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Uva Furem Winery: A Toast to Living with Integrity and Making an Impact

This week, we're spotlighting the inspiring Jens Hansen of Uva Furem Winery. Uva Furem Winery, launched in 2020, is the only disabled veteran-owned winery registered in the world and won Best Established Business at IMPACT Pitch 2022.

Are you an upcoming or established entrepreneur making a positive impact in your community? IMPACT Pitch brings together growing entrepreneurs from underserved communities to share innovative and impactful ideas. Entry is free and participants will gain access to personal business coaching, powerful new tools for more effective business planning and strategy, and more. Sign up today!

Think Outside the Barrel

Jens Hansen’s entrepreneurial journey is as captivating as the wines he crafts. In addition to an affordable price point and quirky wine names like “Embrace the Suck” and “Dead or Alive”, those who know Jens describe him as “delightfully tacky and unrefined”.  The co-founder of Uva Furem Winery and a retired veteran served 23 years in the Air Force before landing in the world of winemaking. Uva Furem, which translates to “Grape Smuggler”, is a cheeky nickname Jens earned during his time serving. The artistic, Air Force-themed labels remain a humble reminder of his military background and how wine has always been a passion and pillar throughout his life.  

Though he has retired from piloting and planted roots in Maple Valley, Jens says his life has always been mission-driven. For Jens, that mission is to live a life of integrity and make an impact. For Uva Furem, the mission is to make great wine. “We’re the only disabled veteran-owned winery registered in the world. We hope to be a bit of an inspiration to other veterans as so many leave service and struggle to find a new career in their civilian life.” 

Compassion in Action 

In the 23 years Jens spent as a special operations helicopter pilot, he was deployed to dozens of countries. His humanitarian and peacekeeping missions led him to crises in countries like Kosovo and Bosnia, as well as missions in the United States such as hurricane relief in Louisiana. In the last few years, Jens’ mission to live a compassionate life extended to providing critically needed sanitary products to local hospitals and first responders. Jens said he’s been this way his entire life. If he sees a need, he’s the first one to volunteer. “For nearly 30 years, I was deployed to countries around the world. Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, Libya, and a few undisclosed locations. Nothing compares to making an impact and saving a life.”  

Heroics weren’t the only thing Jens learned while abroad. It was during his first initial peacekeeping missions in Northern and Southern Italy that first sparked his interest in winemaking. “In Italy, they say you don’t eat without drink. This old mentor of mine invited me back to their house and they showed me all these different wines and that every little town has its own winemaker. He taught me how and I just fell in love with wine.” Between flying food and medical supplies to war-affected countries, Jens built strong camaraderie with support crews and winemakers in iconic wine-producing regions such as Spain, France, Portugal, and Napa, California. As he honed his skills in winemaking, Jens began a new mission: to create “a wine worthy of a toast with my fellow aviators and friends.”  

From Green Suit to Grapevines 

Unfortunately, after more than two decades of intense flying, Jens was medically retired, and he returned to his home state of Washington. A 2021 report from the Interagency Veterans Advisory Council states roughly 31% of the federal workforce is comprised of veterans. Jens refers to the phenomena as ‘green suits to brown suits’ which means Air Force veterans exchange their green flight suits for government ‘brown suits’ after they retire. “I said to myself ‘I gave nearly 24 years to my country. I loved it, but I don’t want to serve again’. My dad had been in construction and building houses. I realized I wanted to make something with my hands.”  

Jens attended Golden Gate University to earn his master's degree in IT Management. He knew the world of systems and software wasn’t the right path, but there was one mission he was finally able to embark on—winemaking. Jens was able to use his GI Bill to attend the Northwest Wine Academy’s Wine Production (Enology) program which opened the door to an array of opportunities. “I picked up every internship or opportunity I could, it didn’t matter if I was just sweeping floors. Because it’s not just sweeping, it’s learning the lingo, working with the equipment, building those relationships and experience.” 

Follow Your Nose 

IP 2022 Finalist UVA Furem Winery

Jens’ momentum gained traction when he was able to secure an apprenticeship as a cellar assistant. He began dabbling with his own production and laying plans for the future. "Ambition's one thing, but I knew I had to think about the cost. Location. Taxes. Last year, Uva Furem spent $200,000 on grapes and we still have to grow, harvest, age, and bottle the wine. I’m not going to see a return on that for three years.” 

After graduating, Jens spent three years working at Sparkman Cellars. He recruited his brother and fellow Air Force veteran and software engineer TJ to join him on this new venture. The two purchased a mountainside property in Maple Valley which sprouted into Uva Furem’s wine production facility. “There was a big shift towards handcrafted and small batch products. There was definitely a market for veterans who were tired of drinking wines made in swimming pools. They wanted something authentic and unique.” 

