By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
Right from the get go, it was a lively curiosity grounded in unpretentiousness that led Ryan Harms to the Oregon terroir and marked his ascent as CEO of one of the biggest brands in the state.
Harms founded Union Wine Co., located in Tualatin, OR in 2005, based in part on his belief that the “pomp and circumstance” of wine sets up barriers to consumer acquisition and enjoyment.
“I go to social events and I see people drinking beer and nobody looks uncomfortable, nobody is losing their minds and getting all geeky about it,” Harms observes. “We need that. The wine industry needs a little ‘beerification’ of wine.”
It’s that attitude, embodied by Harms and his entire Union Wine Co. staff that created their highly successful Underwood brand, characterized primarily by wines in a can. Sales of the cans reportedly grew by a whopping 52 percent last year (Beverage Industry, July 2018).
Harms came into the wine industry via a college degree in environmental science and a keen interest in organic chemistry, which he had developed as a pre-med student in upstate New York in the 1990’s.
But something about the wine on the table at his then-girlfriend’s family dinner table piqued Harm’s interest and wouldn’t let go.
“When I start getting into things, I dive deep,” he acknowledges.
That dive took him to a website for Rex Hill Winery in Oregon, where he discovered the email address of winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash. Harms began peppering her with detailed questions about how the Oregon wine industry worked.
“To get rid of me, she suggested I come out and work a harvest,” he laughs. “So I did.”
The harvest stint marked Harm’s beginning in a series of jobs that eventually led to becoming an assistant winemaker and winemaker at several prestigious Oregon wineries.
“I knew at some point I wanted to do my own thing,” Harms reports. “My work provided opportunities to travel, and everywhere I went, the feedback I got was always about expensive Oregon Pinot Noir – always. I realized that within certain price segments, Oregon was not represented.”
Opportunity knocked when Harms learned that the Kings Ridge label through Rex Hill was going to be what he called “mothballed.” He acquired the brand as well as the inventory and distribution contacts, and Union Wine Co. was born.
As sales developed and the company grew, Union Wine Co. came out with three distinct brands featuring Oregon varieties: Kings Ridge, Alchemist and Underwood. The concept, harboring back to Harm’s belief that wines should be fun and accessible without sacrificing quality, took some time to manifest into the wildly successful Underwood canned format.
Harms said it was a marketing brainstorming session with staff around a 2013 food and wine event that led to idea of “disrupting” the occasion in a playful way that could get their brand noticed. The team came up with the notion of wine in cans, (which Harms had already been inspired by through Francis Ford Coppola’s Sofia brand and Colorado’s The Infinite Monkey Theorem).
It turned into an overnight sensation.
“It was a marketing activation, but the response we had … we rushed forward to the TTB to figure out how do we get still wine into cans?” Harms recalls. “It was a crazy time, but things fell into place.”
According to Harms, it’s not just the Underwood formatting that has created such success, it’s the sense of wine not being “fussy,” of being a beverage you can drink “with your pinkie down.”
“In a can, you can’t swish it around, you can’t stick your nose in it,” Harms points out. “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously. Our wines are great on their own, but if you want to mix it with spices or fruit to make a sangria, that’s great too.”
In their November 2018 edition, Forbes magazine recommended Underwood’s sparkling wine (sealed with a bottle cap) as one of their favorites for Thanksgiving dinner.
Delish magazine selected Underwood in a November 2018 article on the best canned wines to bring to holiday parties.
Wine Enthusiast nominated Ryan Harms as “Innovator of the Year” for 2018 – and the list goes on.
What is it about this guy and this company that resonates so effectively?
Harms will tell you his keys to success are surrounding himself with “brilliant and amazing people.”
“As we’ve grown and our reputation expands, it helps to get more talented folks to want to come and work here,” Harms attests. “I continue to invest in my people … create flexibility for them, like a paid sabbatical program and paid parental leave… there’s more to life than just a job.”
Some of those same people benefitting from the culture at Union Wine Co. give Harms the credit.
“Ryan is a natural leader and a tireless worker,” says JP Caldcleugh, Union Wine Co.’s Director of Winemaking. “He allows his employees to work autonomously, acting as a leader that’s there to help guide the process without micromanaging it. He’s someone who is always asking why and questioning everything. He finds creative solutions to problems and is always looking to other industries to try to understand if there’s a practical lesson that may be applied.”
Eric Harms, Union Wine Co.’s Director of Finance & Accounting – and Ryan Harm’s younger brother – puts it this way.
“The guy is super driven and passionate about the Oregon wine industry. Ryan has demonstrated an ability to consistently identify opportunities in the wine space and lead the innovation efforts to bring product and brands to market. He is effective because he is willing to challenge the status quo, take risks and hire really good people.”