On April 26, 1987, a bill approving creation of the Washington Wine Commission is sent to Governor Booth Gardner for his signature. The bill with its controversial funding plan has passed in the House of Representatives by a 94-3 vote and in the Senate by a 39-5 margin before being sent to Gardner, who will sign it into law on May 18. In August, 12 people will be named the commission's first members: five growers, one liquor wholesaler, and six winery operators led by Allen Shoup of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Dave Adair of Columbia Winery, and Mike Hogue of Hogue Cellars.
Advocates for a Growing Industry
The idea of a commission to help promote the Washington wine industry had been floating around for a several years before a proposal was formalized. In 1983, the state legislature gave $300,000 to the state's Agriculture Department to develop a wine-marketing program, and in 1985 another $300,000 was earmarked to extend the program through 1986. By then there were two other organizations working to promote the interests of the state's growers and winemakers. The Washington Wine Institute, a trade organization funded by member wineries, was launched in 1983 to advocate for the industry at the state capital in Olympia. In 1984, the Washington Wine Growers Association was formed to represent and promote its member grape growers.
All three groups -- the Agriculture Department's marketing team, the Washington Wine Institute, and the Washington Wine Growers Association -- favored creation of a Washington Wine Commission that would market and promote Washington wines on a much-larger scale. The Wine Institute hired lobbyist Jim Halstrom, a former state Liquor Board official, to grease the skids in Olympia. Halstrom "still uses the old-fashioned approach," reported The Seattle Times. "In March 1986, he spent $1,125 on wine and liquor for dozens of lawmakers. Like most lobbyists, however, Halstrom says he would rather ply lawmakers with information -- everything from legal briefs to policy papers to newspaper articles" ("Clout for Sale").
The need for a wine commission was evident. The industry was beginning to boom, expanding from 11 wineries in the state in 1977 to about 70 by 1987, but profits were hard to come by. Start-up costs for small wineries averaged $259,000, according to the Washington Wine Institute, and 27 of the state's wineries were producing fewer than 5,000 gallons per year. "There is a lot of romance surrounding wine making," said Tom Campbell, a winery owner in Zillah. "The glamour fades fast once you get into the business" ("State's Family Wineries ...").
On February 10, 1987, winery operators and grape growers appeared before the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee in Olympia to ask for enactment of a bill to create a wine commission. Two days later they appeared before the Senate Agriculture Committee to further plead their case. Both committees were receptive to the idea, but "the method of financing the proposed commission has made the bill controversial. The bill's sponsors want to divert 6 cents of the 83-cents-a-gallon state tax on wine to support the endeavor, which amounts to about $1 million a year. Such commodity commissions as those promoting Washington dairy products and apples are financed through assessments on producers" ("Wine Promoters Offer ...").
Backlash in the Media
Media backlash was immediate. A February 12 editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said:
"In a very few years, the grape growers and wine makers of this state have used their energy and their expertise to establish a thriving wine industry. They have earned admiration and thanks for their contributions to the state's economy. They have not, however, earned the right to a state subsidy to help promote their product ... A wine commission is needed. Washington already has 20 such agencies that market apples, lentils, beef and other products from the state's agricultural cornucopia. But all of the other farm groups consider the commissions that sell their crops as a business expense and dig into their own pockets to pay for them. The wine industry should do the same" ("No Freebies Here").
The Seattle Times also voiced opposition to the funding plan, though by the time its editorial appeared in the newspaper on March 22, the bill already had passed easily through the state House of Representatives. In its editorial, the Times wrote:
"While giddily toasting the Washington wine industry -- and singing its praises -- the state House of Representatives last week approved a tax increase that was given too little examination or debate ... By a 94-3 vote, the House sent to the Senate a measure that would establish a Washington Wine Commission. The panel would promote and advertise Washington-produced wines in much the same way the Washington Apple Commission and other agencies promote state commodities. But there's a clever wrinkle in the newest bill: It would slap a tax on all wine sales in the state. That would raise about $1 million over the next two years to get the commission tooled up ... the Washington industry is a healthy, growing youngster, fully capable of funding its commission by self-assessment. If the Legislature wants to pour out a million taxpayer dollars somewhere, let it be for education of poor children or some other clear public need" ("Editorial").
The wine industry answered the papers' concerns with a series of letters to the editor, the most compelling of which were written by Simon Siegl, executive director of the Washington Wine Institute, and Washington Wine Growers Association president Jeff Gordon. Siegl pointed out that the apple, dairy, and other commissions did not share a similar tax burden:
"Wine is currently taxed by the state at 83 cents per gallon, or roughly 3.5 percent of the average retail value of the product, plus sales tax on retail purchases and B&O tax on each winery's gross income. There also is a federal excise tax on wine, as opposed to the subsidies or price supports most other commodities receive from the federal government" ("Funding is Temporary ...").
