BEYOND THE PINOT: Christine Clair Directs The Future Of Willamette Valley Vineyards

When you hear the name Willamette Valley Vineyards, your first thought may be of Pinot Noir and other cool-weather varietals that grow well in craggy, Pacific Northwest terrain. 

But the winery started by founder and Oregon native Jim Bernau in 1983 has big things in the works that are taking shape and will develop further over the next few years: a new brand; new leadership positions; and building a new winery to serve as its primary production and bottling location.

It’s come a long way since its inception 38 years ago, when, with the encouragement from winemakers making their move from California, Bernau cleared an old pioneer plum orchard in the Salem Hills and planted Pinot Noir, watering it with 17 lengths of garden hose.

Overseeing it all one day will be Winery Director Christine Clair, who has been tabbed as the heir apparent. A lifer in the wine industry with her own charming backstory, Clair literally grew up down the street from the burgeoning empire she’ll someday fully lead.

“I was watching as Jim planted the vines and built the winery,” Clair said. “His wife was my fifth-grade teacher, so even back then, I could see that something really cool was happening out here. I used to sell friendship bracelets in the tasting room, so I’ve been connected to this place for a long time.”

Clair studied entrepreneurship in college but said she always admired what Bernau had built at Willamette Valley Vineyards. 

“I was enamored with what he created using the community, how he built support, and how charitable he was in the community,” Clair said. 

In college, she worked as an intern at her first availability, but after graduation, not wanting to go straight to work at a company right down the road from her parents, she struck out on her own, launching her own brand. 

But eventually, she returned to her roots, and today leads winemaking, vineyard operations, sales, and marketing.

There’s not a hard date for her eventual transition to CEO. It’s just about having pieces in place for the small publicly traded company (WVVI on the Nasdaq) that has preferred stockholders whose ownership helps provide capital for big moves.

“Jim’s still in good health and we love having him around, so hopefully not anytime soon,” she said of her eventual transition. “It’s a long succession process. Not just myself, but building a leadership team that will be able to run the company and keep it independent.

“That’s Jim’s real wish. We want to be in a position where we don’t have to be sold. Being independent is how we best serve our employees and our owners. If we can take care of our different stakeholders the way he has over the years, we can remain independent. 

“With wine enthusiast consumers and owners, we can be a very strong company that can go on for centuries with this model and not have that scenario that some publicly held companies have where they get bought by a big conglomerate.”

It’s been publicly traded from the get-go. In 1983, Bernau wanted to start the winery, and he didn’t have the capital to do so, he took the only real option available to him.

“The only legal way to do this was a public offering,” Clair explained. “He didn’t have money or a bank that believed in his idea for an investment. So he did the first underwritten public stock offering and it was just traded on the pink sheets at the time.

“To get more liquidity, he listed it on the Nasdaq in the 1990s. We added preferred stock later, which is what we issue to fund winery projects.

Moving to a New Winery

The winery projects Clair mentioned seem poised to become a large part of Willamette’s identity in the coming years as it expands on its identity as a well-known Estate Pinot producer.

WVV is building its new winery on 40 acres in the Dundee Hills AVA on a property Willamette Valley purchased four years ago — close to Domaine Willamette, its sparkling winery at Bernau Estate Vineyard — which is under construction and nearly complete.

WVV recently added a position — Director of Winemaking and Vineyards — which was recently filled by California native Greg Urmini, who formerly oversaw winemaking for Paul Hobbs. Urmini is charged with leading the construction of the winery and overseeing its winemaking and vineyard operations, as well as overall management of the winemaking and vineyard team, which is comprised of 65 full- and part-time employees.

Building, planning, and transition into the new winery are expected to take between two to four years.

Bernau said WVV had outgrown its current facility and explained that he expects the company’s production needs to double over the next 5-7 years due in part to increasing demand and a need to keep the wine flowing at WVV’s future restaurants.

“Our winery in the Salem Hills has served us well over the past 34 years, but we have simply outgrown its original design,” Bernau said. “We produced 175,000 cases at this winery last year on-site and are expecting continued increases in demand in the coming years as our restaurant and retail placements expand and our planned new winery restaurants are built in local communities.”

Adding restaurants, too

The winery launched a $10.7 million public offering in mid-June to help fund its winery restaurant plans.

The restaurants are part of a strategy to expand awareness of Oregon wine and accessibility for folks who may not have the time to plan a winery trip. 

The first four winery restaurants will be located in Lake Oswego, the Vancouver Waterfront, Happy Valley, and Bend. The restaurants will offer Pacific Northwest-inspired dishes to pair with the winery’s classic Oregon wines as well as a new Membership program. The brand experiences will be integrated into its grocery and on-premise channels by introducing more consumers to the wines.

This move necessitated the addition of another position. Willamette recently hired 11-year restaurant industry veteran Cory Rom — former chef of Cascade Fare in Portland — as the new Tasting Room & Restaurant Chef and will help lead the vineyards’ efforts in the culinary program and operations of its new locations.

“My goals with the tasting rooms and restaurants are the same as my goals with Cascade Fare,” he noted. “I want to create a culinary program that supports local farmers and producers, using sustainably sourced products from the Pacific Northwest. The menu will be very seasonal and produce-focused.”

The plan to add restaurants got its start with the restaurant at the Estate winery and a prototype outpost built last year in the historic district of Folsom, California. 

The first one is scheduled to open just after the start of the new year, with the others to follow throughout 2023, Clair said.

The first will be in downtown Lake Oswego will feature wine and Northwest cuisine, wine lockers, a trellised patio with an outdoor fire pit, a private wine cellar dining room, and ample parking.  

Following the Lake Oswego opening, three additional winery restaurants will open in popular Northwest communities, including Vancouver Waterfront in the summer of 2022. This wine tasting destination features seven Washington wineries, and Willamette Valley Vineyards will be the first from Oregon. The restaurant will include barrel booth seating and spacious patio seating overlooking the Columbia River. 

Happy Valley is projected to open in late 2022 and will have a large patio and water feature, and the restaurant in downtown Bend will open in 2023.

Enhancing experiences

Showcasing the wines with food that best accentuates them only makes sense, Clair said. And the move also allows the winery to better serve its shareholders.

“Oregon wines have pretty high acidity, so they are associated with food pairings,” she said. “It’s usually how people enjoy their wine. We have more than 20,000 wine enthusiast-owners who live across the community, and we thought there could be a model where we could place a location in their communities to allow them to better celebrate their ownership.

“We’re one of the most visited homegrown wineries because of our business model and have a high percentage of sales (from visits) because of our owners supporting us.”

Heightening customer service has been another facet of Willamette’s evolution, including a clever way to let customers sample barrel tastings and enhance it with a hands-on experience.

“We have clones of Pinot Noir in barrels and customers can create their own Cuvées,” Clair said. “It’s a fun experience — almost Willy Wonka-like. People get to engage with learning about different expressions of Pinot Noir and make their own blends and expressions in 90-minute sessions. They get to be a winemaker for a day.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *