Libby Spencer, COO, Willamette Valley Vineyards

Keeping pace in a fast-evolving industry

Willamette Valley Vineyards (WVV) has been on the move of late. The Turner, Oregon-based winery has been opening tasting rooms and restaurants in a variety of locations. The company also recently added to its management team, hiring Libby Spencer as chief operating officer earlier this month.

“Libby is really part of a long-term succession plan for our business,” says winery founder Jim Bernau.

Spencer has been on WVV’s board of directors, formally becoming a member earlier this month. As COO, a newly created role, she will now oversee all day-to-day business at the winery.

“I’ve always had a real kinship for this winery,” Spencer says. “I’ve always felt at home here.”

A sixth generation Oregonian, Spencer first became involved in the wine industry at age 21, when she discovered a friend’s family owned Cristom Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills. Spencer subsequently worked at the winery and continued to do so throughout college.

“It just spoke to me,” Spencer says of the wine industry. “Wine lives at a really special intersection. I love agriculture, I love being outside, I love seeing things grow, and I also love dining. There’s not a lot of places where that intersectionality exists.”

Spencer first joined WVV in 2004 at age 23 as the company’s national sales coordinator. After a several year stint in Massachusetts as the owner of Brix Wine Bar, Spencer returned to WVV in 2008 and spent four years as sales operations manager. She subsequently worked the next 12 years at Enartis, a California-based enology products company.

“It gave me the opportunity to visit, maybe not every mid-size and large winery in the US, but I’ve been to most of them,” Spencer says. During this time, she studied enology at Washington State University.

While rejoining WVV is very much a homecoming, Spencer returns to find a business transformed. When Spencer left the company in 2012, there were 92 employees. At the end of 2023, there were 346. Similarly, the winery has gone from selling 19% of its wine direct-to-consumer to 53%.

“We are becoming a hospitality organization very rapidly,” Bernau says. “Our business has changed dramatically as a result of where the consumer is interested in going. They want to have experiences. They want to have fun.”

Reflective of that, WVV now has 10 locations to taste its wines in Oregon, California, and Washington. Wine and food pairings are available at the Estate in Salem Hills as well as recently opened tasting rooms and restaurants in Lake Oswego (2022), Happy Valley (2022), Bend (2024), and Vancouver, Washington (2022). The remaining locations are the Willamette Valley Vineyards Tasting Room in McMinnville, Tualatin Estate Vineyard in Forest Grove, Willamette Wineworks in Folsom, California, and the Maison Bleue tasting room in Walla Walla, Washington, acquired in 2018. WVV also has Domaine Willamette, the company’s sparkling winery, located in the Dundee Hills (2022).

WVV has taken a unique approach to power the company’s growth. The company first offered preferred stock on NASDAQ in 2015, allowing investors and wine enthusiasts to buy shares. (Common stock was originally offered in 1988.) Over 26,000 people have invested. The move has allowed WVV to grow while retaining control of its business. Finding that balance has been difficult for many wineries.

“The industry is at a crossroads,” Bernau says. “These smaller, independent wineries cannot retain earnings fast enough to meet the challenges of today’s market. Some of them can’t even afford to do the remodels that they need to do in their tasting rooms to give their customers the experience that they expect.”

Many recent stories have chronicled the struggles of the wine industry, particularly at larger wineries. WVV, which makes approximately 234,000 cases annually, serves as proof that there is plenty of opportunity in the industry as well.

“The sky is not falling,” Bernau says. “The enjoyment that high quality wine brings to people’s lives and the experiences that we as advocates for the industry bring, it’s needed more than ever. We just have to lean into it and invest in it.”

Part of that investment for WVV is hiring Spencer. Bernau, 70, notes that, on his passing, his shares of the company will remain in a trust in perpetuity to be voted by a committee of the management team. That very much influenced his decision in hiring Spencer.

“I needed to find someone of remarkable character, and that’s who Libby is,” Bernau says. “It’s a complex winery, so it needs someone who has the ambition to grow it from where it is today.”

Meanwhile for Spencer, the third time at WVV looks to be the charm.

“It’s a really incredible legacy opportunity,” Spencer says.

This article has been updated. 

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