything life tosses her way.

On two occasions last year, Walden’s Willful Wine Co. 2014 Pinot Noir ($26) stood out in blind judgings staged by Wine Press Northwest. It first earned an “Outstanding!” rating — the equivalent of a gold medal — in the magazine’s Affordable Reds judging conducted during the spring.

Four months later, that same wine earned a Platinum medal in the 17th annual Best of the Best judging, a competition among Pacific Northwest wines that have won a gold medal anywhere in the world during the past year. Walden readily, and perhaps too modestly, gives credit to the clone and cooler sites as keys to the success of that 600-case production — a silky and elegant Willamette Valley Pinot Noir with just a lingering influence from new French oak.

“Pommard fruit is just so sexy, so lush and so pretty that it really doesn’t need any help or for the winemaker to do too much else,” Walden said.

And she takes pride in helping to polish the little gem that is Northridge Vineyard, an 8-acre site in the Eola-Amity Hills that Walden champions.

“I’ve been getting those grapes since 2012,” Walden said. “I go out there every month and check on the vines.”

Northridge is in some famous company with Domaine Drouhin’s Roserock Vineyard just across the road. And critics gushed over Walden’s smaller production 2014 Winemaker’s Cuvée ($45), a six-barrel blend dominated by Northridge.

Last year, after a stint at Urban Crush in Portland, Walden returned Willful’s production to the Southeast Wine Collective, an eclectic incubator in Portland for some of the Northwest’s most buzzworthy juice. She enjoys the risk/reward of feral fermentation for Willful, but her largest and best-known brand is Jezebel, a 4,000-case project she produces at Eugene Wine Cellars. Both labels go on the road for her sales calls, and she’s distributed in 17 states.

“At some point I want to move into my own place, but I can’t manage to do that right now,” she said.

Walden created Willful Wine Co., soon after divorcing that American she met in France, winemaker Aron Hess. They dissolved the Daedalus Cellars brand they started in 2000, but the consumer-priced Jezebel label continues to thrive because of Walden’s drive. Investment in herself began with winemaking classes at Chemeketa Community College and continued with calls to her ex and other winemakers.

“When we split, I took over the winemaking to prove that I could do it. That was my motivation,” Walden said.

The next step in Walden’s career came in 2009 when she bought Hess’ half of their Latchkey Vineyard as part of the divorce. They had sunk 8 acres of vines into the Dundee Hills parcel only the year before. Hess lived nearby and shared in raising their two sons. Alas, in the winter of 2013, Hess died at his home from an apparent prescription drug overdose.

Now, her focus is on their two sons and her two brands. That has meant sacrificing a true love — life in a vineyard. Six months after Hess’ death, Walden sold her home to investors of Purple Hands Winery. Half of those grapes now go to Cody Wright. The other half go to his famous father, Ken Wright.

“I really miss my vines,” Walden said. “That’s really my happy place, but I had to give it up and spend that time being the best mom I can be. I’ve got basketball games to take kids to, and I’d rather be doing that on the weekend.”

Now she and her sons, ages 10 and 13, are living in Vancouver, Wash. “Everyone has a garden, and everyone talks to each other,” she said. “It’s a lovely place.”

Walden sports a black belt at tae kwon do, enjoys time with her piano and cooking with exotic spices. “I love curries,” she said.

This year, she plans to hit the market a bit more aggressively. Hers would make quite a screenplay, and she’s keen to talk more about Willful, a lineup that also includes a Tempranillo from Southern Oregon and a Bordeaux red blend from the Walla Walla Valley.

“The whole ‘rising from the ashes’ story — that’s old now,” Walden said. “The story has to be something different because I’ve been separated from Daedalus for quite a while. At the same time, it’s something that I’ve had to work on because I still get asked, ‘Didn’t this use to be Daedalus?’ ”

And those trips back home to Leicester remind her that the Northwest wine industry has many miles to go when it comes to global reach.

“I still have people that say, ‘Oregon. You make wine there?’ ” Walden said.

Eric Degerman is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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