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 folks regardless of the pandemic shutting down a primary a part of its enterprise — its tasting rooms and restaurant. 
  • Thanks to the growth 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 stated.  
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Things have 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 corporations, for its partnership in the Oregon Solidarity mission, which rescued a number of tons of invaluable 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 schooling heart in the coronary heart of Oregon’s wine nation, and was on monitor to have report Q1 gross sales. 

Then the COVID-19 disaster started. On March 17, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued an government 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, have been shuttered.   

Although the disaster is much from over, Willamette Valley Vineyards has proven a powerful capability to maintain itself throughout the pandemic. Sales have been really barely larger 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 that was prepared to transition to one other function; in truth, it is really employed new folks, 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 present 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 bought 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 capability 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 folks in its ranks. Thanks to their efforts, Q2 gross sales have been additionally larger in 2020 than they have been in 2019, in accordance to Clair. 

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

Willamette Valley Vineyards staff bottling Brut

Willamette Valley Vineyards workers bottling Brut.

Willamette Valley Vineyards


“Our Winery Ambassadors get to know their customers exceptionally well,” Clair stated. “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 schooling and storytelling. In addition to deep information of Willamette Valley Vineyards’ merchandise, ambassadors can focus on Oregon’s terroir, soils, appellations, and historical past as a high-quality wine area. They can lead mixing seminars and discuss the number of flavors an individual might expertise in numerous clones of Pinot Noir. 

Ambassadors are given each the course and adaptability they want to efficiently make the most of their particular abilities. They obtain coaching and schooling 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 stated. To keep workers motivated, the firm units bold month-to-month gross sales targets and requires everybody to fill out a weekly exercise report. 

But how ambassadors meet these targets is basically up to them. If they like to speak on the cellphone, they’ll make calls. If they like texting, they’ll contact customers who’ve listed that as their most well-liked methodology of communication. Some have reached out to contacts in the company world and hosted wine tastings by Zoom at digital retreats. Several have made instructional and entertaining movies. (This certainly one of a wine truck substituting for the native ice cream truck was significantly standard.) 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 overpassed the great worth of human connection — particularly at a time when the person-to-person interplay that used to happen in eating places and bars might be not possible. Clair known 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 stated.  

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 stated. “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 folks recognized, he is made clear the firm’s values and labored laborious 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 stated. 

Willamette Valley Vineyards ambassador making a delivery

Willamette Valley Vineyards ambassador making a supply.

Willamette Valley Vineyards


The firm additionally does quite a bit to give again to the group. During the pandemic, it is continued to make donations to nonprofits comparable 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 better allegiance to the firm. Customers as we speak, he stated, need to purchase greater than issues. “They buy values,” he stated. “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 carried out the first profitable inventory providing utilizing the then-new federal Regulation A, which was designed to assist small corporations generate income from small homeowners. Over 5,000 folks purchased in, giving them each a monetary and emotional stake in the firm. The program has labored so properly that Willamette Valley Vineyards is in the starting phases of providing a second Series A spherical.  

Many customers have spent the pandemic pondering lengthy and laborious 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 properly imply life or demise for his or her favourite corporations. 

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

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