Growing up in McMinnville, Remy Drabkin was surrounded by wine. Her parents brought her to cellars and vineyards, and she found herself drawn to the community. At eight, she made a formal announcement: She would become a winemaker.
And that’s exactly what happened. Drabkin traveled around the world making wine, returning to her hometown to open Remy Wines — one of the few Willamette Valley wineries specializing in Italian varietals. But Drabkin has done far more than make wine. She co-founded the non-profit Wine Country Pride, as well as Queer Wine Fest. She served on McMinnville City Council before becoming city council president; then, when Mayor Scott A. Hill resigned in May, the Council unanimously declared Drabkin interim mayor. She was elected mayor officially this month, the city’s first female and first openly queer mayor.
Eater spoke with Mayor Drabkin to talk through plans for her term, how winemaking influences her approach to politics, and more.
Eater: I’d love to get an idea of your goals for your term as mayor in McMinnville — what would you like to see change?
Remy Drabkin: I’m hoping to strengthen who we are as a city. We’re making some big asks. One of the first big pushes will be to join the Oregon Mayors Association to ask the legislature for $8 million in different forms of funding, so we can be more efficient in the ways we’re addressing housing issues, from houselessness to workforce housing. We’d pass that onto our partner organizations, like Operation Generation, a multi-generational housing project run through a nonprofit. That hasn’t changed from before I was mayor. I have better access to those funds, a better ability to do these partnerships.
The thing I’m hoping to change, or maybe improve, is community engagement. We’re doing a citywide public school contest, an “If I were mayor” contest, that goes out through every school in Spanish and in English, to include a robust group of students. I even just do a weekly city newsletter, reflecting on the work I’m doing. Nobody really knows what the mayor does; people think it’s shaking hands, kissing babies, that sort of thing. So I want to talk about that in a not-boring way.
How do you think your work as a winemaker has influenced your role as a civil servant?
My experience working in the world of wine has largely been wonderful, and I have those stories that anybody has, experiencing sexism and homophobia. These things exist in every industry. As I’ve worked for positive change in the wine industry, it forced me to think holistically. You’re thinking about your impact on your circle, and people outside of your circle. That equity work set me up to succeed. I bring that experience that I’ve learned in wine to do things small and large — to foster community, and then be a part of improving things for my community.
What inspired you to get into politics?
When I was a little girl, during the elections for (anti-LGBTQ) Ballot Measures 9 and 13, my mom and I drove up to Portland to phone bank. But what really got me into civil service was a planning commission meeting about a Habitat for Humanity project. These neighbors showed up in droves to contest it. I just couldn’t believe it, that you had this incredible organization that was flourishing in our community, and people would contest it. So I applied for the planning commission. As I’ve moved into leadership in wine, that has taught me even more. It’s a healthy back-and-forth.
As an extension of your work in both the winery and City Council, you’ve also been a leader within the queer community. How would you gauge McMinnville as a queer-friendly city, and how do you hope to incorporate that facet of your work into your time as mayor?
That can be a challenge no matter what city you’re in and what day of the week it is. The support I’ve seen from our community is demonstrative of strong allyship. Before we started Wine Country Pride, the gentlemen at Pollinate Flowers started distributing free Pride flags. Together, we distributed free Black Lives Matter flags, Pride flags. Downtown McMinnville was covered in rainbows.
But I grew up in McMinnville, and my brother grew up in McMinnville as a gay man; we did not have great experiences growing up as queer kids. I hear from kids at the high school that they have tremendous support. And queer kids, queer parents feel comfortable reaching out to me. Somebody who works in hospitality called me with an incident of racism they experienced — that’s a hard way to start the day. We’re not ridding McMinnville of all the racists and homophobes; that’s impossible. I know the queer community in and around McMinnville feels really empowered knowing a queer person could be elected, but let’s not glaze over the reality. We live in rural Oregon.
When it comes to our government, in equity conversations, we’re still leaving people out of the conversation. When we’re talking about parks and rec, if we don’t have programming that’s available price-wise, that’s not available to children with disabilities, that’s very limiting. Having equity conversations, it’s important to talk about how our policies impact these communities.
My job as mayor is to lead and guide McMinnville into a healthy and successful future. I’m not trying to bring a specific agenda into office; I’m trying to bring more people to the table. The great thing about the amalgamation of my past is that it’s brought me to a place where I’m not scared to share power. That’s how we really survive.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.