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Oregon Wine Board's New Leader Speaks Up

Danowski brings marketing and business skills to state's wine industry

by Peter Mitham
Alternative text
Tom Danowski took over leadership of the Oregon Board on Monday.
Portland, Ore.—The resignation of tech industry veteran Jeanette Morgan as executive director of the Oregon Wine Board on June 16—after just eight months in the role—left many people wondering what was next for the organization. Oregon’s wine industry generates more than $2.7 billion of economic activity annually in the state, and more than 13,500 wine-related jobs, and has been trying to raise its national profile in order to expand its market opportunities.

Steve Burns, former executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, and Stacie Jacob, recently departed from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, worked with the Oregon Wine Board while Benchmark Consulting of Napa coordinated the search for Morgan’s replacement. Now, the search is over.

Veteran marketer and brand strategist Tom Danowski of Seattle, Wash., took the helm of the Oregon Wine Board on Monday.  His background includes overseeing imported wine for Washington state’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates as well as several upscale clothing and lifestyle brands.

“I’m excited to be back in wine, and I think it’s a very bright outlook,” Danowski told Wines & Vines yesterday. “The more I looked into it, it’s just such a great time for Oregon.”

Danowski’s previous stint in the wine business ended in 1999, when he became vice president of sales and marketing for Seattle Coffee Co. He subsequently served as part of the team that turned around Cutter & Buck Inc. and then as chief marketing officer for Seattle-based Gene Juarez Salons LLC. Most recently, the 50-year-old Danowski ran his own marketing and brand strategy consultancy in Seattle, working with firms as diverse as century-old Seattle couturier C.C. Filson Co. and Microsoft Corp. In a nod to his tech industry experience, Danowski said the Oregon wine industry is “entering its 2.0 phase.”

He’s especially excited by industry discussions about the role of Pinot varieties and efforts by some winemakers in the state to show there’s more to Oregon than Pinot Noir.

“It gives us another opportunity to re-interest people in Oregon wine,” he said. “Having some of those new varieties come alongside Pinot Noir gives people another reason to be excited and gives the trade another reason to give us additional shelf space.”

Danowski’s expertise may lie in marketing, but his first week has also had him getting up to speed on other issues, including the recent announcement of cuts in federal funding that could nix the annual Oregon Winery and Vineyard Report. USDA funds have traditionally covered 90% of the cost of the $150,000 report; the Oregon Winegrower’s Association has paid the remaining 10%.

Danowski said he’s been hearing about the issue and looks forward to reaching an agreement with USDA to allow production of a report, albeit a pared back document. “We’re working with the USDA,” he said. “They just need us to give them a streamlined wish list of data that we’re looking for and they’ll try to keep the price reasonable.”

Otherwise, Danowski’s mandate is much different than that given previous executive directors Jeanette Morgan and Ted Farthing. “The role description for this job is pretty much what it has been, even though there’s been a little bit of turbulence in the staffing,” he told Wines & Vines. (Morgan’s term as executive director saw OWB staff numbers drop from nine to four, with office staff now at six full-time employees and one half-time position. A seventh full-time position is in the works.) “It’s primarily research, education, and marketing.”

Leadership and collaboration
Pulling that team together and addressing the diverse interests of the Oregon wine industry is a challenge for which Danowski seems eminently suited. During his time with Cutter & Buck, he refocused the company’s flagging brand in a turnaround that impressed Bill Swint, then the company’s COO and interim CEO.

“He came into his marketing role at Cutter & Buck without a lot of apparel experience and very quickly figured out what the issues were and what steps needed to be taken to change the direction of marketing,” said Swint, now CEO of Seattle-based High 5 Sportswear. “He actually re-energized the whole brand because he could see where the brand had slipped. Everybody kinda knew that, but Tom knew what steps needed to be taken.”

Swint noted that Danowski also combines sharp analytical skills with a collaborative attitude that ensure buy-in by those he works with. “He put together a good team and was able to accomplish some really nice results,” Swint said.

While Swint is not familiar with the specific challenges the wine industry faces (although he takes a keen interest in the products of Northwest wineries), he said Oregon’s wine industry will enjoy the benefits of those same skills. “I think he’ll figure out what the issues are and have a plan in place pretty soon,” he said.

Danowski, for his part, is looking to his first 90 days as executive director, a period that includes the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium in Portland on Feb. 21-22, 2012. While he now splits his time between Portland and Seat tle, he looks forward to relocating his family to Portland in the spring.

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