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Q&A with Willamette Valley Vineyards' president

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

BEARING FRUIT

JimBernau.jpg PHOTO BY MICHAEL HALLE

WHEN JIM BERNAU founded Willamette Valley Vineyards in 1983, his 15-acre, one-man operation was one of about 115 vineyards dotting Oregon’s landscape. As Oregon’s wine industry has grown in size and reputation, so has Willamette Valley Vineyards, which is now one of the leading producers of pinot noir in the state. As the president of Oregon’s only publicly traded winery — with $16.7 million in annual revenues — Bernau oversees 121 employees and the production of more than 120,000 cases of wine annually. We caught the winemaker on a rare day away from the winery to discuss the challenges facing Oregon’s wine industry.

Q How are Oregon wineries, including your own, faring in the recession?
A Sales growth has flattened, and in some cases we are seeing downturns, especially with our restaurant accounts. I hear from my colleagues that they are seeing the effect of the economic slowdown, especially those that are making and selling fairly expensive products. Our wines are fairly expensive because our yields are so low and the costs of how we make our wines are high. Oregon pinot noir, to be really good, takes a lot of money to make. People are being very careful of how they spend their money, which they should be.

Q What’s the industry doing to survive the recession?
A What happens sometimes in downturns is you see consumer behavior fundamentally change. People start making lower-cost choices and stick with those choices. I think what you’re going to see are some people trading down from expensive wines to less expensive wines. You won’t see much price cutting, because the cost is already in the product. You’ll see some real slowdown in spending by wineries — cost saving, cost cutting. But then you’ll also see something else. For those capable of doing it, you’ll see investing. Often the best times to develop a stronger market position [are during] economic downturns.

Q Lobbyist, cellar rat, CEO — you’ve worked nearly every position in the industry. Have a favorite?
A Growing. I love being in the vineyard, absolutely love it. As a consequence, we have quite a few vineyards.

Q You recently acquired more than 200 acres.
A Yes. We’re going to be busy. What’s important when you want to make a high-quality pinot noir, you have to have absolutely the best growing site for it, and reduce the yield on the crop in such a way to produce a high-quality, world-class wine. The best way to ensure that is to do it yourself. There is an advantage of making sure you control every aspect of the growing process, but also there is no margin. So by growing more yourself, you have more ability to get pinot noir to the public at a price that is fairly reasonable. Part of Willamette Valley’s great strategic advantage is that our size as a grower allows us to do that.

Q Would reducing personal wine consumption to save a few dollars ever be an option?
A Have you seen the size of my cellar? There is no way I could cut back.

 

NICOLE STORMBERG

 


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