Born in Wisconsin and raised in upstate New York, Ryan Harms worked his first wine harvest in Oregon in August of 1997 with a winemaker he knew. It was his first time in the Northwest United States, and he says he fell in love with Oregon—and the wine business. “I loved it. It was a really great group of people I had an opportunity to work with,” he recalls. “Oregon was—is—a beautiful place to live and do this work.” He finished college in New York, worked in a corporate office for two years and then moved back to Oregon full time in 2001. Four years later he had his own wine business: Union Wine Company was born. Today, with seven brands under Union and now working alongside his brother, Harms is doing what he loves most. We spoke with him about the nuances of sustainability in such a romanticized industry, greenwashing versus the real thing and his plans for the future.
What did working a harvest look like? Do you mind sharing a bit about the wine making process?
The Oregon wine business is small by any measure today, and it was tiny back in 1997. I loved it. It was a really great group of people I had an opportunity to work with and Oregon was—is—a beautiful place to live and do this work. It’s a small industry that is growing up now and has grown tremendously since I first came here in ‘97.
Working harvest involves a lot of equipment that is used during harvest only and is stored the rest of the year, so one of the very first jobs I was doing was all the harvest cleaning and prep. It was a great moment of realizing you have these probably very romantic ideas of working in the wine business. It typically involves a wine glass, some wine in the glass, and barrels... and some beautiful cellar somewhere with elegant-looking people. You realize very quickly there is a ton of time spent wet, cold, scrubbing dirty things and cleaning. Harvest starts and ends with cleaning. Getting all the fermenters—where the grape juice and grapes go—prepped and sanitized. And then harvest begins and we bring fruit in, typically delivered in bins, and everything is weighed in and processed. Processing for white wine for us was the fruit going directly into a press that separates the juice and the skin from the seed, and the juice is pumped off to a tank and the skins (at least where I worked in 1997) put into a manure spreader and spread out into a field. The red wine, which, in Oregon is predominantly Pinot Noir, comes in and we remove the stem. The fruit is then put into a tank and either yeast is added or there is naturally occurring yeast on the equipment, and the skins themselves—depending on the winery’s philosophy—and you allow the fermentation to begin.
How did Union Wine Company come about after that?
I was here [in Oregon], I’d taken off the fall semester of my junior year, so I kind of fell in love with this place and with wine, but I wasn’t sure exactly how it fit into my life’s plan. I fell back into my undergrad and ended up spending two years working in the corporate world. I didn’t love that and knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I felt like the experience I had in Oregon with wine was something I wanted to make happen. So I came out full time in 2001 and worked my way up from the vineyard side of the business. By 2005 I was maybe brave enough, and also dumb enough, to think I was in a position to start my own company. So in 2005 Union Wine Company was formed. I originally started it with a business partner who was a great grower. We were a virtual business—we purchased a brand that had some distribution and a little bit of inventory, and we basically were able to make the wine in a facility where I was the winemaker and kind of ran the business virtually.
After finishing harvest here in 1997 and going back to the East Coast, I realized that most of the wines I was enjoying from here, weren’t available on the East Coast. And the wines that were available were fairly expensive, and certainly too much for a college student or recent college grad to be spending money on. I had this insight that with Oregon, there was a missing piece: we weren’t making wines that were accessible, and by that I mean financially accessible. So we really carved our own niche of thinking about opening the door for consumers to experience Oregon through our wines. So with the purchase of King’s Ridge, we started creating the brand that is our biggest brand by volume—and probably most visible brand, which is called Underwood—the foundation of it all was to bring Oregon to your table. With so many of the wineries [in Oregon] focusing on luxury price points - especially in 2005 - it allowed us an opportunity—and that’s where we got our start.
How many other brands do you have besides Underwood?
Today the portfolio is five different winery brands underneath Union Wine Company. I bought my original business partner out in 2011 and then in 2016 my brother actually joined me in the business, so something that was not setting out to be a family business has very much become a family business. He and I purchased Amity Vineyards. They were one of the original pioneer families that came out to Oregon and kind of founded the Oregon wine business. So we’re pretty excited to be able to take on the next chapter of that winery and vineyard. We have another brand called Christopher Michael Wines which primarily focuses on making wine from fruit grown in Washington State, so something a little different. That’s been a fun project since so much of my career has been focused on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris so getting to make cabernet and big red wines is kind of a different challenge and adventure. And Alchemist is our top-of-the-pyramid if you will—the craft and art of wine making and some really amazing vineyard sources coming together to make that particular brand.
What do you think makes your approach different from a typical wine company?
