Jim Bernau

Jim Bernau, founder and CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards, holds up a cluster of Pinot noir grapes growing at his vineyard in Turner, Ore.

TURNER, Ore. — Willamette Valley Vineyards is building a new winery in the Dundee Hills southwest of Portland and will hire a new director to oversee winemaking and vineyards, including 65 full- and part-time employees, the company announced on June 24.

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

”It got to the point where I just couldn’t wait any longer,” Bernau said. “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 wine per year, Bernau said.

Last year, the winery produced 175,357 cases — more than 14 times its initial capacity.

”That creates a lot of pressure on our cellar staff,” Bernau said. “What I really need to do is prepare for the future.”

Four years ago, the company purchased 40 acres in the Dundee Hills American Viticultural Area along Highway 99 where it plans to build a state-of-the-art winery with the capacity to produce between 250,000 and 500,000 cases annually.

The winery will be within a few miles of Willamette Valley Vineyards’ new sparkling wine facility, called Domaine Willamette, which is slated to open in May 2022.

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

Growth for Willamette Valley Vineyards doesn’t stop there. The company is building four winery restaurants, with the first to open before the end of the year in Lake Oswego, Ore. Three others are planned for Vancouver, Wash., and Bend and Happy Valley, Ore.

Along with increasing brand awareness nationally for Oregon Pinot noir, Bernau said the restaurants will only add further demand. He estimates that Willamette Valley Vineyards will need to double production over the next 5-7 years to keep pace.

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

”We’re going to move as quickly as we can,” Bernau said.

The Salem Hills winery will still be used to make small lots of Pinot noir, with more of the space to be dedicated to wine tastings and hospitality, Bernau said.

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 AVA. The winery also has 500 acres under contract with Oregon growers.

Bernau credits expansion of the winery to its business model, as 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 said.

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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