As Robin Pollard steps down from her role as the key executive overseeing Washington's fast-growing wine industry, she can reflect on a five-year tenure during which the size and influence of the industry have grown dramatically. And because the growth of wine has come with little of the economic downturn experienced in other markets and other sectors, she describes the future as "very bright."
Part of that bright future will be an expanded focus on national and international visibility in 2012 as the Washington Wine Commission marks its 25th anniversary and the Taste Washington event, designed to create a national destination attraction, will become a two-day gathering in Seattle.
And the commission figures it will take three or four months to find a replacement for Pollard.
As executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, a state agency whose operations are funded almost entirely by the industry itself, Pollard helped guide the organization to become what she describes as "a significant marketing source" for the $4-billion-plus industry. The marketing has become increasingly important as the number of wineries has grown from about 300 when she arrived in 2004 to more than 750, a number swelled by the emergence of numerous small, boutique wineries.
During her time working with the 12-member commission, a large part of the focus was on the nurturing of those boutique wineries. And apparently part of the outgrowth of that close involvement was the igniting of her desire to get back to her agricultural roots.
Pollard, an Iowa farm girl who got her master's degree in agriculture from the University of Missouri before beginning a 30-year career in state government with the international marketing division of that state's agriculture department, is focused now on finding some acreage to create her own vineyard.
That acreage will most likely be in the Yakima Valley or Wahluke area. And the kinds of grapes that most appeal to her? "I love bordeaux, merlot, cab and cabernet franc."
Pollard brought a nearly 20-year career in various state-government positions, initially related to assisting small business, when she accepted what she described to me then as "my dream job" with the wine commission.
In addition to her small-business roles, starting in 1987 with oversight of the then-new Small Business Improvement Council, Pollard served in two positions with major state impact. First she was director of the state Tourism Department.
Then Pollard was assigned by state economic-development director Martha Choe to oversee proper execution of the contract the state entered into with Boeing following passage of a legislative package of tax benefits and workforce and infrastructure elements that sealed final assembly of the 7E7 in Washington state.
It's the kind of attention to detail that she had to bring to the Boeing-contract oversight that has Pollard expressing her only note of caution about the boutique wineries' future,
The concern relates to the passage of Initiative 1183, by which voters said the state must get out of the liquor business and let larger retailers carry hard-liquor on store shelves.
"I honestly don't know the impact, but there's only so much shelf space in retail outlets and the product of the smaller wineries is most likely to be where the risk is as shelf-space is created for hard liquor by trimming the amount of wine on store shelves," she said.
The wine-industry publication Wine Spectator touts the keys to success of Washington wines as "high quality and low price." That's a benefit in the global wine competition that Pollard points to in an interview in her final week on the job.
"We've proven that we can grow extremely good grapes and have a huge base of talented wine makers to turn out world class wines and do it at a competition-winning price point," she said. "We have the ability and the acreage to produce large volumes of wine at lower prices than competitors, whether it's producing an $8 bottle or a $150 bottle.
So Pollard sets out now on an entrepreneurial encore, seeking to become, if she can find the right piece of land, part of the fast-growing industry for which she helped provide direction over the past five years.
'Revenge' is sweet when it
comes in a wine bottle
It might be called the occasion when Washington Wine Commission Executive Director Robin Pollard learned that the sweet taste of Revenge is actually fruity, like grapes, or more specifically like cabernet sauvignon grapes.
It's a story that began when members of Pollard's Wine Commission staff successfully bid on a ton of cabernet sauvignon grapes from the highly regarded Champoux Vineyards at a charitable auction in 2009.
"We thought it would be a fun team project," Pollard explained in an interview a coiple of days before her retirement from the position she had held for the past five years. "While we all had some knowledge about the wine industry, we wanted to understand all the decision points to being a winemaker to give us a fuller appreciation for all the challenges of being in the wine business."
"We had crushed the grapes and filled the barrels when we learned that Paul Champoux had been bitten by a mosquito in his vineyard and contracted West Nile Virus," Pollard said. "He was in critical condition for a time and almost died.
To celebrate the fact he did survive, Pollard explained, "and to pay homage to the Champoux family, we bottled the wine and created a "Revenge" label, complete with a dead mosquito.".
As the label reads: "'Revenge' is an homage to the Champoux family and to Paul's incredible recovery. Special thanks to Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery, who served as wine consultant on the project."
With only 45 cases produced and distributed among team members, bottles of the special production, complete with the dead mosquito, may prove to be a valuable item at future wine auctions.