In earlier days our approach was definitely different for Oregon—we were thinking about scale and the importance of efficiency. I think that was something that people who had come to Oregon early on were much less focused on. Those weren’t the wines they were wanting to make. So we thought: how do we take some of the things we would typically do in wine and how do we remove them? We did our best to remove facets of the cost structure, trying to look for efficiency around the actual manufacturing process. Many consumers still have a very romantic idea of what wine is. But I actually think there is something exciting about the manufacturing process and the mechanical aspect of it. We still are always trying to think about how we improve our efficiencies around the way we move wine, or how we age wine. Say we need to blend wine; blended wine needs to be packaged—bottle or canned—and are there things we can do to make that process more streamlined. And hopefully better quality at the end of the day, while also driving the costs out. We’ve been focused on that since the beginning. It was certainly unique or differentiated in the early days in Oregon.
I think the other thing too is that we have embraced technology. We’ve embraced scale to a degree. Our wines are only going to be as good as the fruit that we farm or grow or our growers grow for us. So we’re trying to find the best quality fruit we can afford, and then in the winemaking process, we’re trying to be as efficient as possible, to then make the best quality wines for the price point. At the end of the day there are no great secrets to it [laughs] but sometimes I think people think about it as, “oh, you’re just buying inexpensive fruit.” But coming from the vineyard side of the business early in my career, in Oregon we have rainy springs, we can have rainy harvests, and there are no shortcuts when it comes to the vineyard. So we’re working with the best possible fruit we can, and handling it in the winery in the most efficient way. And it changes, you know—I have a barrel of pinot noir that’s 60 gallons for Amity. And then I have a tank for Underwood that’s 40,000 gallons. There’s a difference in scale that you’re operating at.
So does the process of efficiency tie into sustainability for you? Is sustainability something that’s part of your thinking about processes for the future?
Sustainability today is certainly something that we’re in some respects thinking more about, but I think it’s also more that we’re thinking about it in terms of how we talk about it. As opposed to the fact that there are a number of things that are intuitive to us. Our approach at its outset is to think about sustainability in all of its forms. Having a business model that’s sustainable, what your benefits package is, compensation approach—in other words the sustainability of our employee’s lives. So many of those things maybe were just intuitive. Maybe we didn’t need to have an initiative or a specific approach.
I think we find ourselves today realizing that in some areas we probably need to be a little more intentional in how we look at things, how we track some things, and even from a marketing standpoint, being comfortable talking about it. There is a concern about greenwashing—to us it matters that what we are doing is authentic. If I was talking about it on my label or parading around my sustainable approaches, somehow it almost became inauthentic in my mind. So for me that’s been a hard transition to recognize that if we don’t talk about it, consumers don’t necessarily understand what we’re doing. They want to be able to have a connection to the brand in a way where they actually have visibility that we as a brand are creating. So that’s a long way of saying probably nothing [Laughs]. But very much some of the things that were, say, part of trying to build scale, making sure we can actually achieve the price points and have a profitable, sustainable business, some of those same things also yield conservation and sustainability practices.
For example, aging a bunch of our wines in tanks and not barrels reduces, significantly, the amount of water it takes to make wine. We track all of our water utilization and are actually able to look at, for every gallon of wine we make, how many gallons of water it actually takes. One of those big differences is that we are not using barrels to the same extent other wineries do because there are a whole bunch of positives to being able to age our wines in tanks. One of the important ones being around energy, our footprint. Lots of pinot noir is aged in French oak barrels. Those are made from trees from forests in France and are shipped across an ocean in containers that are mostly air. Where we’re getting better today is instituting the ability to track our KPIs around what we’re doing and once we’ve established those benchmarks, actually being able to look at initiatives—how do we get better?
A genuine approach.
Yeah, it’s not really about “us” or “them,” but following this theme of how this romanticized image of the wine business is inaccurate. Our winery is in an industrial area. Somebody at some point turned what probably was non-desirable ground into an industrial park. I felt this was a great place to put a winery. I don’t think a lot of people would have thought so. But we’re not using farm ground to put a winery on. Farm ground is really important—for raising crops, but also just allowing ground to continue to be wild. Somebody made a decision to convert this ground at some point and we are just continuing to utilize it. I don’t think people think about that. Especially not in this business. The beautiful winery up on the hillside is a pretty common thing. For us, there is something thoughtful about where we located the winery. We are tapping into city water, we have power, we have municipal waste systems, so those investments have already been made and we’re utilizing them as opposed to creating an independent system.
And then you get into our products: our glass bottles, for the bottled side of our business, are incredibly lightweight. For some brands, heavy glass has been a theme for marketing, but that heavy glass has a cost both in terms of the bottle and the weight of the bottle and that product being shipped from a glass plant empty, and then shipped all over to consumers. There is an environmental cost associated with that. And then we introduced wine in a can commercially in 2014, and you know, within 60 days of a can being returned to the recycling center, it’s being processed back into a new canned product. So aluminum has that value, recycling systems are set up to allow that product to be made into a new product that quickly and that’s exciting. You can ship twice the volume of wine on a semi truck if it’s packaged in cans than you can in glass, even our lightweight glass. So it just speaks to how heavy glass is and the opportunities when you’re speaking about cans. Packaging choices are important.