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 awarded "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 19,000 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.
Fueled by a passion for crafting visionary wines and a spirit that craves discovery, Terry Culton’s professional pursuits have brought him back to Willamette Valley Vineyards as our Director of Winemaking & Vineyards. In this position, Terry leads Willamette’s winery and vineyard teams.
Initially inspired by his mentor Kenneth Volk, founder of Wild Horse Vineyard and Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Terry worked the “Pinot Trail” in California’s Anderson Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He first worked at Willamette in 1997 as our Cellar Master, supervising the cellar crew and managing inventory as well as the bottling line.
From there, Terry went on to develop a 20-year career making acclaimed wines for several California wineries, including work at Calera in Hollister, California, where he worked with the pioneering Pinot Noir maker Josh Jensen. Terry left Calera to work with Hoffman Mountain Ranch’s vast plantings of Rhône Varietals.
For 10 years, Terry honed his unique style of vineyard-driven, well-balanced wines. His enthusiasm for winemaking led him to start Culton Wines, which produced mainly Rhône varietals and blends in small lots from ultra-premium Central Coast grapes. His overall approach is to blend wines that are elegant and food-friendly manifestations of terroir.
Terry later went to Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles, California. During his first year at Le Vigne, he received 98 points and a double gold award from Sunset Magazine on Le Vigne Paso 2019 Rosé of Sangiovese.
Terry’s return to Willamette brings him back to his beginnings at a time of abundant possibilities. The winery continues to develop its deep portfolio that includes classic Oregon Pinot Noirs as well as sparkling wines made with estate-grown fruit and bold reds from the Rogue Valley AVA and the Walla Walla Valley AVA.
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.
Mark first became passionate about Pinot Noir while working as a bartender in a fine dining restaurant along the Mendocino Coast in Northern California. The nearby Anderson Valley was home to many wonderful Pinot Noirs and other cool climate varieties. Mark moved to Oregon in 2007 to study at Oregon State University. He worked at many restaurants in Corvallis and continued cultivating his appreciation for local wines. Ultimately, he became the wine buyer at one of those restaurants. He graduated from OSU in 2011 with a degree in Food Science with an emphasis in Fermentation, then signed up to work the harvest at Left Coast Estate. Before departing Left Coast to work a harvest in New Zealand, Mark was offered the role of Cellar Master at Left Coast, a position he took after returning from New Zealand.
In 2016, Mark earned the title of Assistant Winemaker at Left Coast Estate and worked alongside winemaker Joe Wright, crafting many acclaimed wines in the newly formed Van Duzer Corridor sub-AVA. In 2016 Mark moved from Corvallis to McMinnville and met his wife-to-be, Robyn. Robyn and Mark married on the grounds of Left Coast in 2019 and started building their family with the birth of their daughter, Evelyn. They welcomed their second child, Brent, to the family in February of 2023.
After 11 years of working with Left Coast Estate, Mark joined the winemaking team at Willamette Valley Vineyards just prior to the start of the 2022 harvest. Mark is excited to work with many new vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley and some bolder reds from the Rogue Valley and Walla Walla. When Mark is away from the winery, he is in nature with his family, exploring new trails and soaking up the beauty Oregon offers.
Brandon Shelby was just 18 years old when his best friend’s dad persuaded him to work the grape harvest with him at Willamette Valley Vineyards.
His friend’s father was the late Winemaker Forrest Klaffke, who set in motion Brandon’s responsibilities at the winery in 2004 and encouraged Brandon’s growing interest in the winemaking process. Brandon worked his way through a variety of positions, from Harvest Intern to Cellar Master, before taking on oversight of all cellar and bottling operations as our Production Manager.
His passion for his work is reignited each fall, when production ramps up during harvest, his crew triples in size and he spends nights at the winery as fruit comes in from the vineyards. Brandon enjoys taking on special projects and recently collaborated with three other Willamette team members to create our Barrel Blending Experience in Folsom, California, that allows visitors to blend their own, one-of-a-kind wines.
Outside of work, Brandon spends time with his family. He enjoys the outdoors and may be found riding motorcycles or camping and fishing on Oregon’s coast and rivers.
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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