The Washington Wine Institute, the industry’s advocacy arm, has undergone major changes in the last few months. The institute is now administered separately from the Washington Wine Commission, a new executive director has been hired, and the institute’s headquarters have been moved from Seattle to Olympia.

The changes were prompted by dramatic growth in the state’s wine industry, said Marty Clubb, owner of L’Ecole No. 41 winery in Walla Walla and president of the Washington Wine Institute board. In 1984, when the institute was formed, there were fewer than 20 wineries in Washington State. Today, there are more than 500, with more expected.

"We are excited about the organizational changes and know that they will help the Washington Wine Institute to keep pace with the needs of an evolving Washington wine industry," Clubb said.

For more than two decades, the institute was administered through the Washington Wine Commission, and the commission’s executive director oversaw both organizations. As the industry matured, the regulatory and legislative issues facing the industry become more complicated, said Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission in Seattle. The time appeared right to draw a clear distinction between the commission, whose goal is to build awareness of Washington wines, and the institute, whose mission is to address issues affecting the industry, she said.

Discussions about the institute changes began early last summer, Clubb said. After consulting with the Wine Commission board and other involved parties, the institute board announced the changes last fall. The transition began around September 1, 2007, he said.

The separation will help clarify the institute’s role, Clubb said. Each grower and winemaker in the state pays mandatory assessments to the commission, but the institute is a voluntary, not-for-profit, dues-funded organization of wine producers, with membership categories for grape growers and wine associations.

Clubb said that many in the industry assumed they were members of the institute because they paid assessments to the commission. In reality, only about 150 wineries in terms of brands are dues-paying institute members, although members represent about 95 percent of the state’s wine production. That would indicate that many of the state’s smaller wineries have not joined the institute.

Clubb, who also serves as a state director on the board of Wine America, the –Washington, D.C.-based national wine industry advocacy organization, said other –industry organizations face the same kind of membership challenges. Clubb feels certain that as more winery owners understand the Washington Wine Institute’s role and the importance of the issues facing the industry, more will get on board.

As the industry changes, laws governing how wine is produced, distributed, and sold are also changing, said Keith Love, vice president for communications and corporate affairs for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, headquartered in Woodinville, and vice president of the Washington Wine Institute. The institute’s changes are designed to ensure the industry’s voice will be heard in Olympia when lawmakers consider issues that affect the wine industry, Love said.

"The Washington Wine Institute keeps track of all the legislative and legal changes facing our industry, and right now, the ground is shifting rapidly in our state," Love said. "Our board has been broadened to make sure that –wineries of all sizes have a voice."

Jean Leonard, a veteran Olympia lobbyist, has taken the reins of the Washington Wine Institute. Leonard has represented the wine industry since 1998 and is highly respected in Olympia, Clubb said.

Leonard said she is pleased to serve as the Wine Institute’s executive director. "WWI is the voice on legislative and regulatory issues affecting the wine industry in our state. This transition in management comes at a crucial time. The explosive growth our industry has experienced in recent years has only increased the range and complexity of legislative and regulatory issues that affect Washington wineries." In recent years, the institute has worked to shape several bills in Olympia, some in response to court rulings and many in an effort to help Washington wineries to get their wines to customers more easily. The institute has also worked to help defeat increases in wine taxes that could have hurt the industry.

The institute acts as a liaison to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, Clubb said. The organization hopes to work with the Liquor Control Board to help the agency create a better business environment for the wine industry to operate in. That moves discussions away from a confrontational approach to a more cooperative one, he said.

Clubb said the institute’s nine-member board is engaged and excited about the organization’s potential.

"We feel like we’re accomplishing something," Clubb said. "There are a lot of issues on the table, but state lawmakers and policymakers have been very supportive of the industry."