This story begins like it did for many of us. Being served small amounts of wine at the dinner table by our parents. But in Jim's case, it was made by the first emigrating winemaker since Prohibition — UC Davis Graduate Richard Sommer, who believed it was in Oregon, not California where he would grow world-class Pinot Noir. Richard needed a lawyer to obtain the necessary licenses that the state hadn't issued in more than 30 years so he drove his pick-up truck into the small town of Roseburg to find himself a lawyer, and hired Jim's Dad. By 1963, Richard produced 200 gallons of wine.
First motivated by its effects more than its flavor, Jim began by fermenting Concord grape juice his Mom kept in the freezer guided by information on Fermentation in the family Encyclopedias, later graduating to Richard's grapes — hiding the bottles under the crawl spaces of the house.
While Jim's father wanted him to return from Willamette Law School to the family practice, Jim chose to pursue his interest in government and wine, representing the Oregon Winegrowers in the passage of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board for the research and promotion of the industry in 1981, his first piece of legislation as a young lobbyist.
In the same year, he began searching for vineyard land, found an old overgrown pioneer plum orchard in the Salem Hills and began planting Pinot Noir in 1983, watering his vines with 17 lengths of 75 foot garden hose he bought on special. Jim named it Willamette Valley Vineyards — later to become grandfathered into federal law when the American Viticultural Area was federally authorized.
While the vines were growing, Jim concentrated on helping Oregon Winegrowers by passing legislation on making wineries a permitted use on farmland, the direct shipment of wine, wine tastings in stores and restaurants, and later the establishment of the Oregon Wine Board. Jim's personal gift to Oregon State University established the first professorship for fermentation science in the nation.
His fellow winemakers recognized Jim's early work with the industry's Founder's Award followed by the Governor's Gold, presented by Oregon's four living Governors. His wines created quite a stir by when they appeared on the TV shows West Wing and Friends, and were later served at White House State dinners. Willamette Valley Vineyards was eventually listed among the top 100 wines in the world by Wine Spectator Magazine, named "One of America's Great Pinot Noir Producers" by Wine Enthusiast Magazine and was dubbed "Winery of the Year" by Wine and Spirits Magazine.
The recognition Jim values most came from his fellow winegrowers whom he involved in creating the first system of environmental stewardship in American agriculture, the Low Impact Viticulture and Enology program, followed by awards presented by the Rainforest Alliance and the American Wine Society.
Jim believes among healthiest forms of business organization are those owned by the community. He conducted the first "crowd funding" in the nation to build his winery by obtaining permission from the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1988, resulting in a growing fabric of laws allowing community-based funding for small businesses. Willamette Valley Vineyards has grown to more than 17,000 wine enthusiast shareholders and is listed on the NASDAQ under the symbol WVVI and WVVIP.
In 2015, he co-founded a new division, Oregon Estate Vineyards, launching four new boutique wineries on some of Oregon's most intriguing vineyard sites, including The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in the Walla Walla AVA, to continue to share the Oregon wine story.
In 2019, Jim Bernau and Justin King of King Estate Winery accepted the Innovator of the Year award at the Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Awards for Oregon Solidarity, a collaboration wine to support Rogue Valley winegrowers whose contracts were abruptly canceled.
If you ask Jim where his favorite places to visit, he will tell you the vineyard or hiking a Cascade trail. If you ask him how long he has worked in the wine industry, he will tell you that he can only remember ever working two days. Maybe someday he will tell us which two days those were.
Christine’s love for Oregon wine began at an early age looking up at Willamette Valley Vineyards out the window of her nearby home as the winery took shape on the slope of the Salem hills. Christine has always been a familiar face at the winery; as a young girl she would sell her friendship bracelets in the tasting room.
Christine worked at the winery as a college intern and started making wine while she was a senior to launch her own brand based in Southern Oregon.
Her life-long connection and passion to fulfill the founders’ dream of making world-class Pinot Noir led her back to the winery where she now leads winemaking and vineyard operations, as well as sales and marketing. She is training to replace the Founder/CEO upon his retirement.
In 2015, Christine co-founded a new company division, Oregon Estate Vineyards, with Jim Bernau, dedicated to building boutique wineries on some of Oregon’s most intriguing vineyard sites to continue to create and share the Oregon wine story. The wineries include Elton in the Eola-Amity Hills focused on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pambrun in the Walla Walla Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-based varietals, Maison Bleue Winery in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater with Syrah and Rhone-based varietals and Bernau Estate in the Dundee Hills focused on producing méthode champenoise sparkling wine from biodynamically-grown grapes.
In 2018, Christine helped coordinate the Oregon Solidarity wines to help Southern Oregon winegrowers who had their contracts canceled just days before harvest citing smoke taint. Oregon winemakers teamed up to collaboratively make and sell wines with the net proceeds benefiting the Rogue Valley Vintners to support vineyards in the region. The collaboration was awarded by Wine Enthusiast the Wine Star Award for Innovator of the Year.
