Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance executive director resigns

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WALLA WALLA - The executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance abruptly resigned her post Tuesday after more than four years on the job.

Elizabeth Martin-Calder, who left a job as senior manager of marketing and communication at the Portland Art Museum to lead the wine alliance in early 2006, announced her departure effective immediately, according to an announcement today from the wine alliance.

Martin-Calder is unlisted and could not be reached for comment this morning.

She was the third executive director of the 9-year-old agency that serves as a voice for the Valley's wine making and growing industries.

Under her leadership, the organization increased its membership, created strategic alliances inside and outside the wine community, launched a new website and built trade events across the country, the announcement said.

Board Chairman Devin Stinger said her leadership of the homegrown organization came at a critical time.

"Rapid growth in the number of wineries and vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley was occurring and Elizabeth worked diligently to define our strategic priorities, expand collaboration and to promote and define the image of Walla Walla wine," Stinger said in a prepared statement. "We wish her well in her new endeavor."

Stinger declined to comment further on her departure this morning.

He said he is serving as interim executive director while a search for her successor takes place. Shontina Gianotti is staffing the office.

Stinger, owner of Adamant Cellars, said the board will likely form a search committee over the next week. The new executive director will join the membership-driven organization at an equally critical time: On the heels of a recession that has affected wine sales across the country and a time when Walla Walla has a great influence in Washington's wine industry.

The $60,000-$80,000-a-year job includes promotion and marketing of the Walla Walla Valley and to serve as a liaison with other Washington wine entities, including the Washington Wine Commission, Stinger said. Since the operation is funded primarily through the memberships and is frugal with resources, the right candidate must also be responsible for office and project management.

The operation typically includes an executive director and one other full-time staff member. Contract employees assist with events and other help when necessary, Stinger said.

He said the position comes at an exciting time as Walla Walla continues to build its global reputation for wine. But the job is not without challenges.

The organization represents all wineries from boutique operations that produce a couple hundred cases a year to those that turn out as much as 250,000 cases. Their needs vary, Stinger said. But they all must have a voice.

"Everybody needs to feel like they're being heard and have the wine alliance as an important part of the marketing plan," he said.

He said the organization must also continue to grow. Of the more than 100 wineries in the Valley, 71 are members. The organization also represents about a dozen growers. Stinger said it's important to reach the nonmember wineries and learn about how the organization can serve as a worthwhile benefit to those who haven't joined.

"In my opinion, (the organization) is ready to grow," he said. "We need to address the next steps here in the sense that this whole region is growing and has some maturity to it. We need to be a professional, driven organization that works with all the members and addresses the needs of all the wineries in the Valley."

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