Further, Siegl wrote, the proposal to use tax money to fund a wine commission was only temporary; the proposal before the state senate required the wine industry to begin self-funding the commission after three years and to fully fund it by the seventh year. Gordon also took a long view:
"I know that during tight money it is hard to fund things that don't pay off immediately. It is time, though, to make a stand, to look at future needs of the state and realize that the wine industry can help fund those needs if the state is willing to make the investment now" ("Agency Would Be Different ...").
Just as the House had sided with the wine industry, so too did the Senate, though the original funding plan was revised during negotiations in a conference committee. Instead of about $1 million per year, the commission would receive substantially less, and the wine industry would have to start contributing through self-assessments after two years rather than three. Governor Booth Gardner signed the final version into law on May 18, 1987.
Up and Running
On July 1, 1987, the state Liquor Control Board turned over $110,000 to get the Washington Wine Commission up and running. That money was later paid back from tax revenues, but the commission was now a reality. In the preamble to the new law, lawmakers wrote:
"The legislature declares that: (1) Marketing is a dynamic and changing part of Washington agriculture and a vital element in expanding the state economy. (2) The sale in the state and export to other states and abroad of wine made in the state contribute substantial benefits to the economy of the state, provide a large number of jobs and sizeable tax revenues, and have an important stabilizing effect on prices received by agricultural producers. Development of exports of these commodities abroad will contribute favorably to the balance of trade of the United States and of the state. The sale and export are therefore affected with the public interest" (1987 Wash. Laws, ch. 452, sec. 1).
Among other things, the Washington Wine Commission was charged with promoting the state's wineries as tourist attractions, encouraging favorable reporting in media throughout the world, establishing the state as a major source of premium wine, and advancing the knowledge and practice of producing and processing wine grapes in the state. A new retail tax of .25 cents per liter went into effect on July 1, 1987. Beginning on July 1, 1989, wineries began paying 2 cents per gallon on sales of Washington wines and growers were assessed at variable rates sufficient to keep the commission running. By 1993 the commission was wholly funded by contributions from growers and winemakers.
In August 1987, the first members of the wine commission were named. Allen Shoup of Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville, Jim Hildt of Mount Baker Vineyards in Deming, Mike Hogue of The Hogue Cellars in Prosser, John Rauner of Yakima River Wineries in Prosser, and Dave Adair of Columbia Winery in Bellevue represented winemakers. They were joined by growers John Anderson of Seattle, Vernon Brown and Richard Olson of Prosser, and Maurice Balcom and Bob Moreman of Pasco, along with Robert Stevens of Western Washington Beverage, a liquor wholesaler in Seattle, and Peggy Patterson of Hoodsport Winery, a non-voting member representing wineries primarily producing non-grape fruit wines.
After taking its initial baby steps, the wine commission merged with the Washington Wine Institute in 1988 and appointed Simon Siegl to serve as executive director of both organizations. The wine institute continued to work behind the scenes with state and national legislators to lobby on behalf of the wine industry while the wine commission, working with a 1989 budget of $300,000, ramped up marketing efforts and launched the charity Auction of Washington Wines, a resounding success. "They also produced the excellent and free-of-charge winery touring guide" ("New Leader ..."). Siegl was prescient in 1990 when he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "It's the beginning of what has been prophesized for the past couple of years -- that Washington is going to be known for its red wines" ("A State Cabernet ...").
Steve Burns succeeded Siegl in 1996, and in 1997 the wine commission created Taste Washington, an annual food-and-wine fair. Burns had previously worked in international marketing for the California Wine Institute. His tenure with the Washington Wine Commission ran through 2004. In 2005, Robin Pollard became executive director after running Washington State's tourism office. Under her watch, the commission focused domestic marketing efforts in Tampa, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, and Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, the number of Washington wineries doubled during Pollard's six years on the job. After she resigned in late 2011, Steve Warner, a Washington native with an extensive business-management and marketing background in Europe and Asia, was hired to move the commission forward.
With considerable help from the wine commission, Washington's wine industry experienced explosive growth over the commission's first three decades. By 2022, the state was home to 1,050 licensed wineries and more than 400 wine-grape growers farming more than 60,000 acres of vineyards. According to a commission study, the total annual in-state economic impact was more than $8 billion. The commission itself had grown to include a staff of 12, with offices on Western Avenue in Seattle.