Oregon Wine Board's new director tours Walla Walla

By Eric Degerman, Tri-City HeraldMay 18, 2012 

WALLA WALLA -- Tom Danowski was born in Eastern Washington, grew up in Oregon's Willamette Valley and spent his career marketing premium wine, coffee, clothes and luxury experiences.

That blend of backgrounds makes him an ideal fit as new executive director of the Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Wine Growers Association, and this week Danowski worked both ends of the Walla Walla Valley.

"There's no question Walla Walla has been at the forefront of Northwest wine quality for three-and-a-half decades," Danowski said Thursday. "When it comes to selling Northwest wine, quality is the first thing we want to mention because we don't have massive quantities to take to market, so we look to Walla Walla as an example of how it has been done right."

Unlike his predecessors at the Oregon Wine Board, Danowski is a Northwest native. Born in Spokane, he grew up in Beaverton, Ore., and graduated from the University of Oregon.

"I got into consumer products marketing in New York with Kraft Foods for several years, then I went to Coca-Cola, but my introduction to the wine business came from Ste. Michelle," Danowski said.

Danowski, 50, served as director of winery marketing at Chateau Ste. Michelle before taking on roles as chief operating officer of Seattle's Best Coffee, vice president of global marketing for apparel giant Cutter & Buck and chief marketing officer for Gene Juarez Salons & Spas.

On Dec. 6, Danowski assumed the helm of the Oregon wine industry, which counts 420 wineries, 850 vineyard owners and generates $2.7 billion each year to Oregon's economy.

Walla Walla grower Norm McKibben, a founding member of the Oregon Wine Board, was asked by then-interim director Steve Burns to serve on the selection committee. That group waded through 120 candidates to select the successor to Jeanette Morgan. The former California tech industry executive lasted less than eight months as the OWB director, and by the time she left abruptly June 13, more than half of her employees had resigned.

McKibben, also managing partner of Pepper Bridge Winery, said his own research of Danowski included a phone call to Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

"He clearly looked good to me, and Ted liked him, too," McKibben said. "I think he's a really good fit."

On Wednesday, Danowski became the first OWB executive director to attend the annual meeting of Walla Walla Valley growers, McKibben said.

"I think everybody was impressed, and it makes a double impression on us that he's working both sides of the valley," McKibben said.

Nearly half of the grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley come off vines on the Oregon side of the acclaimed American Viticultural Area.

"That allows me to come here and learn about some of the new work being done with Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah and have more tools in the toolbox for us to talk about Oregon," Danowski said. "It's a wonderful complement to what's going on in Southern Oregon as far as advancing the cause of warm-weather viticulture in Oregon."

On Thursday, after breakfast at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, Danowski toured the burgeoning SeVein Vineyards project, a custom-farming operation in Umatilla County and based in Milton-Freewater. The star-studded partnership features Gary and Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellar, Marty Clubb of L'Ecole No. 41 and McKibben. Their list of clients includes Oregon wineries Domaine Serene, Ken Wright Cellars and King Estate.

While Washington and Oregon continue to buy grapes from each other, the two states historically have not embraced the concept of joint marketing to help sell Northwest wines beyond the region. That's always been questioned because Oregon is largely known for world-class pinot noir, while Washington is the home of some of the globe's best cabernet sauvignon.

Danowski said he and Steve Warner, new executive director at the Washington Wine Commission, plan on improving that relationship.

"For example, we'll be traveling to Vinexpo in Hong Kong to present the wines of the Northwest to the world," Danowski said. "Several Oregon wineries will have their table, and several Washington wineries will have theirs right alongside. The grape varieties that we grow are not often in direct conflict, so there's a lot of real compatibility for presenting the wines of the Northwest together, and we're going to find ways to do more of that.

"Wineries on the Oregon and Washington side of the Walla Walla Valley have come together to build the esteem of Walla Walla, and that's a perfect model for us to taking through to Oregon," he added.

It should come as no surprise that Danowski used Ste. Michelle Wine Estates -- which also owns acclaimed Erath Winery in Oregon's Dundee Hills -- as another example of leadership.

"That creates a connective tissue across the states, but it also infuses the ethic that as we build the esteem of the region, each individual label in that region also will benefit," Danowski said. "Ste. Michelle has been practicing that for a long time."

* Eric Degerman, managing editor of Wine Press Northwest, can be reached at 509-582-1404 or edegerman@tricityherald.com.

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