Christine has been awarded Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 40 Under 40, Portland Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 and Wine & Spirits Educational Trust Future 50 Award.
Christine lends her support as a Board Member for the Willamette Valley Winery Association, International Pinot Noir Celebration and Women in Wine: Fermenting Change in Oregon.
Joe Ibrahim knew from a very early age that he was destined for a career in viticulture and enology. Growing up in New York, his childhood hobbies included a fascination for growing plants and experimenting in chemistry. When he was old enough, his parents gifted him with a home winemaking kit and he began making all kinds of fruit wines including dandelion wine and turnip wine. While not exactly palatable, he never tired of learning about the process of transforming juice into wine.
Naturally, Joe decided to study Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. After classes and in the summer he interned on a small family-owned vineyard and winery in Northern Vermont on Lake Champlain under the tutelage of a French Canadian winemaker. He learned about the basics of winemaking, cultivating grapes in a harsh Northern climate, and began to develop his palate.
After graduating college, he accepted a position with Ste. Michelle Wine Estate in Washington State, where he learned about making wine in the Pacific Northwest. He was later offered a position with Gallo Family in California where he learned about brandy distillation as a Spirits Maker and sparkling wine production as the Senior Winemaker in charge of the sparkling wine program.
He came to discover that his true passion is in crafting premium cool climate varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As the Head Winemaker for Edna Valley Vineyard, in one of California’s coolest AVA’s, he crafted premium and luxury wines and developed a reputation for creating award winning wines from some of the region’s most iconic vineyard sites.
Jim Bernau invited Joe to visit Willamette Valley Vineyards and he instantly knew he had found his new home. Joe proposed to his fiancé Jo in the guest suite on the Estate, the night of his interview and shortly thereafter they moved (with their two dogs) to Oregon to join the winery in the pursuit and passion to create the highest quality Pinot Noir in the valley.
Associate Winemaker Gabi Préfontaine, a Quebec native, graduated with a Masters of Viticulture and Enology from Burgundy University in Dijon. Her winemaking experiences span across the cool climates of the globe from Tasmania to France. Previously she was the Assistant Winemaker at Willakenzie Estate in Yamhill, Oregon. Currently, Gabi is focused on creating the best wines from what Mother Nature provides from our estate vineyards.
It is hard to imagine, but it is true. Efren Loeza has been in the vineyard longer than the winery’s Founder, Jim Bernau.
Efren came by this unique distinction through Willamette Valley Vineyards’ merger with Tualatin Estate Vineyard in 1997. Efren began at Tualatin in 1979 at the age of 17 and has worked in the vineyard ever since. Even more surprising, the person who taught Efren his first lessons in vine care, Jose Ortiz, is still working at Tualatin Estate. Jose learned his skills from pioneering viticulturist, the late David Foster. Jose and his brother Roberto Ortiz, Jose Espinosa and Efren’s brothers Miguel and Marcos Loeza form a core vineyard staff with as much combined experience as exists in this young growing region.
Efren and his family now live on the estate in the farmhouse built by the pioneering owners who first grew strawberries on its warm slopes. As Vineyard Manager for all of our vines from Tualatin Estate in Forest Grove to the Estate Vineyard in the Salem Hills, Efren has nearly 500 acres under his supervision. Most recently, he was instrumental in planting fifty acres of closely spaced Pinot Noir Dijon clones of 113, 114, 115, 667 and 777 on selected rootstocks.
Though Efren takes time for his family at the Oregon coast or playing basketball and soccer with his four children, he is devoted to the land. His careful vineyard practices and stewardship of the land have earned LIVE and Salmon-Safe certifications for our estate vineyards. He received the Oregon Wine Board’s first Vineyard Excellence Award in 2016.
We are proud to be partnering with some of the most talented and acclaimed winemakers in the wine industry.
In 1973, Bill Fuller moved from California to plant the Tualatin Vineyard as one of the original Oregon winemakers. Bill was recognized for many firsts in our industry. His Pinot Noir and Chardonnay took home Best of Show for Red and White in the same year at the London International Wine Fair and his 1989 Chardonnay was the first Oregon wine to be named to the Wine Spectator Top 100 List. In 1997, Willamette Valley Vineyards merged with Tualatin Estate Vineyard and Bill retired. Bill rejoined our winemaking team for his 40th vintage in 2013, and continues to make small lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under his own bottling as well as assist with blending decisions for Tualatin Estate designates.
Andrew Davis is the Consulting Winemaker on our sparkling wines, debuting with the 2014 vintage. As Owner of The Radiant Sparkling Wine Company, Andrew provides specialized equipment required for the efficient production of méthode champenoise sparkling wines as well as the technical knowledge to assure our sparkling wine is of the highest quality.
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