“I am the only openly transgender winemaker on this continent that I can find,” says Vivianne Kennedy, winemaker and proprietor of RAM Cellars, who uses she/they pronouns. “People on the spectrum, by and large, do not exist in wine production.”
When Kennedy came out, her boutique Oregon-based wine business was just beginning to take off. The news had an immediate impact on sales and production.
“Our sales and our presence took a dip after I came out as myself,” they say. “We lost business accounts. Some folks no longer wanted to sell us fruit; we lost DTC because some people didn’t want to associate with me.”
There were times when she wanted to give up, Kennedy says, when the barriers into wine were thought to be too thick to knock down. But Kennedy ultimately decided that her authentic self and existence in the wine industry are not mutually exclusive.
“I’m going to keep showing up,” says Kennedy. “I think being able to make wine and exist in this industry as my true self makes me so incredibly lucky. It’s taken a lot to get here, and I’ve been through a lot to continue to be here.”
Today, RAM Cellars’ portfolio is an eclectic mix of wines that speak to the diversity of Oregon’s terroir as well as Kennedy’s winemaking creativity. They’re creating those wines at Hips Chicks Do Wine, a custom crush facility that works with other winemakers in the queer community.
Besides diversifying the portfolio and increasing business in terms of dollars and distribution, Kennedy has also expanded the RAM Cellars team to include spouse Aiden Kennedy and friend Rebecca (Bex) Fry. Kennedy has taken both under their wing, teaching them to become part of both the winemaking process and business development. Aidan and Bex identify as non-binary and gender-fluid, respectively. Kennedy likes to say RAM Cellars now represents “a whole queer spectrum.”
What do you wish you knew when you started working in the industry?
I had a really simplistic view, when I started in the industry, that my focus would be on red wines and that would be what I would do if the dream of having my own brand ever came to fruition.
If I could go back, I would enlighten myself as to how the initial thing that drew me to wine—the curiosity and love of the art and science behind it—is the various different ways I’m able to express the grapes through different winemaking styles. That’s what ended up being the biggest catalyst for me.
What advice do you have to other queer, LGBTQ+ individuals who are thinking about entering the wine industry?
There are so many people out there that are supportive and working to move from that ally stage to accomplice stage. When situations come up and there are awkward or negative interactions, the thing to remember is that right around the corner is that next connection point—that next person that’s going to step up and show up.
The bottom line is that every single one of those instances, in my experience, led to a turn and a pivot where I found folks that were better and more supportive business partners.
One of the things that gives someone pause before coming out and lives in our heads for a long time as we work through these processes, are these fears about the opportunities and people we’re going to lose. In reality, and looking back, I realize that’s a very one-dimensional view of things because I wasn’t thinking of all the things I was going to gain—including those opportunities, relationships, and connections.
I had questions. I thought I was going to hang it up. I wondered whether or not I belonged in the wine industry. Yet I constantly come across situations that confirm I am in exactly the right place. But I would not have reached the point where I would be in this position if I hadn’t pushed through a lot of really uncomfortable stuff.
At the moment, you are the only U.S. winemaker out as a queer, transgender woman. What does that represent to you on a professional level?
It means that I have a lot of work to do in terms of advocacy and what I can do in my individual sphere to try to create opportunities for others. There’s so much work to be done there. Looking at my wine journey, the thing I want more than anything is to reach a point where I am not the only openly transgender winemaker that I know of.
Down the line, my hope for the wine industry as a whole is that, in my lifetime, I can see more folks like me out there.
From a business standpoint, our Viv label provides $5 from the sale of every bottle to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and Portland’s Q Center. We’ve also turned our release events into fundraisers, where we’ll rotate which nonprofit we’re raising funds for.
“I think being able to make wine and exist in this industry as my true self makes me so incredibly lucky.” —Vivianne Kennedy
One of our goals down the line is to create a well-paid internship for someone in the queer community interested in the wine industry and providing that entry-point for them. We’re setting specific goals around the wines we’re making and our sales in order to support that.
We also realize that our advocacy needs to move beyond the LGBTQ+ community. We’ve been doing a quarterly fund effort with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) and AHIVOY Oregon. We’re trying to make sure to use our platform to stand in solidarity with all historically marginalized groups in wine as well.
In your opinion, who is the most underrated person within the drinks industry?
In a broad, overarching sense, that’s an honor that goes into the intense DEI work in the industry over the last few years. Not any one individual, but all the folks carrying that load, and creating the spark behind that work.
You’re at a dive bar. What do you order?
I’m a seasonal drinker. If it’s the winter months, a gin and ginger. If it’s summer, a gin and lemonade is the best thing that ever happened.