Wine Women Wednesday: Wende Bennette-Kirkland of Willamette Valley Vineyards

Welcome to the return of Wine Women Wednesday. This was one of the highlights and milestones for Along Comes Mary when this series launched a few months ago. With 2019 here, I’m so excited to bring you more interviews with kick ass women killing it in the wine industry. Today, I’d like you to meet Wende Bennette-Kirkland from Willamette Valley Vineyards.

When you visit Willamette Valley Vineyards in the heart of Willamette Valley, Oregon, you’re not only tasting wine. You’re in for a fantastic meal and much history in between your Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Willamette Valley Vineyards was my very second stop on a week-long journey to the region. It had already been a long day of travel, so I was most excited to try out their food. The coconut squash curry was excellent, as was their entire dining atmosphere. Each menu item even has recommended pairings and clearly notes what’s gluten-free. Yet, it was Wende Bennette-Kirkland, the winery’s Senior Ambassador and National Sales Manager, who completed this visit.

Wende Bennette-Kirkland of Willamette Valley Vineyards

Oregon is a really friendly state. Much like the cliches and inside jokes, a lot of them are not far from true, yet in the best way possible. This was clear to see as soon as I met Wende. She was so hospitable, and even ensured we have her cell phone number in-case we had any questions or wanted to visit the winery and restaurant again. She makes you feel apart of the Willamette Valley Vineyards family. Learn more about Wende and what led her to where she is today below.

Mary: What got you passionate about wine and when did you start working in the industry? 
Wende: Fate happened: I actually fell into this dream job while working as a waitress and going to school to become a marriage counselor. You see, I love, love. I thought if I became a marriage counselor, I could help people in their relationships so that they could continue to love each other. It wasn’t long after I started classes that I realized this line of work was not a good fit for me. I have a fairly good memory and I didn’t want to taint my ideas about love by filling my head with all of the terrible things that people can do to each other. So, I took a year off of school to figure things out, (and consider) a new career path. Well, 1 year turned into 2 years and I started to get anxious about my future. I felt like I was in a dead end job, although I loved waiting tables, I felt like I needed a change. I just didn’t know what to do so I left things to chance. 
Photo: Courtesy of Wende.
She found love! Photo: Courtesy of Wende.
One afternoon, while working the lunch shift, a long standing customer came in for his usual, a sandwich without tomato and iced tea with no lemon.  He always seemed to be pretty busy on his blackberry but on this day he started chatting with me. He said he thought I would be great up at the winery. I asked what winery and he said “Willamette Valley Vineyards.” I told him that I loved (it there) and asked if he worked there. He smiled and said “You could say that” and gave me his business card. I had thought it was rude to read someones business card in front of them, so I tucked it in my apron and thanked him  and continued with my day.
After my shift, I pulled the card out and saw the name, Jim Bernau, Founder and President of WVV! I had grown up near the winery and had always imagined it as a place that “fancy” people went to and that I didn’t think he could possibly be interested in having me work there. After a few more visits from himself and his management team, I came in for an interview.  Accepting this job and the journey ahead was one of the best decisions of my life. I have spent 11 incredible years working for Willamette Valley Vineyards and have been able to do so many wonderful things. 
Oh, and it turns out that Jim really does enjoy tomatoes and lemons but all too often, they’re sprayed with chemicals that are harmful to the environment and our bodies so he had opted out,  just in case. 
Working at the Vineyards

What’s a typical work day like for you at Willamette Valley Vineyards?   

A typical work day for me can be anything but typical. I wear and have worn a lot of hats over the course of my career with WVV. I’ve been the off site event coordinator, setting up tasting booths at a festivals and events. I’ve helped to implement and redesign the tour and tasting programs off and on over the years, creating experiences that have delighted guests and left lifelong impressions. I have traveled the country through our National Sales program, bringing the Oregon story on the road, working with our distributors and sales reps, presenting at events and wine dinners in practically every state in the nation and sharing important and interesting stories. I’ve had the greatest pleasure in building lasting relationships with families that enjoy the wines we work so hard at making and helping them to incorporate these into the special events in their lives. 
Don’t assume that available jobs in the vineyards are for men only. Work hard and be kind to everyone around you.
What makes Willamette Valley Vineyards unique?  
What makes Willamette Valley Vineyards unique are the great stories of camaraderie. Who doesn’t love to hear a story about people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, working together and digging in to create something bigger and better than themselves? The history, the people, the wine, the place. All of this just makes my heart sing and happily gets me out of bed everyday to be part of it. The Founder, Jim Bernau, is especially unique. He celebrates the women who work at Willamette Valley Vineyards and continues to create ways that we can succeed, offering support and help along the way so that we can have families and a healthy life outside of work. He celebrates us and has created a safe environment for women in this company to be in leadership roles with a seat at the table, sharing ideas and building us all up, together.
Some wear a lot of hats, Wende wears a lot of wine glasses. Photo: Courtesy of Wende.
Getting Dirty and Enjoying the Perfect Day
What advice would you give to women interested in joining the wine industry? 
Learn everything. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Ask questions. Don’t assume that available jobs in production and the vineyards are for men only. Work hard and be kind to everyone around you. Build your coworkers up! Job shadow so that you can learn what others do. Never say something about someone that you couldn’t say if you were in the same room as that person. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Most importantly, listen. I took a course on listening and it changed my life. 
Describe your perfect day, and what wine you would be drinking!
That is a tough one because I could think of so many perfect days but lets go with this one: My perfect day would be floating, in a kayak down the Willamette River on a beautiful summer day,  with my good friends Mary and Betty, sipping on some Vintage 43 Tualatin Estate Chardonnay made by 82 year old Winemaker, Bill Fuller, founder of Tualatin Estate Vineyards.
(*Disclosure: I was a guest of the media at Willamette Valley Vineyards. Special thanks to Wende for being a “Wine Woman” on this Wednesday in addition to her hospitality during my visit. Please e-mail me at [email protected] if you or someone you know would like to be a candidate for this blog series.)
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