Eugenia Keegan joined Jackson Family Wines (JFW) in 2013 to head up the company’s fast-growing Oregon portfolio. As General Manager, Keegan oversees JFW’s holdings in the Willamette Valley: Gran Moraine, Zena Crown, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars and Willakenzie Estate wineries. She also supervises Willamette Valley winemaking for Sonoma-based Siduri and La Crema. Actively civic-minded, Keegan is the chair emerita of the board of directors of the Oregon Wine Board, and serves on the boards of the Oregon Winegrowers Association and the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, the Chemeketa Wine Advisory Committee, and the Linfield Wine Education Advisory Council.
Karen interviewed Eugenia Keegan for WineSpeed in January 2020.
Karen MacNeil: You interned in the cellars and vineyards of Burgundy in your early years. How did you manage that at a time when so many women were denied that access?
Eugenia Keegan: It was virtually impossible to get a cellar/vineyard job in California or Burgundy in the late 70’s, early 80’s. Women were thought of as a hazard in the winery and barely tolerable in the vineyard. I was very fortunate that one of my earliest jobs was with Joseph Swan who was an exceptional mentor. He had numerous acquaintances in Burgundy and called upon his friends Françoise and Gerard Potelle at Pousse d’Or to hire his young protegee.
KM: In the first two-thirds of your remarkable career, you had a hand in the maturation of two of the most prominent wine regions in the U.S.–California’s Napa Valley and Sonoma County. What would you credit with how swiftly and surely your reputation/standing in the Oregon wine industry has grown over the last decade and a half? To what do you credit your rise within the Oregon industry?
EK: In so many ways, the short but mighty history of the Willamette Valley is much like Napa and Sonoma. It starts with a group of like-minded individuals, [including myself] whose love of the land and a personal mandate for stewardship, coupled with a passion for great wine form a foundation of core values that drive the search for “greatness” Add to that my all consuming passion for excellence and the 25 years of experience I brought from California, it set me up to be someone conversant in most issues that face our industry. It was really the years of work experience that helped the trajectory of my reputation.
KM: What do you say to locals concerned that Jackson Family Wines could corporatize Oregon winemaking and perhaps swallow up small family properties?
EK: Jackson Family are very sensitive to the culture of any place where they decide to invest and hiring locally is their first step. They next jump right into the community with generous giving to local and national charities that have a profound effect on the local community (i.e. Habitat for Humanity). And third, they lend enormous support to the community by encouraging employees to be part of our inhouse community volunteer program called Rooted for Good, where every employee is paid to do community work two days a year either in our group outings or one’s own personal charity of choice. And finally, with the release of our first wines, our colleagues in the Willamette Valley understood that JFW was only making wine of the highest quality and in support of the existing enhanced price point and that alleviated a lot of concern.
“I realized that my ultimate [wine-tasting] experience was about the harmony of pairing the wine with the food and the company with which it was shared.”
KM: During your 45-year career, it appears that you’ve worked every job in the business. Which best prepared you for your current responsibilities?
EK: In fact, it was the 40 years of experience that set me up to be an excellent fit for Jackson Family Wines. My background is primarily vineyards and winemaking, but I have acted as general manager or president of every company where I have worked. I also had my own label, KEEGAN CELLARS from Russian River Valley and in that enterprise, I did everything. I was a one-man band. What I was not prepared for was working with a larger company. That was new and has been an incredible experience. I work with many people now across all disciplines and their level of expertise in whichever area they work is a real delight, and I continue to learn from them every day.
KM: Recall the biggest and best mistake you ever made and what you learned from it.
EK: Probably staying loyal to an employer and therefore not capitalizing on opportunities presented along the way. Stung more than once!
KM: You are fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian. What other languages might you like to learn or already have?
EK: I would think that “proficient” would be more accurate than “fluent”. I had a linguistics teacher at university who could speak almost 20 languages. He was British and when asked about this he demurred and said, “I am only fluent in two language, English and profanity.” Just love that! After spending time in southern France and northern Spain, I spent some time learning Catalan and Occitan. Super fun. Would love a turn at Portuguese.
KM: What is your most memorable wine tasting experience?
EK: A dinner at Domaine Chandon in the mid-80’s that included a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-Conti and a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Gran Echezeaux. The vintage was 1953, my birthyear. It happened that all the men ordered the same dish, and all the women ordered another dish, but again, the same. When we expressed our preference for the wines, the women agreed on one, but the men all preferred a different one. Until we switched plates! It was that moment that not just the experience of absolutely off-the-charts great wine was impressive, but I realized that the ultimate experience was still about the harmony of pairing the wine with the food and the company with which it was shared.