New Ore. wine chief seeks regional cooperation

Tom Danowski's mission is to tell the world about the high quality of the Northwest's grapes and wines.

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WALLA WALLA -- A little last-minute homework momentarily sidetracked the new executive director of the Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Winegrowers Association as he hustled into the lobby of the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center late last week.

Before a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting, Tom Danowski snuck in a few moments for history class with his son over the telephone. The situation was a momentary reversal for Danowski, who had been in Walla Walla on doing research of his own.

Intent on meeting the people behind the state's vineyards and wineries, he came to town for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance's annual meeting and set up an intensive schedule to meet as many growers and winemakers from the area as possible. It's part of Danowski's approach to forging a stronger industry through relationships and reputation.

With five months on the job, he's also noticed a common thread in the conversations he has with those in the industry. Soon after shaking hands with representatives from Oregon's 420 wineries and 850 vineyard owners the tables turn and Danowski is on the receiving end of one question.

"Everyone wants to know what's the strategy," he said.

Sometimes there's even a slight tone of caution followed by a hearty "good luck" when he meets industry folks for the first time.

The quick turnover from his predecessor didn't go unnoticed by those who make up Oregon's $2.7 billion wine industry.

Last December Danowski was chosen from a field of 120 applicants to replace Steve Burns as head of the organization that manages marketing, research and education initiatives to support and grow Oregon's wine industry.

Burns was interim director after the departure of Jeanette Morgan who left the position last June after not quite eight months on the job. Morgan had succeeded longtime director Ted Farthing. But her departure -- which Danowski said was a simple case of not being the right fit -- led the agency to have four directors or interim directors in just a nine-month period.

Danowksi, an Oregon native who graduated from the University of Oregon before a marketing career with companies such as Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Cutter & Buck and Gene Juarez Salons & Spas, is intent on putting skepticism to rest.

"I plan on being here for a long time," he said.

As for his strategy, meeting the industry's movers and shakers is part of it.

The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for quality. His mission is to spread the word about it. So he wants to know as much about the people behind it as possible.

"The easiest and most obvious plan: Let's re-assert quality here," he said.

"The story of the Pacific Northwest wine business almost tells itself."

Danowski is reportedly the first Oregon Wine Board director to attend the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance's annual meeting. The move was impressionable.

The relationship between growers and winemakers in the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon are deeply intertwined. However, marketing efforts have not been.

Almost half of the grapes sourced for the renowned wines of Walla Walla come from vines on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley appellation. However, Danowski acknowledges the greatest concentration of Oregon wineries is in the Willamette Valley, long known as "the cradle of the Oregon wine industry" and renowned for its pinot noir. It has been the greatest focus of marketing efforts.

The wineries -- and for that matter, grapes -- of Umatilla County are caught in an odd position. They're not in Washington where Walla Walla Valley wines are largely marketed by the Washington Wine Commission, and on the opposite side of Oregon from that state's greatest density of wineries and the state's flagship varietal.

"That's a lot to explain to people," Danowski said.

He sees opportunities for more Washington and Oregon partnerships. One such pairing is already on the horizon. The regions will be presented together late this month during Vinexpo, an international wine and spirits exhibition, in Hong Kong. "Oregon and Washington wineries will be presented there to represent the Pacific Northwest," Danowski said.

Working together can also reinforce the message of quality, he continued, moments before departing breakfast for a tour of Milton-Freewater's new custom-farming operation, SeVein Vineyards.

Like it or not, he said, the critics of the world's wine industry carry much weight with consumers. Oregon and Washington wineries proportionally have more 90-plus scores from publications such as "Wine Spectator," than the percentage of wines coming out of California, Italy, Australia or France, Danowski touted.

"There's an exceptional level of quality," he said. "We have some of the world's best wines."

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