An Oregon winery used ambassadors to keep customers amid the pandemic


  • Willamette Valley Vineyards, Oregon’s solely publicly-traded wine firm, skilled an uptick in gross sales and employed extra individuals regardless of the pandemic shutting down a principal a part of its enterprise — its tasting rooms and restaurant. 
  • Thanks to the enlargement of its wine ambassador program to ship extra customized service, the firm developed a stronger reference to who CEO Jim Bernau refers to as “wine enthusiasts” — Willamette’s most energetic, excited customers. 
  • When one ambassador visited a buyer, “The woman opened her door and said, ‘I haven’t been out of the house in over two weeks because I’m high risk.’ They had a 45-minute conversation outside of the house because she hadn’t talked to anyone in so long,” winery director Christine Clair mentioned.  
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Things had been trying fairly rosé for Willamette Valley Vineyards at the starting of 2020. Oregon’s solely publicly-traded winery (Nasdaq: WVVI) had just lately been named Wine Enthusiast’s Innovator of the Year, together with three different firms, for its partnership in the Oregon Solidarity undertaking, which rescued a number of tons of helpful wine grapes from southern Oregon which may have in any other case gone to waste due to a contract dispute. It broke floor on an opulent new glowing wine manufacturing facility and training middle in the coronary heart of Oregon’s wine nation, and was on observe to have report Q1 gross sales. 

Then the COVID-19 disaster started. On March 17, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued an govt order prohibiting eating places from serving meals and drinks onsite. Just like that, the firm’s tasting rooms and restaurant, which accounted for 40% of its gross sales, had been shuttered.   

Although the disaster is much from over, Willamette Valley Vineyards has proven a formidable capacity to maintain itself throughout the pandemic. Sales had been really barely increased whereas the tasting room was shut than they’d been throughout the identical interval a yr earlier, in accordance to Christine Clair, winery director at Willamette. The firm hasn’t laid off a single one who was prepared to transition to one other position; in truth, it is really employed new individuals, going from 229 staff on March 16 to 261 on June 30. 

Jim Bernau

Jim Bernau.

Allan Luebke


Much of the vineyards’ success has to do with increasing an current ambassador program that allowed it to give individualized, private service to customers. But CEO Jim Bernau, the Oregon native who began the winery in 1983, believes it has simply as a lot to do with the firm’s long-term work to join with enthusiastic wine customers. That effort has constructed a loyalty to the model that did not erode — and possibly even strengthened — when instances obtained powerful. 

Ambassadors add a human contact and creativity to the enterprise

Willamette Valley Vineyards had maintained a winery ambassador program since 1999. According to Clair, Bernau’s probably successor, these staff present a private winery concierge service, providing well timed customer support and making suggestions to customers trying to order wine nationally and internationally. 

When the capacity to do gross sales at the tasting room vanished, Willamette Valley Vineyards turned to its wine ambassadors. It transitioned many tasting room staffers to the program, which now has 15 individuals in its ranks. Thanks to their efforts, Q2 gross sales had been additionally increased in 2020 than they had been in 2019, in accordance to Clair. 

One of the attributes that is helped the program succeed is amassing and mining buyer information. 

Willamette Valley Vineyards staff bottling Brut

Willamette Valley Vineyards employees bottling Brut.

Willamette Valley Vineyards


“Our Winery Ambassadors get to know their customers exceptionally well,” Clair mentioned. “They know their dog’s name. They know their children’s birthdays. They know their anniversary. When people purchase from a winery, a lot of it is focused around celebrations.” Knowing when these celebrations are about to happen permits ambassadors to do extra focused, well timed outreach. 

Christine Clair

Christine Clair.

Carolyn Wells Kramer/CWK pictures


Another is the program’s emphasis on training and storytelling. In addition to deep data of Willamette Valley Vineyards’ merchandise, ambassadors can focus on Oregon’s terroir, soils, appellations, and historical past as a positive wine area. They can lead mixing seminars and speak about the number of flavors an individual could expertise in numerous clones of Pinot Noir. 

