Dirty Collabs: Ryan Harms, Founder of Union Wine Company
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?
How did Union Wine Company come about after that?
How many other brands do you have besides Underwood?
What do you think makes your approach different from a typical wine company?
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?
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.
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.