Branding the Northwest

By Christina Kelly

It’s been longer than most people can remember since we’ve had two new executives at the helm of both the Oregon Wine Board and the Washington Wine Commission, and it may turn out to be beneficial for the Northwest wine industry.

Nationally, the wine industry has had 18 consecutive years of growth, even inching out small increases during two recessions, according to a recent study by the Wine Market Council. Oregon’s wine industry has nearly doubled to $2.7 billion in almost four years. Washington’s growth is even more impressive, starting out as a $3 billion industry in 2007 to $8.6 billion in 2011.

The stakes are high, and combining efforts between Oregon and Washington makes a whole lot of sense. For a myriad of reasons, there really hasn’t been a comprehensive plan to market Oregon and Washington wines together except for the occasional trip to Hong Kong or New York.

It has not slipped past Tom Danowski, who has been on the job since the first of the year as executive director of the OWB. Danowski has extensive marketing experience and did a stint at Chateau Ste. Michelle for about eight years. In fact, it was Ted Baseler, CEO and president of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, the largest wine producer in Washington (and Oregon) who recommended Danowski for the job. 

With a background in Washington wine, and a short learning curve on Oregon’s wine industry, Danowski is poised to work with Steve Warner, Washington’s new leader of the Washington Wine Commission, who started his job about three months ago. Warner has no wine industry experience, but has an extensive finance and marketing background, most recently from the pharmaceutical industry.

But first, the two executives need to meet — a task that has exasperated them in recent months as demands for the job pull them in different directions. They’ve been emailing and talking on the phone, but are still looking forward to their first face-to-face meeting.

Warner has been on the job a few months less than Danowski and is still traveling the state learning the industry from grapegrowers, winemakers and tourism professionals. Most of his weekends are spent on the road.

“I don’t have any preconceived notions of the industry, so people have been happy to meet and talk about the future of wine, and they are very excited and optimistic,” Warner said. “We want to take advantage of this growth and buzz about the industry. There’s unity in numbers, and both the Washington and Oregon wine industries are growing and having a positive impact on the economy.”

To maximize effectiveness, Danowski says he would like to coordinate with Washington more than ever to present a united front of Northwest wines to the world. 

“You have to grow your region and your brand can draft on that,” Danowski said. “It’s harder to grow internationally with one brand in hand when the trust and esteem of a region hasn’t been fully established. Great labels come from great regions, and that is what we can do for the Northwest.”

Warner is working with his re-organized staff, and they recently completed a five-year plan to promote the industry. He tossed out government job titles recently and realigned more closely to the private sector, switching his position from executive director to president and CEO. He and his staff are looking at growing wine sales first in Washington state, and then nationally and internationally. 

“We’ve determined what we need — what skill sets are necessary, and what changes we want to make,” Warner said. “We are shifting away from a consumer focus to a trade and media focus.”

Only 30 percent of wine sold in Washington is from Washington, Warner says, and those numbers need to grow as consumers realize what’s on the home front is as good as anywhere else. Focusing on the media will spread the word further and quicker.

With a younger and smaller industry, Danowski says Oregon is learning from some of the successful projects produced by Washington, such as Washington Wine Month, Taste Washington and Washington Restaurant Awards. In recent months, “UnWined” was introduced as a way to taste Oregon wines, with 85 wineries and nearly two-dozen restaurants. May was celebrated as Oregon Wine Month, and Danowski says total wine sales increased 6 percent from last year.

Once the two wine leaders meet — hopefully soon — Danowski says he will urge joint events such as international wine marketing, working with national restaurants, exporter and importers, and other events that celebrate the Northwest as an important wine region.

As a consumer, it’s great to hear that each leader wants to do more promotion of wines in the region. California produces more wine than all the other states combined, and big budgets and a flood of product in the market often overshadow Northwest brands. With a genuine effort to market the region, the Northwest can shine brighter in an industry that’s managed to survive and grow in a tepid economy.

Christina Kelly is a longtime journalist covering the wine industry. She lives in the Seattle area and has a regular column on She can be reached at

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