Like any avid oenophile recalling his first sip of wine, Jim Bernau has clear memories of the night his father opened the family’s first bottle of wine and predicted that one day “Oregon would be covered with fields of grapes.” What the senior Bernau could never have anticipated was that his son would be at the forefront of transforming their home state into a world-class producer of fine wines.
At the early age of 10, Bernau and his older brother began experimenting with wine making, albeit the fermentation of frozen grape juice snatched from the family freezer left much to be desired. During his college years at Oxford University, Bernau developed more refined tastes, gravitating to rich burgundies that became inspiration for the pinot noir his Willamette Valley Vineyards has become renowned for.
“Our pinot noir was the first wine in the United States to receive permission from the federal government to list resveratrol, the antioxidant that aids in cardiovascular health, on the label,” said Bernau, who credits the powerful antioxidants inherent to pinot noir with keeping him younger than his 54 years.
In his passion to become a winemaker, Bernau realized it would take a village to build the vineyard he dreamed of. He began purchasing land for his vineyard in 1983, but worked full-time as the director of a small-business association and spent every spare moment tending grape vines and enlisting investors.
In 1989, the company garnered 841 shareholders through its first public offering. After two subsequent offerings, the company raised approximately $5.5 million.
Founder and CEO, Willamette Valley Vineyards Turner, Ore.Annual sales: $15 millionType of business: Vineyard, distributor and retailer of fine winesAreas of operation: Nationwide
Bernau, who also worked as a lobbyist to further the development of the wine industry in the Pacific Northwest, has spent the majority of his career working closely with government officials.
“There are advantages in being comfortable with government processes and my years as a lobbyist have served the business well,” he noted. “For instance, I wrote the first laws for interstate shipment of wines never suspecting that one day my vineyard would be shipping wine around the country.”
His advice to other entrepreneurs: “When you are building an industry, realize how important it is to work closely with lawmakers to establish the right conditions under which the industry can be grown.”
Today, his company also owns a wine-distribution company and sells direct to consumers via online and phone orders. The once-small vineyard has grown to encompass more than 500 acres, approximately half company-owned and half leased, with annual sales totaling $15 million.