PORTLAND — Members of the Oregon Winegrowers Association will likely elect a new board of directors sometime in 2020, pending changes to the organization’s bylaws.
The leadership shuffle comes as the OWA seeks to differentiate its role from the Oregon Wine Board, a semi-independent government agency whose directors are appointed by the governor.
OWA is the primary trade group representing Oregon wineries and vineyards, lobbying on behalf of the industry in Salem and Washington, D.C. It is separate from the OWB, which was created by state lawmakers in 2003 to promote wine research and marketing funded by a $25-per-ton winegrape tax.
Until recently, the two groups shared the same administrator, Tom Danowski, and continue to share the same board. Some winemakers, however, worry the overlap creates conflict and confusion, unfairly benefiting OWA members by having the same people decide how to spend their tax dollars.
Kevin Chambers, OWA board president and owner of Koosah Farm in Amity, Ore., said the association previously decided to combine boards with the OWB due to the smaller size of the industry at the time. There were simply not enough interested, qualified candidates to fill two boards, he said.
But as the number of Oregon wineries has increased nearly fourfold from 201 in 2013 to 793 in 2018, Chambers said now is the time for change. He spoke during the annual Oregon Wine Symposium on Feb. 11 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.
“Sometimes when you speak truth to power, power listens and acts,” Chambers said. “Your OWA board listened to these criticisms, and we have taken action.”
Danowski stepped down as executive director of the OWA in December after eight years, though he will continue to serve as president of the OWB. Jana McKamey, former vice president of government affairs and operations for OWA, took over as executive director of the association on Jan. 1.
The next step, Chambers said, will be electing a new board for the OWA. First he said the organization needs to change its bylaws to set up an election down the road.
“Presently, our bylaws just say the board of the OWA shall be the same of the governor-appointed OWB,” Chambers said. “So we have to make some changes.”
An ad hoc bylaws committee formed in November, and includes 13 OWA members from around the state. Chambers said he expects they will come forward with a recommendation later this year.
McKamey, who also spoke at the symposium, said both organizations see this move as a positive. “It allows us to be laser-focused on our distinct but interconnected missions,” she said.
She hopes that, in turn, will help to rebuild trust and unity within the industry after an especially combative 2019 legislative session marked by several controversial wine-related bills — most notably Senate Bill 111, which would have stiffened penalties for labeling violations. Opponents argued SB 111 would have crippled their businesses by deterring out-of-state wineries from buying Oregon grapes.
An industry coalition came together to defeat SB 111, and then went on to form its own trade association, the Oregon Wine Council, with its own board of directors in opposition of the OWA.
“I would be remiss if I did not say the last 18 months have been a challenge,” McKamey said. “However, I’m told good winemakers and good winegrowers are not forged in easy vintages.”
McKamey said a strong slate of candidates will be needed to lead the OWA board into the future. She added they must listen to one another, and improve their dialogue if the industry is to mend fences.
“Our industry is stronger when we have one voice speaking on legislative and policy issues,” she said. “If we are divided, we hurt ourselves in the end.”