Exit Interview

Departing Oregon Wine Board President Tom Danowski shares his thoughts on State's wine industry

##Image courtesy of the Oregon Wine Board

By Sarah Murdoch

Tom Danowski is a Northwest native with a career that includes marketing for Kraft Foods in New York, Coca-Cola and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington. He has served as president of the Oregon Wine Board since 2011. The organization is the state’s commission for wine marketing, research, communications and education. It was carved out of Oregon’s Department of Agriculture by an act of the legislature in 2003 and is funded primarily by taxes on grape growers and wine producers.

Thoughts about where Oregon wine has been over the past 12 years, and where it’s headed, seen through Tom Danowski’s eyes.

Hopefully, you’re lucky enough to be sipping a glass of Oregon wine while reading this, and luckier still tasting it in one of our hundreds of wineries. The quality of wine in your glass has caught the attention of critics, wine lovers and somms around the world. In fact, Oregon wines continually capture around 7 percent of the highest honors when rated among the best in the world in Top 100 guides including Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and others. Yet, we make far less than 1 percent of the world’s wine.

In short, Oregon wine punches well above its weight. Under the leadership of Danowski, outgoing president of the Oregon Wine Board who’s held the job for the last 12 years, accolades for the state’s growers and winemakers are in no short supply. As the late fine wine reviewer Josh Raynolds wrote in Vinous in 2022:

“This is truly a golden age for high-quality Pinot Noirs from across Oregon. One could convincingly argue that the last six vintages, from 2014 through 2019, produced many of the greatest wines to ever emerge from the state.”

Rob McMillan, industry analyst said in 2022: “…Oregon is the best thing happening in the wine business,” he said. “I think one thing that’s really valuable for Oregon is the Oregon Wine Board. It’s done a tremendous job, people in the Oregon Wine Board, of promoting Oregon and I think you would all agree when you see the results that you’ve all benefited from.”

And superstar LeBron James famously told Yahoo Sports: “Oregon Pinot is some of the greatest wine you can find in America, and maybe not even America, but the world.”

These accolades– and more– were earned during Danowski’s term as president of the Oregon Wine Board, commonly known as OWB. Oregon grew from 463 wineries to over a thousand during his tenure. Over the same span, grape tonnage tripled and the statewide economic impact of the wine industry escalated from $2.7B to $8B. I was able to sit down with him and ask about the past present and future of Oregon wine, but first, some background:

What does the future for a state wine board in a growing industry like Oregon wine look like as it rounds the corner toward 30?

The next chapter in Oregon’s wine story will demand agility, strategic vision and continued focus on grape and wine quality.

In the global winescape, Oregon is still a “region of discovery.” By contrast, California makes about 90 percent of U.S. wine. But Oregon is an upstart that has attracted far more than its share of critical recognition and attention from wine business executives. It’s difficult to think of any other winegrowing region, anywhere, that is as well positioned for the future as Oregon.

Now starting its third decade, the Wine Board will probably continue to invest in research that supports climate adaptations and wine quality. OWB will also rely on new media to widely communicate Oregon’s sustainable farming, production and business advantages. The organization will need to capture and deliver sharper, more insightful market intelligence to wine business owners, guaranteeing the loyalty of more discerning consumers and ensuring their wines are within an arm’s reach of desire.

Got any favorite up-and-coming wine regions in Oregon?

Every wine-growing corner of our state offers a dimension that makes it an up-and-comer. For example, in the Applegate Valley and The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, some of our country’s most sensational Rhone-style wines are being produced. In Central Oregon, hybrid varieties are gaining in popularity. And in the Columbia Gorge, Willamette and Umpqua Valleys, more acres of Chardonnay and Gamay Noir are in production.

If you could hand a note to your successor at OWB, what would it say?

“You have just taken one of the best wine jobs anywhere in the world. Every wine grape would grow here if it could.”

Nielsen average retail price for a bottle of Oregon wine is $18, $12.71 for bottle of California wine and $11.64 for Washington bottle of wine. Is it good or bad that Oregon wine is so expensive?

Maybe something like: It’s not really good or bad, it just is. But we feel it’s more of a positive because it demonstrates the strong lure of our grape juice.

Pricing and demand for any wine are reflections of market conditions and value perceptions. The cost of farming in Oregon is sometimes a little higher than in neighboring states. Much of that disparity is due to the reliance on skilled vineyard professionals and the dozens of touches they put on vines over the course of a growing season. Handcrafted, small-batch wines are still the standard– mechanization is comparatively limited. However, efficient technologies are used in Oregon and will continue to be more widely adopted as growers balance production efficiencies with our state’s global reputation for quality.

So slightly higher prices help ensure Oregon grape producers earn a fair return on their investment.

It’s interesting to note that our latest annual study of vineyard and wine industry trends point to the highest demand ever for Oregon grapes from out-of-state winemakers. And while Oregon is not a low-cost producer, our bottle prices has not slowed sales. The latest consumer sales data show us that Oregon’s volume growth is trending at a level three times that of our neighboring states. Wine buyers recognize value and quality. Looking through that lens, and considering acclaim from critics, Oregon wines are far from overpriced.

What do you think the perception of Oregon wine is across the country and how has it changed in the past decade?

Perceptions in fine wine change more slowly than in other consumer product categories. A wine brand is linked to its appellation and no regional identity of any enduring importance has ever been built by a single wine or winery.

Oregon wines were already very highly esteemed when I joined the OWB a dozen years ago. Previously, while working at Ste. Michelle, I admired the tenacious focus Oregon vintners placed on extraordinary Pinot Noir. Their focus was recognized and cemented by globally recognized wine experts including the Drouhin, Jadot, Jackson, Coppolla and Foley families.

I’m lucky to have been a caretaker of Oregon’s wine reputation and am confident I‘ll pass that baton to someone who will continue to grow and nurture it.

View from 20,000 feet above: What can you say about Oregon wine for the next five or 10 years?

As the founders who shaped Oregon wine since the 1960s continue to yield the limelight, our state will confront a “makers vs. takers” dilemma others have faced. New voices and visions for the future will find expression. In the decade ahead, growers and winemakers will continue to refine and redefine Oregon.
Since Oregon has a modest market share position, it’s unlikely to shove higher-volume producing regions out of the way and off wine lists. Every stakeholder here has an interest in preserving Oregon’s quality legacy and in embracing that underdog status as a virtue. For example, while we have achieved Oregon’s highest level of market penetration in the past few years, we continue to hear from consumers that the wines can be difficult to find or that Oregon wines are rarely recommended where they shop. Family-owned Oregon businesses do not have the production quantities or significant influence with large-scale distributors that deliver wines that last mile to restaurants, resorts or retailers.

Scarcity can, in some ways, work to our advantage with retailer recognition programs that tell the market, “This shop or restaurant really knows its wines.” American Express is an example. AmEx is a premium-priced offering in its category and for years it has told consumers (and retailers) that the cards are not for everyone and are not accepted everywhere because…”Membership Has Its Privileges.”

What developments in Oregon wine have you most excited for future generations of winemakers and wine drinkers?

For consumers of Oregon wine, I know winemakers will continue to extend the range of offerings. More acreage will be devoted to new grape varieties and winemakers crafting new brands. No doubt, innovations will lead to achieving price points that encourage more people to try the wines, thereby creating more on-ramps for Oregon wine drinkers.

I’ve often said, “While not everyone drinks Oregon wine yet, everyone eats food.” We should encourage smart promotion, alliances and collaborations with chefs and artisan farmers. Doing so will expand Oregon’s fan base by introducing the culinary pairings that excite the increasing number of infrequent and marginal wine consumers.

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