Jim Bernau didn't start out wanting to make great Pinot Noir or build one of Oregon's largest wineries. He was just a guy from Roseburg whose father was hired by Richard Sommer, the granddaddy of Oregon Pinot Noir, to do some legal work for HillCrest Vineyard.
In the early 1980s, Bernau was hired to develop a white paper to explain to state lawmakers why they should support the Oregon wine industry by creating the Oregon Wine Advisory Board. The legislation passed in 1983, a year before the federal government approved the Willamette Valley as an American Viticulture Area.
By that time, Bernau was bitten by the wine bug and smitten with the idea of getting into the industry. But he didn't have the means to get started and came up with a novel approach: stockholders.
"I worked my way through college by working in a sawmill," the energetic Bernau said. "I had no resources. My idea was to build a world-class winery by organizing many wine enthusiasts, and the only way to do that was with a public stock offering. It was never my original intention, but it was the only way for me to do it. I didn't know any wealthy people, just people like me."
Today, Willamette Valley Vineyards has 5,000 stockholders, and Bernau is the CEO. He started out by purchasing 40 acres of land near the Enchanted Forest amusement park south of Salem. He bought vines from Susan Sokol Blosser in Dundee and the Casteel brothers at Bethel Heights near Salem, who didn't charge interest as a way to help out the enthusiastic entrepreneur.
The first harvest was in 1989. Dean Cox came on as Willamette Valley Vineyards' winemaker and brought in Forrest Klaffke as his assistant. Cox died of a heart attack in the middle of harvest in 1995, and Joe Dobbes came in and helped as a consultant. Dobbes returned the following summer as head winemaker, a post he held until 2002. Klaffke has been head winemaker since 2002.
In 1997, Bernau purchased Tualatin Estate near Forest Grove, one of Oregon's oldest vineyards.
"That was one of our big breaks," Bernau said. "(Founder Bill Fuller) had 83 acres of vines planted in 1973. It's one of Oregon's treasured vineyards, and that's where our best fruit comes from."
Bernau has since expanded the vineyard to 200 acres of vines.
About the same time, Dobbes saw an opportunity with Rogue Valley grapes, and Bernau created the Griffin Creek label. At 2,500 cases, it's a small part of Willamette Valley Vineyards total case production that nears 100,000 cases, but the brand has performed well for Bernau.
Now, Bernau has leased revered Elton Vineyards and has purchased an adjacent 80 acres.
"It's going to take me another 15 years to see the results of that effort," said Bernau, who at 57 years old has no intention of slowing down.
He's also helped revive interest in Oregon Riesling, producing more than 20,000 cases. He'd like more, but most growers are interested in putting Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris in the ground.
"We made a lot of Riesling in the early days because I had to pay the bills," he said with a laugh. "I couldn't afford not to make Riesling."
But his passion has always been with Pinot Noir, the alluring grape that has bewitched many an Oregon wine enthusiast. Today, Bernau and his team craft a dozen different bottlings of Pinot Noir.
"We're concentrating on improving our Pinot Noir plantings," he said. "The whole idea behind Willamette Valley Vineyards is making classic cool-climate wines."
Willamette Valley Vineyards
8800 Enchanted Way S.E., Turner, OR 97392, 503-588-8894, www.wvv.com. The tasting room is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The Tualatin Estate tasting room in Forest Grove is open noon-5 p.m. weekends from March through December.