Ambassadors are given each the route and adaptability they want to efficiently make the most of their particular expertise. They obtain coaching and training on the firm’s merchandise and the wine business at massive in addition to greatest practices which have labored for others of their place. 

“Every Wednesday, we have a team huddle and talk about, ‘What was your biggest success for the week, and what’s coming up?'” Clair mentioned. To keep employees motivated, the firm units formidable month-to-month gross sales objectives and requires everybody to fill out a weekly exercise report. 

But how ambassadors meet these objectives is essentially up to them. If they like to speak on the cellphone, they will make calls. If they like texting, they will contact customers who’ve listed that as their most well-liked technique of communication. Some have reached out to contacts in the company world and hosted wine tastings by Zoom at digital retreats. Several have made academic and entertaining movies. (This certainly one of a wine truck substituting for the native ice cream truck was significantly in style.) One lady grew up in Texas and has discovered that her understanding of the Lone Star State helps her promote extra wine. 

Willamette Valley Vineyards virtual tasting

Willamette Valley Vineyards digital tasting.

Willamette Valley Vineyards


Most importantly, ambassadors have not overlooked the super worth of human connection — particularly at a time when the person-to-person interplay that used to happen in eating places and bars will be unimaginable. Clair referred to as out a staffer who just lately made a contactless supply to a buyer’s dwelling. When she arrived, “The woman opened her door and said, ‘I haven’t been out of the house in over two weeks because I’m high risk.’ They had a 45-minute conversation outside of the house because she hadn’t talked to anyone in so long,” Clair mentioned.  

Shared values and possession construct loyalty 

Since founding Willamette Valley Vineyards, Bernau has focused customers who will not be simply informal wine drinkers, however what he calls “wine enthusiasts” — people who find themselves energetic, excited customers of the product the firm sells. 

“Our customers are more than customers,” he mentioned. “They’re brand champions and they’re industry champions. They want to support their aspirational goals for our state and for our valley.” 

With these individuals recognized, he is made clear the firm’s values and labored onerous at offering excellent service to individuals who share these values. “We believe in protecting our environment and doing everything we can, when we grow and make our wines, to be careful in how we treat our neighbors, how we treat our employees, and how we treat our environment,” he mentioned. 

Willamette Valley Vineyards ambassador making a delivery

Willamette Valley Vineyards ambassador making a supply.

Willamette Valley Vineyards


The firm additionally does loads to give again to the neighborhood. During the pandemic, it is continued to make donations to nonprofits corresponding to Meals on Wheels, the Oregon Humane Society, the native meals financial institution, and the Historic Carousel and Museum in close by Albany. 

These efforts do not attraction to everybody, Bernau famous. But those that respect them develop larger allegiance to the firm. Customers at this time, he mentioned, need to purchase greater than issues. “They buy values,” he mentioned. “They buy things that represent them and what they believe.”

Jim and Christine

Jim and Christine.

Andrea Johnson


Bernau has constructed additional possession in the firm by really permitting customers to be homeowners. In 1989, Willamette Valley Vineyards performed the first profitable inventory providing utilizing the then-new federal Regulation A, which was designed to assist small firms generate income from small homeowners. Over 5,000 individuals purchased in, giving them each a monetary and emotional stake in the firm. The program has labored so effectively that Willamette Valley Vineyards is in the starting levels of providing a second Series A spherical.  

Many customers have spent the pandemic pondering lengthy and onerous about the place they spend their . They’ve prioritized American-made merchandise or manufacturers to which they felt a connection, aware that their selections would possibly very effectively imply life or loss of life for his or her favourite firms. 

“Our customers aren’t just ingesting wine as a beverage. They’re on a mission with us,” Bernau mentioned. During this troublesome time, that is made all the distinction.

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