Today the Washington State Wine Commission – the state-mandated organization whose mission is to raise awareness and demand for Washington wine – announced the hiring of Kristina Kelley as executive director. Kelley starts the position immediately.
“I love the Northwest,” says Kelley. “I couldn’t ever work anywhere else other than in the wine industry, so I’m over the moon about this opportunity.”
SearchWide Global, an executive recruitment firm, led a nationwide search to fill the position. (Full disclosure: I have consulted for the Washington State Wine Commission since 2013.) Kelley, who was recruited to apply for the position, was unanimously selected by the organization’s Board of Commissioners.
“We interviewed a lot of really outstanding candidates, and initially I thought it was going to be a really hard decision,” says board chair Sadie Drury. “After we interviewed Kristina, it was obvious that she had the skills and the experience to take the Wine Commission to the next level.”
Kelley, who participated in three rounds of interviews before being selected, comes to the Commission at a pivotal moment for the state’s wine industry. On the one hand, there is more interest and awareness in Washington wine than there has ever been. This is exemplified by large wineries investing in the state, such as Jackson Family Wines purchasing its first vineyard land in Washington last year.
On the other, the broader wine industry is experiencing a great deal of turbulence due to generational changes, economic conditions, and other factors. Washington is also working through local issues as well.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) – by far the state’s largest winery – has been undergoing significant changes of late, including a substantial decrease in production. Some other large wineries in the state have also decreased case production.
Washington has also had several short harvests in recent years due to frost (2019), wildfire smoke (2020), and a heat dome (2021). Moreover, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 of Washington’s 60,000 acres of wine grapes are currently uncontracted, in part due to changes at SMWE.
As grape and wine production in the state are directly responsible for the Wine Commission’s budget ($12 per ton of grapes and two cents per bottle of wine), these challenges have led to a decrease in expenditures of just over seven figures at the Commission. While 2022’s harvest was mercifully larger – the third largest in the state’s history – for a 10-person staff that prides itself on being nimble, the Commission has had to be even more so.
“When you have declining budgets, I think it makes you work smarter as a marketer,” Kelley says. “You really lean into those things that mean the most and do the most for your promotion. That is what we need to do.”
Kelley’s first order of business will be finalizing and then executing the Wine Commission’s five-year strategic plan. Developed by the board, composed of local winery and grower representatives, the plan will prioritize programs that the Commission participates in or runs locally and nationally to help raise awareness of Washington wine around the country. (International marketing activities are funded by the federal government.)
“There are funds there to make sure that Washington wine is top of mind,” Kelley says. “You have to make some tough decisions along the way, but there will be opportunities to do the things that we feel are critical.”
Kelley was born in Puerto Rico and has lived all over the U.S. but considers Washington home, having lived in the state three times in her life, including as a child. Kelley and her husband moved from Modesto, California to Port Ludlow, Washington in 2021. Her mother and sister live in Sequim, her daughter lives in Snohomish, and her step-son lives in the Kingston area.
Kelley comes to the Commission having spent more than 30 years in the wine industry. One of her early jobs after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1984 was working at Bellevue Athletic Club, which at the time had a private label with Woodinville’s Columbia Winery.
“The first winery I visited was Columbia, and the first winemaker that I met was David Lake,” Kelley says.
In the early ‘90s, Kelley worked for the wine and spirits company Brown-Forman in Chicago as an on-premise sales manager. She subsequently was hired in 1996 by California wine giant E. & J. Gallo, where she worked for the next 25 years.
Kelley started at Gallo as division and area sales manager, overseeing a seven state region that included the Pacific Northwest. She subsequently became senior marketing manager of the fine wine portfolio, director of fine wine public relations, and most recently spent eight years as senior director of corporate public relations and media relations. In 2021, Kelley left Gallo to return to the Pacific Northwest, though she continued to consult for the company.
As executive director at the Wine Commission, Kelley now takes the lead promoting Washington wine across the country and around the world. Despite budgetary challenges, Kelley and the team need to both grow the Washington wine category and make sure the state’s wines capture younger generations of wine drinkers.
“We’ve all heard the doom and gloom ‘Millennials aren’t drinking wine,’” Kelley says. “Well they are. They’re just drinking a lot of other things too. So, when they’re drinking wine, how can we ensure that it’s Washington wine? I think that’s imperative.”
The Washington State Wine Commission was created by the state legislature in 1987. Kelley is the fifth executive director in the organization’s history, replacing Steve Warner.
Warner was hired as executive director in 2012. He oversaw a decade of explosive growth in the industry, with the state going from 515 wineries in 2012 to 1,070 today. Warner was also responsible for growing the footprint of Washington wine nationally and particularly internationally during his tenure.
Warner left the Commission in July of 2022. Deputy director Chris Stone has been serving as interim executive director in the intervening months.