TiiCKER Exclusive: Q&A with Willamette Valley Vineyards Founder Jim Bernau (Part 2)
In part two of TiiCKER’s Q&A with Jim Bernau, Founder, President and Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Willamette Valley Vineyards (Tii:WVVI), Alan Hughes, TiiCKER's Managing Editor, asks the veteran vintner about the rising popularity of Oregon wines, and the impact of the pandemic and West Coast wildfires. Here is what they had to say:
HUGHES: The popularity of Oregon wines has grown substantially in recent years. What is it about Oregon's wines that have consumers opting for them, particularly when there are so many options out there?
BERNAU: One is consumers are doing more than just quenching their thirst when they buy wine. They're buying a wine that gives them a lot of value. So the first thing they think about is the quality. And Oregon has the highest winemaking standards in the nation. Oregon only produces 1% of the total volume of U.S. produced wines and has earned more than 18% of all 90-plus point scores. Oregon's quality is very high and that has a lot to do with our standards but also just our unique growing conditions.
The other part I think has to do with the style of the wine we produce. It's cooler here in Oregon, predominantly and so our wines are more lively. They're more kind of food-oriented. And consumers are interested in pairing wines with foods. They're not drinking them like you would a cocktail so much. But I think there's a third reason – consumers are paying attention to producers that care about the things they care about. And Oregon winemakers are the biggest tree-huggers you'll ever meet. And I don't care what side of the political spectrum you're on, they all really are great environmental stewards. They're community stewards and they're also stewards of their employees.
HUGHES: The big thing happening in the world right now is the pandemic. With in-person gatherings and tastings currently not an option – at least not at the scale that we're used to – what are you doing to maintain that connection with consumers?
BERNAU: We were shut down by government decision for 66 days. We have five tasting rooms. And those stations were closed for 66 days. And this will surprise you, but our wine sales went up. And the reason why was because wine consumers called us and ordered the wine to be delivered or shipped to them. People were locked in their homes with their families and the only thing that they can legally do was to go grocery shopping. So people went grocery shopping very quickly and then pulling out the recipe book and talking to their parents or friends about new recipes and pairing wines with the foods. The pandemic has produced a renaissance in high-quality wine enjoyment, the wine and food pairing.
HUGHES: I’ve read that alcohol sales had gone up during the lockdown and I can understand the rationale and I'm glad that you were on the right side of that one.
BERNAU: You're right. It's possible that people drank more. But in our case, they're drinking better. If you look at the trends, it's the low-priced wine that's not doing very well. And it's the high-priced wine that's doing really well. The highest growth rates of wine are the most expensive wines right now.
HUGHES: What about the wildfires? We've all seen the frightening and tragic footage. Have you been impacted by the fires, and how is your vintage looking for this year?
BERNAU: We shut all of our tasting rooms down for 11 days because of smoke conditions. But because the fires were quite a distance from us and the smoke was so heavy at higher elevations, it blocked out the sun. It was crazy. It was like an eclipse here. Because it blocked out the sun and it got cold, our temperatures went down, and the ripening stopped. So, what they call Brix levels in the grapes, didn't rise during the time of the smoke. And that was actually a blessing.
The glycol in smoke, which is an organic compound, will bind up with the formation of sugar molecules in a grape. And so if sugar molecules are being formed, there's a greater risk of smoke taint in the wine because the glycol's binding with it. We were fortunately far enough away, and it wasn't really here that long, so it didn't bind up with the grapes. Our vineyards dodged the bullet. There are vineyards in the Willamette Valley that did not dodge the bullet and were very smoke-affected.
So, there will be less 2020 wine because of it. But there is also going to be some really good 2020 wine for another reason – the yields are low this year because it rained during bloom spring and when yields go down, the vines have less fruit to concentrate on, so the clusters are better for winemaking. So you're going to have a blockbuster of a vintage when you taste these wines.
HUGHES: So last question: What is your favorite wine?
BERNAU: We make so many different wines. And that's probably part of the benefit of being an owner. We make wines from the Willamette Valley that are Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay. We make wines from Walla Walla, which is up in the Northeastern part of Oregon. Those are like Shiraz and Cabernets. We make Tempranillos from the Umpqua Valley area of Oregon. And then we also make wines from Southern Oregon, like Grenache and others. So, it's really hard for me to have a favorite. They say that wines are like your children. I mean, how do you have a favorite child? Now, certainly, some of them misbehave and some of them are better behaved than others, right? Some of them may perform better professionally than others, but you love them all.