2011 Wine Person of the Year

Ronni Lacroute stands on the deck of WillaKenzie’s new tasting room, which sits on carefully engineered stilts. Ronni says the property had no more flat areas on which to build.

By Karl Klooster

Here at Oregon Wine Press, we derive tremendous satisfaction from being able to select an outstanding individual in, or associated with, the Oregon wine industry as our Wine Person of the Year.

Since 2008, when we introduced the highest tribute our publication can bestow, honorees have included Ralph Stinton of Grape Escape Winery Tours, Dr. Greg Jones of Southern Oregon University, and Dave and Deolinda Coelho of Coelho Winery in Amity.

This year, we have chosen to honor Ronni Lacroute, co-owner of WillaKenzie Estate. Those familiar with her many achievements express both awe and admiration at their influence both within the wine industry and beyond.

If anyone could be called a “Renaissance Woman,” it would be Ronni. Distinguished college professor, accomplished linguist, generous benefactor, community leader. All can be added to a glowing résumé headed by “successful winery owner.”

But as much as anything, her dedication to making the best of whatever endeavor she undertakes defines this year’s honoree.

It’s said that actions speak louder than words. If that is the case, Ronni’s actions, whether helping determine the direction of WillaKenzie, the winery and estate vineyard she co-founded in 1991 — first vintage in 1995 — or carefully choosing charitable causes to support, speak both loudly and authoritatively.

A depth of comprehension, compassion and caring would appear to be her prime motivators. But fully understanding any complex subject does not develop without effort. And that applies to wine as well as societal needs.

When Ronni and then husband Bernard Lacroute decided they wanted to grow winegrapes, they pursued the enhancement of their learning curve with the same passion applied to every aspect of their already highly successful lives.

He as a wine-loving Frenchman born in a small Burgundian village, with a wizardly expertise in plasma physics; and she, a New York-born girl educated in Switzerland, with a near-native mastery of French and had taught at the Sorbonne and Suffolk University in Boston.

By the time wine assumed the central focus in their lives, they had moved from New England to Northern California and Bernard had helped Sun Microsystems go from a Silicon Valley startup to soaring skyrocket on the international computer scene.

With profits realized from Sun Microsystems’ initial public offering, as well as Bernard’s consulting assignments after leaving the company, the couple was financially prepared for a serious investment in vineyard property.

Their visits to cool-climate growing regions of France, including Bernard’s native Burgundy region and Switzerland, where Ronni had gone to school as a teen, focused on gaining knowledge about the latest growing and winemaking techniques.

“After we decided the Willamette Valley was where we wanted to be, we found just what we were looking for in a 430-acre cattle ranch just east of Yamhill,” she said. “We bought the land in January 1991, and began working with Joel Myers to develop our first vineyard.

“At the time, there were only two suitable clones, Pommard and Wadenswil, and one resistant root stock, 5C. With sandy soil, we determined that a drip irrigation system would be needed. We bought the best brand we could find — it was from Israel.

Domaine Drouhin was the only other winery in the valley that had installed drip irrigation to get their plantings rooted. The French had realized that since Oregon can have near drought conditions at the end of summer, this was a precaution to take.

“Grafted roots, in particular, shut down under drought. We used the system for three years on those first 20 acres and never regretted it” Ronni said. “We have put it in throughout the estate and maintain it for those times when it will be needed.”

From the beginning, she said their objective was to be 100 percent organic and sustainable. They used the lightest impact approaches possible. Where supplements such as boron and calcium are needed, they use natural methods rather than synthetic.

“We are always experimenting,” she said. “We’ve gone from 5½- by 7-foot spacing to 4 by 6, then 3 by 6 and all the way down to 3 by 3, which is used in Burgundy.”

Ronni further explained that density, Biodynamic techniques, clonal selections, cover crops, are all part of WillaKenzie’s all-estate vineyard program. Every vineyard is divided into blocks and each block is tracked separately from picking to bottle.

“We introduced the block-by-block approach right at the beginning,” she said. “Our first blocks were called Aliette and Pierre Léon — Bernard’s parents. It’s the most intense program I know of in Oregon.

“You’d be amazed how distinctively different the lots are. It’s all about the sense of place, the site-specific character, that is so important to Pinot Noir.”

No one is more committed to that principle than Ronni. In fact, she has trademarked “Dirt matters” and signs of all her e-mails with that statement.

Now at 104.5 acres, the WillaKenzie Estate vineyard complex was supplemented in the mid-2000s by the 25-acre Jory Vineyard on Red Hills Road in the Dundee Hills.

At a combined 130 acres, this is said to be the largest family vineyard holding in northwestern Oregon.

In 1994, a young Frenchman named Laurent Montalieu attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration looking for a job. He had been with Bridgeview Vineyards in Southern Oregon and wanted a new challenge.

