Legalities Halt Wine Ambassador Program
Successful volunteer organization promoted Washington wines for six years
Volunteers paid a nominal, one-time registration fee to participate in the program, which has operated under the auspices of the Washington Wine Commission overseen by what's known as the Cork Board--a volunteer board of directors whose sole mandate was to coordinate the ambassadors program.
But a year ago, one of the wineries that tapped the program for volunteers discovered that Washington state law deems it illegal for for-profit businesses to use volunteer labor. Workers are required to be paid wages, rendering illegal the wine enthusiasts who enjoyed the chance to stoke their enthusiasm for the industry by lending a hand.
"We had no direct oversight," explained Chris Stone, marketing director for the WWC and one of the original participants in the program. "Our legal counsel basically felt that it's not a matter of 'if' but 'when' there is some sort of an accident -- whether it's a volunteer over-serving someone at an event or a volunteer getting hurt while working for a winery. And he felt that legally -- because we sanctioned this group, it's officially a wine commission group -- that someone could potentially come back and sue us as the wine commission, as the sanctioning body." These concerns prompted termination of the program effective June 30.
An alternative to ending the program was to establish a not-for-profit body to operate the program. Stone told Wines & Vines that the wine commission offered its support to the Cork Board in facilitating and funding the transition, but the board turned down the offer.
The Cork Board sent a letter to ambassadors June 11, explaining that setting up a not-for-profit organization to oversee the program would be an expensive undertaking for a program that has, to date, always been run by volunteers. The current core of active "ambassadors" numbered about 300. A new organization would require funding for administrative staff and operating expenses, as well as the legal and insurance costs associated with running the program.
The decision disappointed Stone, who believes a number of funding options could have been investigated, such as charging volunteers an annual fee to participate; charging organizations for sourcing volunteers, and selling t-shirts and other merchandise.
"The wine commission absolutely 100% valued this program and saw it as a critical service to the industry," Stone said. "There's a number of things we think could have been done to let the group survive on its own, as its own separate entity."
A final appreciation party for the volunteer ambassadors is set for June 28 at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash.
Stone said ambassadors who would have volunteered at the Auction of Washington Wines, an annual fundraiser in support of uncompensated care at Seattle Children's Hospital, and the Washington Wine Education Foundation that will take place Aug. 13-15 this year may continue to assist as part of the event's pool of volunteers, but not as part of the program.
However, the success of the program, which has helped heighten awareness of Washington state wines and cultivated talent for the industry (Stone himself started as an industry volunteer), is inspiring Idaho to consider developing a similar program.
Moya Shatz managed events for the WWC prior to joining the Idaho Wine Commission as executive director late last year. While the legal challenges facing the Washington program mean she'll be giving the initiative extra thought before moving ahead, she said the program offers clear benefits to the wine industry. This past weekend, the Idaho Wine Commission hosted Savor Idaho, a celebration of Idaho wines. The event attracted more than 700 people and employed 25 volunteers.
While the liability associated with coordinating a volunteer program isn't something the commission is willing to assume, Shatz would like to develop a plan to facilitate participation from volunteers keen on Idaho wines. "Then we'd have the volunteer pool to help us put on these events without a hitch," she said, referring to Savor Idaho and other initiatives.
Back in Washington, Stone remained hopeful that a new program will emerge. "It wouldn't surprise me if it resurfaces in some form," he said.