Running a Regional Wine Association

After years in Monterey & Lake counties, longtime leaders look back

by Jane Firstenfeld
rhonda motil
Rhonda Motil promotes Monterey County wines in Tokyo, Japan, during a 2012 marketing trip organized by the Wine Institute.
Monterey, Calif.—Two of the best-known advocates for California wine regions have left their positions in recent days. After 20 years and growing the Lake County Winegrape Commission membership from 40 growers to 170, Shannon Gunier has stepped down. (The incoming leader is transitioning into the role this week.)

Last week, Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association (MCVGA) announced that it’s seeking a replacement for Rhonda Motil, who has held the position of executive director for almost 11 years.

While the circumstances of their departures differ, their advice and counsel to wine associations and their leaders is similar—and potentially helpful to new and established organizations anywhere.

What happened in Monterey
Motil is launching a new marketing company, Uncorked California. Veteran industry consultant Stacie Jacob is serving as interim director while the association revamps its structure.

Under Motil’s guidance, the association had gained both membership and international recognition for Monterey’s vast and varied grape and wine industry, culminating this week with the announcement that Wine Enthusiast magazine had chosen Monterey as California’s top wine destination. In the past two years alone, the number of tasting rooms in the county increased by 40%, as did traffic to the association website.

Motil also had been instrumental in winning grants and leveraging them with matching funds to reach almost $1 million to help promote the region. When a major grant lapsed last fall, however, the association’s board of directors felt the need to readjust the group’s programs.

“Rhonda has done great things for Monterey over the past 10 years, no question about it,” board president and vineyard manager Paul Johnson told Wines & Vines. “The parting came down to our fiduciary duty. We got the news in November that the grant funding had dried up, and (we) felt we had to respond to the realities of our budget. In a perfect world, we would have been able to retain Rhonda. I wish we weren’t put in the position we were, but that’s reality.

“She’s going to do great. She’s very talented, incredibly hardworking, and is going to take off running. We really do wish her well.”

How Monterey grew
When Motil took the reins at MCGVA, she was a novice to the wine industry but had extensive marketing background in high-tech. The foundation was in place, and she collaborated with its originators, including pioneer grapegrowers like the Wente family and J. