Eugenia Keegan, general manager and vice president of
Oregon winery operations and business development
for Jackson Family Wines. ##Photo by Carolyn Wells-Kramer
Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Yamhill-Carlton AVA, Oregon. ##Photo by Andrea Johnson
Zena Crown Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills AVA, Oregon. ##Photo by Andrea Johnson
Eugenia Keegan, general manager and vice president of
Oregon winery operations and business development
for Jackson Family Wines. ##Photo by Carolyn Wells-Kramer
WillaKenzie Estate, Yamhill-Carlton AVA, Oregon. ##Photo by Andrea Johnson

Leading Light

Keegan keeps Oregon flame burning bright

By Tamara Belgard

It takes a multi-talented, multi-disciplined, well-experienced winemaker to become general manager of four prominent wineries in the frequently unpredictable world of Pinot Noir production. The former job relies on skills in chemistry and fine-tuned sensory analysis, while the latter requires incredible business acumen; both demand teamwork mentality. Eugenia Keegan of Jackson Family Wines does all seamlessly. Along the way, she has built a keen reputation for advocacy, dedication to mentorship and community.

A fifth-generation Sonoma County native, Keegan’s official title reads “General Manager and Vice President of Oregon Winery Operations and Business Development for Jackson Family Wines.” She leads the prestigious portfolio that includes Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, WillaKenzie Estate, Gran Moraine and Zena Crown Vineyard. All four focus primarily on Pinot Noir.

Keegan’s success did not occur overnight. “That is for sure,” she admits. Yet, when she was asked to take the reins of all four Jackson Family Wines brands — at the time, she was solely the winemaker for Gran Moraine — she was no stranger to such a demanding position; Keegan routinely had been named to the top executive position over her career. She admits this rung on the ladder must be her best fit. “I think that winemaking is a great background for leadership and management,” Keegan explains. “Great winemaking takes patience and a keen ear, eye, and nose for nuance. Similar skills are well suited to management.”

Beginning her career in California in the mid-1970s, she acknowledges Robert Mondavi as her principal mentor in both winemaking and business. The American wine icon always encouraged her to seek passion in whatever part of the industry she was working. He instilled in her a sense that she was a positive for the industry and needed to stay involved. “Brilliant sales technique,” Keegan quipped. In 1994, she broke out on her own and started Keegan Cellars, producing ultra-premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley.

From California to Oregon, Keegan fit perfectly into the Willamette Valley wine community. Like many Oregon winemakers, including most of the state’s industry pioneers, she’d gained her initial knowledge in the Golden State. And yet she was not exactly a newcomer; she was already well-involved in Oregon’s industry before her professional journey with Jackson Family Wines. Since the ’80s, she had participated in joint marketing programs focused on Pinot Noir; in 2003, she started consulting for a handful of small Willamette Valley producers and founded Tsarina Wines, a fine wine distributor based in Portland.

She is not the first, nor the last, to say: “This community is incredibly welcoming to anyone who is serious about making great wine.”

Within a relatively short period of time, Keegan held numerous leadership roles in Oregon’s wine industry, including community service and education. With a desire to help the industry, she jumped right in, joining organizations that furthered causes such as direct-to-consumer legislation, label integrity laws, not to mention community nonprofits battling food insecurities and other heartfelt issues. In 2012, she joined the board of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association and never looked back. Keegan says of her adopted home, “Simply put, the Willamette Valley was founded by a group of self-starters who emphatically relied on one another for their mutual success. This collaboration and support have been the backbone of the industry, and it’s very much alive today.”

Working under Jackson Family Wines, Keegan has found a perfect marriage between the company’s overall commitment to sustainability projects concerning climate change, regenerative agriculture, as well as equity and diversity, and how those values translate across the Oregon brands she oversees. She explains, “Oregon has always been a leader in sustainability, and so has Jackson Family Wines. I am so proud of working with a company that stretches itself every day with respect to all aspects of the business: leadership, mentorship, inclusion, wine quality, etc. It is a people-first mentality.”

This year, Wine Enthusiast recognized Keegan with a Wine Star Award for Winery Executive of the Year in large part because of the values she embraces. Tom Danowski, president of the Oregon Wine Board, describes her contributions: “The remarkable range of events, institutions and individual leaders across Oregon that have benefited from Eugenia’s touch and talents are testaments to her vision, stamina and inspirational spirit. Your friends and neighbors enthusiastically congratulate you on being chosen as the first woman named Wine Enthusiast’s Executive of the Year. We thank you for the examples you’ve set, the aspirations you’ve shared, and the path forward you’ve illuminated for us.”

What does the award signify to Keegan? “It is very hard to describe because I had no notion, ever, of being a candidate for any of these awards. So, at first, it was an incredible surprise. Then, as I sat with the sense of this honor, I was quickly overwhelmed. In the end, it is very rewarding, and I feel a true sense of accomplishment.”

“This is a tremendous award bestowed on somebody who could not deserve it more,” added Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the WVWA. “Eugenia has been a tireless devotee to the Oregon wine community and its continued growth and success. She’s an important reason why the Willamette Valley is flourishing and known all over the world as a top wine-producing region.”

Keegan knows what an exciting time it is to be involved in the Oregon wine industry. Over 50-plus years, the Willamette Valley has proven its success with Pinot Noir and is now a respected player on the world stage. With this level of confidence and collaboration, the needle is quickly moving on Chardonnay with sparkling wines directly behind. Keegan believes Jackson Family Wines is at the forefront of this movement and poised for continued success with an extensive Chardonnay program and brilliant bubbles from Gran Moraine.

As for how she envisions her company’s role in further elevating the reputation of Oregon wine, Keegan says, “Jackson Family Wines brings so much experience and expertise to the industry, and that is exactly what is so needed in our burgeoning region. The Jackson Family Wines platform is enormous, but none of this has value if we don’t put it in the bottle. It is the quality of our wines, our people and our collective work ethic that maximizes this platform. All I have to do is share this with our greater community. And when you love what you do, the people you work with — go, Team Oregon! — and the wines you make, the passion comes easily.”

With all the obligations accompanying her GM role, one might wonder whether she misses simply being a winemaker. “Yes and no,” she quickly answers. “I miss the singular focus, but that, too, can be exhausting. What I love about my current position is working with a team of brilliant winemakers and helping them continue to grow into their best selves. My biggest accomplishment has been helping pull together an incredible team that is working as one group to move the wineries forward. This team is unstoppable.”

And so, it seems, is Keegan.

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