What he got was a pair of employers who became his friends and partners while handing him the responsibility of overseeing the construction of a winery they wanted to be first class, from top to bottom.

Ever-forward thinkers, the Lacroutes already had precisely the hillside site selected for the winery. Ronni said the exterior design copied the existing ranch architecture and the subtle, unobtrusive profile complemented the horse farm surroundings.

“It was a really great opportunity for me,” Montalieu recalled. “They told me to make no compromises. Bernard is very methodical and eager to absorb information. He was involved in every aspect. We shared a firsthand experience where we both learned a lot.

“We were creative and innovative, always on the cutting edge of technology,” he said. “I was rewarded with a partnership. When I decided to go out on my own, they bought my ownership interest at a very fair value. It allowed my wife and I to get started.”

That start led to Montalieu and his wife, Danielle Andrus Montalieu, to launch their Soléna Cellars and later establish NW Wine Co. with partner John Niemeyer, as well as Grand Cru Estates.

Not so well known is the fact that Ronni suffered a life-threatening illness during the year of the winery’s construction.

Her survival symbolized the continuing positive direction of WillaKenzie Estate. The Lacroutes built a house on their former ranch property and moved to Oregon full time in 1997.

More recently, a solar array, scarcely detected from a distance, was installed. It supplies 45 percent of the winery’s power. As for other needs, Ronni described the winery’s broader mission thusly:

“Of course, we have to be profitable,” she said. “But we are sharing our good fortune through community support of many things that have nothing directly to do with the winery.”

Hunger relief, education, the arts, social services and medical research all have places on Ronni’s agenda. The specific entities both in the Yamhill Valley and beyond comprise a long list. Each has stood to benefit substantially from her generosity.

Live theater and concert music performance are two of her most cherished causes. She is an ardent theater-goer and, in fact, doesn’t even own a television.

As a result, many Portland cultural programs and organizations have benefited from her passion for the arts. To name a few, she supports Artist Repertory Theater, Chamber Music Northwest, Oregon Public Radio and experimental theater workshops where budding thespians can hone their talents.

No less important are projects on her home turf. Yamhill Community Action Partnership, or YCAP, received $100,000 from Ronni for the organization’s Yamhill Regional Food Bank. In appreciation, it is now affectionately referred to as Ronni’s Food Bank.

YCAP Director Lee Means said Ronni has been growing produce for the food bank every summer for years. “She put up the donation that kicked off the campaign initially, then put up the donation that capped it off at the end,” Means said.

In addition, she stepped up every time the drive seemed to stall or hit a hurdle, Means said, calling her “A wonderful, wonderful supporter of the food bank.”

She is also a major supporter of McMinnville’s Gallery Theater, the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County and Share and Care. When no public funding was available to refurbish a dilapidated children’s playground in Yamhill, she paid for it.

In the higher education realm, she sits on the Linfield College Board of Trustees and lends support to the school arts and music programs. She also funds student programs in the neurosciences at OSU and Stanford.

Scarcely a wine-oriented event escapes her attention, most prominently ¡Salud!, the health care program for vineyard workers. In the Willamette Valley. In fact, her largest donation to date went to the program unique to the Oregon wine industry.

Given in honor of Leda Garside, R.N., Salud’s lead professional for the past 14 years, a $500,000 donation from WillaKenzie solidified an endowment to fund the health program’s nurse manager position.

This act exemplifies the thoughtfulness that has marked Ronni’s targeted giving. Further underscoring her altruistic spirit are comments from a few of those who have witnessed the positive outcomes of her many good works.

Tom Hellie, president of Linfield College in McMinnville said, “At Linfield, Ronni has been an invaluable trustee. Thanks to her prior experience as a college professor, she understands and embraces the values of a liberal arts college. But because she is engaged in business at WillaKenzie, she also understands the financial and administrative details that any large organization must face.

“For years she has been a major supporter of the Linfield Chamber Orchestra. And she has now taken the lead in promoting the arts at Linfield, in McMinnville, and even in Portland.

“Ronni has given us advice on the Oregon Wine History Project and Archive at Linfield College, and she remains a key liaison between us and the wine industry. She has hired and trained several Linfield students who were interested in the wine business.

“I have also been impressed by her unremitting commitment to iSalud!

“I realize that she is being honored as the ‘Oregon Wine Person of the Year,’ but in fact she also deserves to be recognized as ‘Oregon Citizen of the Year.’”

Kevin Chambers, founder of Oregon Vineyard Services and past president of the Oregon Wine Board, summarized his sentiments in regard to Ronni’s OWP honor in a few well-chosen words.

“Ronni has a generous soul. Her efforts to support the wine industry, as well as cultural opportunities for those both inside and outside the metropolitan area, have helped make Oregon a better place to live. Thanks, Ronni.”

In short, Ronni Lacroute is nothing short of a treasure in our midst.


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