Meet the Vintner: Jim Bernau

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Willamette Valley Vineyards is one of the most successful wineries in Oregon. The reason for this is obvious, simple in fact, it’s just two words: Jim Bernau.

Of course, that’s not to take anything away from the polished, professional staff that greeted us with a flood of hospitality. We were presented with a textbook knowlege of wine and an ability to compare, contrast, explain and deliver the story with a flair that would make any Academy Award Winner jealous.

We arrived for our 10 o’clock a bit early, we waited until 10, on the dot. Jim appeared and it became immediately clear why Willamette Valley Vineyards does so well. Our first order of business was a tour of the winery. And what a winery it is. Nearing completion of a multi-million dollar upgrade, the property now includes a vast tasting room. Tasting arena might be a more appropriate word, with two tasting bars, a demonstration kitchen for the full time chef who will be offering food pairings, seating for hundrerds of visitors, a special club room, a new office for Jim and even a wine vault – a personal wine vault that is accessible from the office. One can only imagine the nectar of the Gods that will be stashed away in there.

Outdoors there’s a new patio with a view that is pretty hard to beat, seating for intimate events, and even hospitality suites for those who care to stay a while. Who, as far as I can tell, would include everyone!

Having spent just a few minutes with Jim, it was clear he is very focused, and driven. Our tour was not a leisurly stroll. Some may have taken the opportunity to boast and point out the amazing things that have been accomplished at the winery, not Jim. We literally had to make an effort to keep up with him as he bolted through the new cellar and tasting room with the intensity of a major league coach. Even though the winery is a household name on a firm footing, ships wine to 50 states and multiple foreign countries, and has a 5000 member wine club, Jim says he’s still “just getting started.” Good lord.

We concluded our tour and made our way to a conference room to sit down and chat. On the way, we ran into a group from China who were touring the winery. Jim made a point of stopping, and shaking the hand of every member of the tour, thanking them for visiting, and letting them know that he had just shipped two containers of wine to China the day before. They were all very impressed, and so were we. Grandpa Hilton wrote the book on customer service, but I think I know who I’d nominate to write the second volume.

The Willamette Valley Vineyards story is well known around these parts. But in case you haven’t heard…

Back in the day, the day before there were wineries in Oregon, Jim’s dad represented one of the first guys to break ground and stick in a grape vine. He’d been a student at UC Davis who thought that maybe Pinot Noir might grow pretty well in Oregon’s cool climate, packed up his truck and headed north. He needed legal counsel to assure his plan to sell wine was going to be go over well with the powers that be; Jim’s dad was his lawyer. Mr. Bernau (Dad) would proclaim “some day Oregon will be covered with wine grapes.” Well, young Jim took that to heart, and he has almost covered the state with wine grapes!

Originally, (and now actually) Jim approached his wine project with the spirit of a man possessed. He bought the property in Turner where the winery now sits, and a tractor — while living in a second floor apartment. He had to keep the tractor on a neighboring farm for a bit. With no money for irrigation, he went and bought himself a bunch of hoses, screwed them together, and hauled them up and down the hills in the vineyard to water the vines by hand. We’re not talking about “rolling” hills either, we’re talking hills! It worked.

The real stroke of genius behind the business was Jim’s idea to go public. Initially raising in the neighborhood to $5,000,000 to get rolling, the business now has a market cap. in the neighborhood of $30,000,000. Not bad.

I haven’t checked for a while, but if one were to dig out an old paper dictionary and look up “personable,” there would likely be a photo of Mr. Bernau. He has an aura of “let’s get this done together becuse it will be really cool, and it’s the right thing to do” — if one can have such an aura.

Once Student Body President at U of O, Jim is clearly very politically astute, equally at home with his young employees, magazine publishers, or with the Governor of Oregon. So much so, that we found ourselves having dinner with the Governor of Oregon a couple of nights after our meeting. Jim graciously invited us to his wine release event while we were talking — it was spectacular.

Jim is a champion for the Oregon artisan food movement. Beginning, of course, with wine, but also beyond wine. He told us a story about how on a recent trip to Tuscany, he’d met a pig farmer who offered full meals at his farm, wine, cheese, breads and all sorts of local treasures, and it was great. So, here in Oregon, the land of James Beard, Jim is all for the artisan food movement that is afoot, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he will be instrumental in assisting small farmers and producers to move toward generating a sustainable living. Red tape, look out, Jim’s coming.

We had a great time at dinner with Jim, and Governor Kitzhaber, and while he never said anything about it, nor indicated anything about it… it would be no surprise to see Governor Bernau on the ballot some day.

He has our vote.

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