Home Wine Business Editorial Wine’s Most inspiring People 2024: Aaron Lieberman — Walking the Wine Walk...

Wine’s Most inspiring People 2024: Aaron Lieberman — Walking the Wine Walk for Oregon’s LGBTQ+ Community

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By Kathleen Willcox

 

As any CEO (or parent) worth their salt knows, going out and doing the thing — instead of pontificating about the importance of going out and doing the thing — is the best way to inspire others to go out and do the thing. 

Aaron Lieberman lives and works by that credo. It’s what’s landed him on Wine Industry Advisor’s 2024 list of Most Inspiring People.

“Aaron is a quiet, driving force in Oregon’s wine business,” says wine consultant and Wine Industry Advisor scribe Carl Giavanti. “He is quick to give credit to others in the industry and on his team, while deserving much [of it] himself. His leadership and altruistic approach to nonprofits, diversity and volunteerism are unparalleled.”

Lieberman, the vintner at Iris Vineyards in Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley, arrived at wine via a circuitous path that was defined by the open-handed, humble generosity Giavanti highlights. 

An Eye-Opening Experience

Born and raised in Northern and central California, Lieberman was always fascinated by the natural world but didn’t really think about how wine played into that until 1990, when he began studying soil science at Oregon State University. 

“I actually went to school to become a veterinarian,” Lieberman recalls. “I chose animal science as my major. But the ag degree required a class in soil science, and I became fascinated. By junior year, I changed my major to soil science. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I did summer internships working in the forest service. When I graduated, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Guatemala in 1993.”

Lieberman’s coworkers on a silo project in Guatemala

He spent almost three years in the Central American country and emerged transformed.

“It was an incredible time,” Lieberman says. “I had an epiphany about the transformative power of volunteerism and working in the community.”

Lieberman’s Peace Corps efforts focused on projects involving high-elevation subsistence farming, working with farmers on how to improve crop yields without chemicals — primarily through seed selection. The work itself was centering, but getting to know the people and paying witness to their lives was a game-changer.

“I realized that my perspective on life outside of the United States was completely incorrect,” Lieberman says. 

Coming Full Circle

When it was time to return to the states, Lieberman brought his new perspective and Spanish speaking skills to the world of viticulture, first at Amity Vineyards, then at a vineyard management company in the Dundee Hills. The nature of his work in the vineyards entailed collaboration with a large migrant community, so his vocation and avocation naturally meshed. 

“I became very involved in the migrant community, which was mostly Mexican,” Lieberman says. “Having the ability to speak Spanish, I had the pleasure of becoming friends with many of my coworkers and their families and friends. Through this connection, I went on to teach a Spanish language section of a course at Chemeketa Community College, called Agricultural Supervisor Training.” 

Lieberman eventually jumped to the winemaking side of the industry, starting at DePonte Cellars in 2001 as a harvest intern, and then working under David O’Reilly at Owen Roe Winery as assistant winemaker. He became the winemaker at Iris Vineyards in 2008.

Working Toward Inclusion + Diversity 

In the vineyards and in the cellar, Lieberman, who is himself a member of the LGBTQ+ community, has quietly worked toward and advocated for a more diverse and inclusive space. Today, he is a member of the Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion (DEBI) task force for the Willamette Valley Wineries Association (WVWA). Formed in 2019, the stated goal of the DEBI task force is to advocate for belonging through the creation of equitable opportunities for WVWA members, trade and consumer audiences. 

Lieberman also sits on the board of Oregon Pinot Camp, which brings influential restaurant and retail wine buyers every year for a range of educational and social events designed to connect attendees to the authenticity of Oregon’s terroir. A mainstay of Pinot Camp — and one of the reasons Lieberman is so personally passionate about it — is its commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

“At Pinot Camp, we actively recruit a diverse group of campers,” he notes. “My partner is African-American and I see, unfortunately, microaggressions and racism directed toward him. It’s not something that can be taken lightly.”

Lieberman notes that the importance of widespread social inclusion has felt increasingly urgent to him in recent years. 

“From my perspective, and that of many other members of the community, a lot of progress was made through the years,” Lieberman says. “But a few years ago, we began to lose ground in courts, legislatures and public opinion. I am hopeful that my involvement in the DEBI Council of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association will help raise awareness among industry members and wine consumers of the importance of welcoming LGBTQ people to the wine industry table.”

Lieberman leads the way for the rest of us by walking the walk. His commitment to creating an inclusive wine community stirs admiration and draws praise from those around him.

“Aaron is an active and positive contributor to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association through his positions on the Willamette Valley Wineries Association Board of Directors, Oregon Pinot Camp Steering Committee and the Willamette Valley Wineries Association’s Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion Council,” says Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of Willamette Valley Wineries Association and Willamette Valley Wine Foundation. “He is a tireless champion for the Willamette Valley wine community through these board and committee positions.”

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Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox

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