Comes with operating budget reduced by approximately one-third

The Washington State Wine Commission, the state-mandated body charged with promoting Washington wine, has released a new, five-year strategic plan. Among the key shifts is a focus on activating distributors. Previously the Commission has primarily targeted other trade and media members. (Full disclosure: I have consulted for the Wine Commission since 2013.)

“We’ve spent a lot of effort over the past 10 years getting trade and media excited about Washington, but we’ve hit a point where, if they can’t find the wines, then it’s all for naught,” says Chris Stone, deputy director at the Commission. “So we have recognized that we now have to put energy and focus on getting distributors educated and getting them to care about Washington as a category.”

The Commission’s budget for the 2024 fiscal year is slightly shy of $4M. This is approximately 30% less than the previous fiscal year. With the commission funded by wine sales and grape tonnage, several lighter crops as well as recent struggles at the state’s largest wineries, including Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, have forced the agency to reevaluate programing and to be nimble.

“We’ve had to make some tough decisions about what we’re going to spend our money on, but having this blueprint of a strategic plan helped us to make those decisions,” says executive director Kristina Kelley. “We feel confident that the plan that we’re presenting, we’ll be able to make all the things in there happen.”

Another significant change in the plan is defining Washington wine via a brand story. That story positions the region and its wines within the broader Pacific Northwest.

“If we say Pacific Northwest, positive imagery comes to your mind, and we’ve instantly solved the problem of which Washington we’re talking about,” says Stone.

The brand story also includes diverse elements about Washington, including the state’s natural beauty, world-changing products (from Amazon to music to wine), the industry’s sense of community, and a focus on innovation and quality. Elements of this brand story will be used by the Commission, wineries, growers, and others in the industry to sing from a common hymnal when promoting the state’s wines.

“We view this brand story as defining the essence of our industry’s personality,” says Kelley. “The next step for us is to define the key points of differentiation that will give distributors, trade, and media reason to believe in us and support Washington wine.”

In a subtle but important change, the new plan also formalizes the Wine Commission’s financial commitment to viticulture and enology research. The Commission has long contributed a significant portion of its budget to these two areas. However, the new plan would codify its current contribution level.

In terms of how it will measure the success of the plan, the state is looking to increase its premium market share (defined as $8 and above) from 3.6% to 5% by fiscal year 2028. The Commission will also be working to increase its in-state premium dollar share to be equal to or greater than the California dollar share.

“Right now, California has a greater dollar share in Washington, which is frankly unacceptable in our home state,” Stone says.

The new strategic plan is based off a series of listening sessions in November 2022, an industry-wide survey in December 2022, and a strategic retreat with 30 industry leaders in February of 2023. The strategic plan was approved by the Commission’s board of directors in November of 2023.

The plan was presented to wineries and growers in Woodinville, Prosser, Walla Walla, and via a virtual session the week of January 29th.  “We intend to take the feedback from the series of town halls to complete the brand story and fine tune the supporting tactics of the strategic pillars,” Kelley says.

Key elements of the plan will also be presented at WineVit, an annual convention and trade show coordinated by Washington Winegrowers, on Tuesday, February 6th. The strategic plan runs for fiscal years 2024 through 2028.

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