Steve Warner

Steve Warner

In the worldwide winemaking community, Washington State’s wine industry is the 187-year-old new kid on the block.

Although our state’s first wine grapes were planted in 1825, we’re still considered a teenager in the global marketplace. Our superior wines consistently outperform other top wine-producing regions throughout the globe, yet many still view us as the up-and-comer. Step across international borders, and you’ll also find people who confuse our land with the U.S. president’s home.

This dichotomy between who we are and how people perceive us challenges the Washington Wine Commission, along with winemakers and growers, to continually show the world our true colors beyond red and white.

Since joining the commission as its president in March 2012, I have witnessed the Washington State wine industry continue to build upon the momentum it has gained in proclaiming its identity over the last decade. Since 2005, we’ve blossomed from 360 wineries to nearly 750, and we’re still in our growth spurt. In October, we added our 13th American Viticultural Area, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley. With new ­vintners and wines joining our family vine, we represent an intriguing balance of old and new—not unlike the unique appeal of our wines.

Inspired by these trends, the commission, too, is evolving. During 2012, the year of our 25th anniversary, the commission cultivated a team of seasoned staff and talented newcomers who together are carrying out an ambitious strategic marketing plan for Washington State wineries and grape growers. Whereas consumers were once our primary audience, our new five-year plan targets trade and media with innovative campaigns and events that build brand awareness and stimulate demand for Washington State wine.

These are results-driven objectives with specific targets. For example, one of our goals is to outpace national growth of wine sales, achieving 15.8 million cases sold by 2017.

The investments we make in marketing, education, and research impact the long-term vitality of our state’s economy, as well as our wineries. An economic impact study released last spring values the ­Washington State wine industry at $8.6 billion, an impressive leap from $3 ­billion in 2006. The industry provides nearly 28,000 full-time jobs in our state.

Our communications and marketing teams are reaching out to those who sell wine, those who can best tell our story, and those who sway purchase decisions. We weigh a variety of criteria when selecting target markets to help ensure success, and, whenever possible, we bring important people to our state. Our campaigns reach from ­Washington State vineyards to Washington, D.C., cider-producing apple orchards to the Big Apple, Seattle to Shanghai, and beyond. Wherever influential trade and media are present, Washington wine will be there, too.

Our strategic plan includes three additional ­pillars that aim to drive industry growth: supporting education and cutting-edge research, fostering wine tourism development, and strengthening industry unity.

All of the world’s great wine regions—Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, and even California—have ­succeeded with the support of a strong research ­university. In 2011, the commission board pledged $7.4 million over ten years to create the Washington State University Wine Science Center. The facility will educate the next generation of Washington winemakers and provide us with a better understanding of the viticulture characteristics and ­challenges that are unique to our climate. Research will drive advancements to ensure Washington wines remain economically competitive, environmentally ­sustainable, and of distinct, premium quality.


Funding for these marketing and education ­programs comes from assessments based on grape and wine sales. The commission collects 8 cents per gallon (or 1.6 cents per bottle) of wine sold and $12 per ton of grapes. Of this, 2 cents per gallon (0.04 cents per bottle) of wine and $2 per ton of grapes support the Wine ­Science Center.

The commission also receives U.S. ­Department of Agriculture grants that fund our ­international campaigns.

Events such as Taste Washington that have proven successful in raising the notoriety for ­Washington wine will continue to be a part of our outreach. Last year, the commission launched a new partnership with Seattle’s Convention and ­Visitors Bureau to organize and ­promote Taste Washington. Expanded to two days, the Seattle event attracted 400 trade attendees, a 25 percent increase from 2011. Ticket sales to consumers increased by 15 percent to more than 4,000. We will continue to leverage the bureau’s support through 2013 with ­collaborative events planned for Seattle, New York, San Francisco, and ­Portland, Oregon.

Our five-year-old Road Trip Washington Wine program brought 80 trade professionals to our vineyards during the 2011 and 2012 harvests. Attendees repeatedly rated the program as well organized and insightful. “I have a completely new appreciation for the wines and the vintage quality,” said one California merchant.

Ads for winners

After ten years of honoring restaurants, the ­Washington State Wine Awards ceremony was expanded last month to shine a spotlight on deserving nominees from retail, tourism, distributor, and wholesaler sectors. Winners will be recognized in a series of ads that will promote not only their businesses and organizations, but help raise the profile of Washington State as a ­destination for appreciators of fine wine and cuisine.

The commission is also taking a proactive role to help build Washington State wine’s national reputation by providing a leading voice for the industry and supporting alignment among its distinctive regions. Limited awareness of the diversity of wines produced in Washington makes it challenging for smaller producers and newer wineries to sell outside the state. Achieving a coherent image is crucial toward building a national reputation for Washington State as the source for ­premium wine at a variety of price levels.

The perception that Washington State is coming of age as a wine-producing region creates exciting opportunities to be discovered and rediscovered to a world thirsty for high-quality wine. The commission is taking the steps now to ensure that resources are directed to those areas where the industry still has growing pains,  those where we can continue to make a debut, and those that will propel us further toward being internationally recognized as a well-rounded, respected leader in the marketplace. Our future looks bright.