Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Willamette Valley Vineyards. Its prologue begins in 1961, when winemaking visionary Richard Sommer hired an Oregon attorney to do the legal work necessary to establish the first Oregon winery since Prohibition. The attorney’s son was Jim Bernau.
Even before he was old enough, Jim started dabbling in home winemaking. In 1983, with encouragement from other winemakers who were making a move from California to Oregon, Jim started his own vineyard on an old west-to-south-facing volcanic flow, a former plum orchard located just south of Salem. Using a small tractor, Jim cleared away the plum tree remnants, Scotch broom and blackberry vines and began planting Pinot noir. He used a garden hose to water the more than 1,000 feet of vines by hand.
The vineyard’s primary soil type (named Jory for the family who first farmed here) is estimated to be 10 to 14 million years old. It’s a clay loam, which is permeable to roots, retentive of moisture, and rich in iron. Because the soil is so old, rainwater has percolated this now-acidic soil, breaking down the basalt and allowing the roots to tap down. Planted on a slope rising from 500 to 750 feet in elevation (above the frost line), the first vines benefited from excellent sun exposure and air drainage.
In the years that followed, Jim spent some time in Burgundy and attended UC-Davis to study viticulture. By 1989, he was ready to start another chapter and build his dream -- a world-class winery in the Willamette Valley -- and make cool-climate varietals, with an emphasis on Pinot noir.
The objective is simple: to grow the highest quality fruit and to achieve wines that are the purest expression of the varied soil from which it’s grown. The wines from the estate vineyard display complexity, elegance and balance.
“Our mission in growing cool-climate varietals is to create elegant, classic Oregon wines from the Willamette Valley appellation,” Jim says. “As native Oregonians, we treasure our environment and use sustainable practices in growing and vinifying our wine grapes.” To capture all the flavor nuances of the appellation, Willamette Valley Vineyards now grows grapes in three additional vineyard sites: Tualatin estate, Hannah Vineyard and Elton Vineyards in the sub-appellation of Eola Amity Hills. Together, the four vineyards create a palette for its winemaker.
Jim hired now head winemaker Forrest Klaffke 20 years ago and promoted him to winemaker in 2001. Vineyard Manager Efren Loeza, another key player with 300 acres of vines under his supervision, has worked the Tualatin Estate soils for more than 30 years. With the conviction that excellent wines, particularly Pinot noir, could grow in the Willamette Valley, Jim has built an exceptional team of about 4,600.
From the early days, Willamette Valley Vineyards has been consumer-owned. Jim feels that a consumer-owned winery is naturally oriented to the long-term, sustainable interests of the community. Jim was the first in the nation to do this.
But then, Jim has been the first to do a lot of things.
A Leading Winery
Wine & Spirits 2011 Winery of the Year
“Willamette Valley Vineyards’ performance makes it a great ambassador for the wines of Oregon.”
-Joshua Greene, Editor
Wine Press Northwest’s 2011 Oregon Winery of the Year
“This was an easy decision this year, as Willamette Valley Vineyards has been a leader in the industry for decades with their sustainability efforts and high quality Pinot Noir.”
-Andy Perdue, Editor in Chief
Wine Enthusiast Magazine
“One of America’s Great Pinot Noir Producers.”
WINE ADVOCATE: 2008 O’Brien Pinot Noir 94 pts
“On the palate it is plush, bordering on opulent, already complex, satin textured, and packed with flavor. Given its size and precision balance, it is a likely candidate to see its 20th birthday in fine form.”
WINE & SPIRITS: 2008 South Block Pinot Noir 93 pts
“The brilliant freshness of its red cherry fruit almost takes you by surprise, juicing up the middle palate and creating a fine tension.”
Wine & Spirits: 2008 Signature Cuvée Pinot Noir 92 pts
“Brisk scents of strawberry and spiced cherries mark this wine’s sweet, juicy red fruit.”
Wine & Spirits: 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 90 pts, Best Buy
“Classic Oregon Pinot with haunting aromas of wild fruits, wet earth, smoke and spice. Sweet and tart red fruit flavor. Asian spice and cocoa linger on the palate.”
Wine Spectator: 2008 Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir 90 pts
“An elegant wine with aromas of cherry, pie spice, nuts, and plum. A sweet entry with flavors of tart red cherry, raspberry and dark chocolate.”
A Sustainable Future
SALMON-SAFE: Jim Bernau Hero of Salmon Award
“Willamette Valley Vineyards has been a pioneer in moving the Oregon vineyard industry toward greater ecological sustainability over the past decade. The “Hero of Salmon” award recognizes its commitment to communicating its Salmon-Safe leadership to inspire even more agricultural and urban landowners to do their part to restore wild salmon.”
10 CENT RECYCLING PROGRAM
The winery offers 10 cents for each bottle returned to its tasting room, and one dollar for every return bottle shipped.
FCS CERTIFIED CORK
The winery is the first in the world to use corks certified through the Rainforest Alliance to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards.
CORK RECYCLING CAMPAIGN
The winery belongs to corkharvest.org, which recycles cork into useful products.
BIODIESEL FUEL PROGRAM
The winery offers each employee using biodiesel fuel 50 gallons of biodiesel fuel per month.
The winery pledged to move toward carbon neutrality through solar energy, green energy, and other ways to reduce global warming.
WHAT TO BUY
'08 Estate Pinot Noir Earthy top note, grilled cherry scents $45
'08 South Block Pinot Noir -- Raspberry, blackberry, dark plum, hints of spice, molasses $45
'09 Pinot Noir -- Cherry, raspberry, hint of leather $30
Tasting Room Open Daily 11–6
8800 Enchanted Way SE
Turner, OR 97392
Private tastings and tours by appointment, restaurant, scenic view, wine club, events