Winners of the grape-stomping contest at Willamette Valley Vineyards go on to the world championship in California.
There’s more to a successful winery these days than making premium wines. Case in point: Willamette Valley Vineyards just south of Salem, Oregon.
The winery began to materialize in 1983 when founder David Bernau tore out an old pioneer plum orchard that had succumbed to wild blackberry vines and scotch broom. In the southwest-facing void, he planted Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.
Today, the winery is one of the largest in Oregon and known not only for its impressive wine portfolio but for the numerous events it hosts at the estate each year. Willamette Valley Vineyards can pull this off because it’s a public enterprise (NASDAQ: WVVI), the first winery in Oregon to go this route, and has little trouble finding shareholders to staff its events. Most paid employees at the winery are also stockholders.
The year kicks off with a coastal theme, Mo’s Clam Chowder Event, attended by some 1,500 people.
Mo’s, a famous chowder house with five locations on the Oregon Coast, brings a huge batch of its popular chowder and lots of fresh crab to the event. The winery lays out a lot of its wines, primarily Pinot Gris—which goes well with seafood—from the previous harvest if it’s ready for release. Entertainment is provided by Salem band J.T. and the Tourists, which plays mostly oldies and rock ‘n’ roll.
Next comes the Pinot Noir and Chocolate Celebration, held around Valentine’s Day. To romanticize the event, the winery matches up various gourmet artisan chocolates and Pinot Noirs, with tastings held in the candle-lit barrel room in the winery cellar. Last year, Willamette Valley’s Estate Pinot Noir, which tends to have a resinous, smoky character, was paired with smoked Venezuelan chocolate.
Wanting to keep the event romantic, the winery limits the number of couples. The Valentine’s Day event is one of the few times the winery offers barrel tastings.
In March comes the annual Wine, Cheese, and Pear Jubilee, which is also held in the barrel room and teams up with Oregon cheeses and fresh pears.
Various cheeses featured at the event come from –Oregon creameries. The Northwest Pear Bureau provides several varieties of pears, which come from growers.
Many of the cheeses showcased at the event are presented by creamery representatives who tell visitors how the cheeses are made. The winery matches its wines, mostly white, with the offerings from the creameries.
One of Willamette Valley’s biggest events is the traditional –Memorial Day open house, held by many wineries in the valley.
Two things make Willamette Valley Vineyards’s open house different. One is that it features lamb appetizers matched to the winery’s Pinot Noir. The other is a Pinot from around the world tasting contest, during which visitors are asked to match up five wines with their countries. The lamb, provided by the Oregon Lamb Association, is prepared differently each year by a local chef.
During the three-day May event, the entire winery is open to visitors.
In July, Willamette Valley Vineyards presents its popular Hot Summer’s Night Cruise-in, featuring dozens of vintage cars from around Oregon. The event includes a barbecue and band.
In September, to celebrate the start of the wine grape harvest, the winery goes all out with its annual Grape Stomp Championship, which usually draws hundreds of competitors who team up in pairs to see who can stomp out the most grape juice in a given amount of time. A barbecue, music by J.T. and the Tourists, and wine tastings round out the event.
The winners of the grape stomping competition are sent expenses paid to Santa Rosa, California, for the World Grape Stomping Championship in October.
In October, the winery hosts Chefs’ Night Out, a –Marion-Polk County Food Share fundraiser.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, Willamette Valley Vineyards pairs up with Willamette Valley grocery store chain Roth’s to present a class on how to prepare the perfect holiday dinner. Several chefs from Roth’s catering division are on hand for the demonstrations. There are also barrel samplings and the usual tastings.
The next weekend, the winery holds its annual open house, during which chocolate and cheese vendors are invited back to present their products.
The winery’s promotion year wraps up the first –Sunday in December with the Tall Jazz Holiday Concert, featuring local musicians.
Willamette Valley Vineyards charges just $5 for any event. The fee includes a wine glass made by Riedel of Austria. The winery does little paid media advertising. Word gets out mainly through e-mails sent to a mailing list of 6,000 people compiled over the years and news releases sent to the media.