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Saturday, Jul. 31, 2010

Walla Walla wine group director resigns

WALLA WALLA -- The executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance abruptly resigned her post this week after more than four years on the job.

Elizabeth Martin-Calder, who left a job as senior manager of marketing and communication at the Portland Art Museum to lead the wine alliance in early 2006, announced her departure effective immediately, according to an announcement this week from the wine alliance.

"I came here four and a half years ago and I really feel I am at a place where I accomplished my goals and my vision" for the organization, Martin-Calder said this morning.

She declined to comment on the short notice of her resignation but said she plans to stay in Walla Walla for the time being and continue her career as a lifestyle/luxury brand marketer. She said she also plans to continue her wine education with a goal of becoming a master sommelier.

"This was my first foray into wine, and I know wine will continue to be part of my portfolio," she said.

Martin-Calder was the third executive director of the 9-year-old agency that serves as a voice for the Valley's winemaking and growing industries.

Under her leadership, the organization increased its membership, created strategic alliances inside and outside the wine community, launched a new website and built trade events across the country, the announcement said.

"I feel like both regionally and nationally we've really elevated the brand," she said. "I'm happy for that success -- tightening up the brand as well as what it means to be an organization."

Board Chairman Devin Stinger said her leadership of the homegrown organization came at a critical time.

"Rapid growth in the number of wineries and vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley was occurring and Elizabeth worked diligently to define our strategic priorities, expand collaboration and to promote and define the image of Walla Walla wine," Stinger said in a statement. "We wish her well in her new endeavor."

Stinger declined to comment further on Martin-Calder's departure Wednesday.

He said he is serving as interim executive director while a search for her successor takes place. Shontina Gianotti is staffing the office.

Stinger, owner of Adamant Cellars, said the board likely will form a search committee over the next week. The new executive director will join the membership-driven organization at an equally critical time: on the heels of a recession that has affected wine sales across the country and a time when Walla Walla has a strong influence in Washington's wine industry.

He said the opening comes at an exciting time as Walla Walla continues to build its global reputation for wine. But the job is not without challenges.

The organization represents all wineries from boutique operations that produce a couple of hundred cases a year to those that turn out as much as 250,000 cases. Their needs vary, Stinger said. But they all must have a voice.

"Everybody needs to feel like they're being heard and have the wine alliance as an important part of the marketing plan," he said.

He said the organization also must continue to grow. Of the more than 100 wineries in the Valley, 71 are members. The organization also represents about a dozen growers. Stinger said it's important to reach the nonmember wineries and learn about how the organization can serve as a worthwhile benefit to those who haven't joined.

"In my opinion, (the organization) is ready to grow," he said. "We need to address the next steps here in the sense that this whole region is growing and has some maturity to it. We need to be a professional, driven organization that works with all the members and addresses the needs of all the wineries in the Valley."