Colleen Frei named executive director after 24-year run by Vicky Scharlau

Colleen Frei has been named executive director of the Washington Winegrowers Association. Frei begins work at her new position January 1st, 2024.

“Washington Winegrowers is right there as the face of Washington’s agriculture along with tree fruit, wheat growers, potatoes, and dairy,” Frei says. “It’s an exciting opportunity.”

Born and raised in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Frei received a B.S. in natural resources ecology and conservation from the University of Idaho in 2002. She subsequently graduated from the University of Idaho College of Law in 2005. During her time at the college, Frei was executive editor of Idaho Law Review.

After law school, Frei spent 18 years at Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn & Aylward, P.S, a law firm based in Wenatchee, Washington. A partner in the firm, Frei’s expertise is agricultural law.

“It was everything from water law and business structuring to crop insurance, labor issues, real estate leases, varietal licensing, intellectual property – the entire gamut of everything that touches upon the agriculture industry,” Frei says. She is also past president and board member of the Chelan Douglas Bar Association, Numerica Performing Arts Center, and has been a volunteer attorney at Washington State Veterans Will Clinic.

Frei comes to Washington Winegrowers at a time of transition in the state. The Washington wine industry had been in a period of continuous growth over the last five decades. Recently, however, Washington’s grape growers have faced significant challenges.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), by far Washington’s largest winery, announced last summer that it would be decreasing its fruit intake by 40% over the next five years. This will impact every grape grower in the state. Many estimate Washington currently has 10,000 excess acres of wine grape vines planted.

“The industry is going to have an ever-changing environment,” Frei says. “In some ways, this is an opportunity. It provides our industry the chance to evaluate where we are at current stages and also look to resetting for the future.”

Washington Winegrowers is a non-profit member organization whose mission is to support growers, vintners, partners, and policymakers. It focuses on advocacy, education, and connectivity in the industry. The organization was founded in 1983. Frei takes the baton from Vicky Scharlau.

“Her background is truly a great fit,” Scharlau says. “She understands the issues we face both in Olympia and in Washington, D.C. and also on the regulatory side. Finding someone who really understands the grower community is important.”

Though Frei brings an impressive resumé to the position, she is stepping into large shoes. Scharlau has been executive director of Washington Winegrowers since 1999.

“Vicky has had such great leadership and legacy for what she’s done, not just for Winegrowers and the Washington wine industry but in many other facets of agriculture,” Frei says. “I feel so lucky to be stepping in after her.”

Over the 24 years Scharlau has run Washington Winegrowers, there has been tremendous growth and change in the Washington wine industry. The state’s wine grape acreage has more than tripled. Clean plant programs have been established. Viticulture and enology educational programs and degrees have been founded and funded. The Washington State University Wine Science Center has been built. Research has been conducted that has benefited the entire industry. Most recently, the state launched its sustainability program, Sustainable WA, which Washington Winegrowers oversees.

“As an industry, we’ve grown up,” Scharlau says. “Now we’re looking into the future going, ‘Where’s the best path to go?’ COVID has really allowed us to have a deep dive into our soul because consumers have changed, and winery needs have changed because of that.”

Though leaving the executive director position, Scharlau will continue to be involved with Washington Winegrowers as of-counsel. She will facilitate select programs.

“We’re not using the R word,” Scharlau says of retirement. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

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