A Cork in the Road 

In 2020, Jens and TJ were finally ready to launch Uva Furem Winery. They made major headlines when they became the 1,000th bonded winery in Washington State earning media coverage and notoriety across the wine world. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The pandemic had closed down much of the country. Including the clubs and bases where Jens had planned to provide his new wine. “I had storage space on the military base and had plans to sell at the officers’ clubs when COVID hit. I thought I have hundreds of gallons of wine—what do I do now?” 

As the pandemic caused devastation across the globe, Jens’ natural humanitarian instincts kicked in. He wanted to save lives and serve communities. And as always, Jens saw a need he could fulfill with the extra product he had. “I heard there was a shortage of hand sanitizer for hospitals and first responders. People were hoarding and reselling it for thousands of dollars. It was terrible. When wine goes bad, you take it to a distiller, and they create brandy. It’s just alcohol, and I thought, this is how I make an impact.” 

A Helping Hand 

Hand Sanitizer by Scratch Distillery

Jens reached out to Scratch Distillery who he had previously worked with to craft port and fortified wine. The owner had experience creating hand sanitizer and wanted to provide aid to the local hospitals. Unfortunately, pure alcohol had skyrocketed in price due to the pandemic. Jens offered the product he had on hand and volunteered to transport the supplies. Just like his days in the military, Jens embarked on another rescue mission. 

Local wineries and breweries were more than happy to donate, including a longtime friend at Elysian Brewing who offered 4,000 gallons of IPA. As word spread, Jens was contacted by King 5 News and Uva Furem was featured in the 5 o’clock news. That weekend, more than 30 customers stopped by the tasting room, inspired by Jens’ story. “When you live with integrity, you make your own luck. It was lucky that I had extra products and a great network of people. I’m grateful that just being a good person, making an impact, and doing the right thing is what brought Uva Furem into the spotlight.”  

Trellising Towards Success 

With the additional media coverage and a growing fan base, Jens knew it was time to scale. He wasn’t sure where to start, and that’s when he heard about Business Impact NW's annual IMPACT Pitch competition. Jens gained access to an exclusive network of resources, including one-on-one mentorship from a dedicated business coach. Through the pitch process, Jens learned the tools he needed to strengthen his business plans and begin streamlining. “You learn quickly how to craft an elevator pitch and present yourself in a way that makes sense to investors and customers. They show you the best ways to get your finances in line and I’ve shared all that knowledge with other vets. In the tasting room, I use my elevator pitch every day!” 

After making it to the 2nd round, Jens had built up confidence and was motivated to enter the next year. Drawing on the knowledge he gained during IMPACT Pitch, Jens brought in a bookkeeper to help with Uva Furem’s finances and set up a point-of-sale system. “Not everyone wants to update but knowing our finances made it easier when I came back. Ask yourself, how much is my time worth and what am I taking away from?” In 2021, Uva Furem entered the competition again and with the support of his community and the guidance of Business Impact NW—Uva Furem won the grand prize for Best Established Business.  

A Vintage Year 

Since winning IMPACT Pitch, customers from around the world and across generations have heard his story and stopped by for a tasting. Uva Furem is focusing on streamlining and strengthening partnerships with local vineyards to ensure they can maintain their price point. “My mom loves our wine. A lot of millennials are interested, which is pretty rare for that generation. I don’t need Uva Furem to be a billion-dollar business. I'm trying to make people aware that wine is amazing. Good quality wine can be affordable, and you can still make a profit selling a $20 bottle.” 

Uva Furem has even earned more accolades, but success hasn’t changed Jens. He continues to live with integrity and make great wines worthy of a toast. “You’ve heard the story: when Napoleon would lose wars, he doubled wine rations and the soldiers started winning. That’s the power of a great wine. I’m no general but I’ve made an impact by crafting a wine that brings people together to share camaraderie. That’s always been the mission. After everything that’s happened this year, I feel like we’re fulfilling the mission in every glass.” 

 

About the author

Janelle is a storyteller through and through. She was raised in a family of entrepreneurs who owned and managed a series of small businesses, including a Hawaiian restaurant, a video store, and several real estate properties. Growing up in a low-income community but attending schools as a minority in affluent areas, she struggled with the inequities she faced each day.

Janelle graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, specializing in screenwriting and playwriting. She has worked for a number of nonprofits and has remained steadfast in her commitment to using her craft to support the missions of each organization, and uplift underserved communities throughout the Bay Area.

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