Willamette Valley Vineyards’ digital rendering of the new Lake Oswego restaurant. ##Image provided
Jim Bernau, Willamette Valley Vineyards founder and CEO. ##Photo by Andrea Johnson

Expanding Horizons

Iconic brand building large facility, multiple restaurants

Willamette Valley Vineyards has announced the building of a new winery in the Dundee Hills, which will require the hiring of a director to oversee winemaking and vineyards, as well as 65 full- and part-time staff.

Jim Bernau, founder and CEO, says the decision comes as production has vastly outpaced capacity at the current winery in the Salem Hills in Turner.

“It got to the point where I just couldn’t wait any longer,” Bernau says. “We have exceeded the design capabilities for this winery.”

Founded in 1983, Willamette Valley Vineyards is a leading producer of Oregon Pinot Noir. The winery was originally built for making 12,500 cases of annually. Last year, it produced 175,357 cases — more than 14 times its initial capacity. “That creates a lot of pressure on our cellar staff,” Bernau explains. “What I really need to do is prepare for the future.”

Four years ago, the company purchased the 40-acre parcel in the Dundee Hills along Highway 99W, where it plans to build the state-of-the-art winery with a production capacity of 250,000 and 500,000 cases annually. The winery will be located within a few miles of Bernau Estate Vineyard, where Willamette Valley Vineyards’ new sparkling wine facility, Domaine Willamette, is slated to open in May 2022.

Bernau calls the sparkling winery and tasting room a “considerable investment,” with the building and road improvements exceeding $15 million. The site is already home to a mature vineyard, and will also include a Biodynamic garden.

Growth for Willamette Valley Vineyards doesn’t stop at production though. The company is building four winery restaurants, with the first to open before the end of the year in Lake Oswego. Three others are planned for Bend, Happy Valley and across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.

Along with increasing national brand awareness for Oregon Pinot Noir, Bernau says the restaurants will add further demand. He estimates Willamette Valley Vineyards must double production over the next five to seven years to keep pace.

The company has hired Steven Martin Associates, an engineering firm based in Sonoma County, California, to design the new winery. There is no timetable or cost estimate yet for the project.

The Salem Hills winery will continue making small lots of Pinot, with more space dedicated to wine tastings and hospitality, Bernau explains.

In addition, Willamette Valley Vineyards is creating a new position, director of winemaking and vineyards, who will help manage the transition into the new winery while overseeing operations and assisting in the development of brands and products.

Willamette Valley Vineyards owns five vineyards in the Willamette Valley, totaling about 500 mature acres, as well as 35 acres in Eastern Oregon and Washington in the Walla Walla Valley and The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVAs. The winery also has 500 acres under contract with Oregon growers.

Bernau credits expansion to its business model, a publicly traded company with more than 19,000 wine enthusiasts as shareholders.

In mid-June, the winery issued a $10.7 million stock offering to fund the new restaurants. Shares are being sold at $5.05 with a 4.36% annual dividend, or wine credit worth 15% more.

“The foundation of our success is our owners,” Bernau says.

According to its latest annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Willamette Valley Vineyards managed to increase sales and income, despite the pandemic. Net sales were $27.3 million, up approximately 10% over 2019, while net income was $6.9 million, a 23% increase.

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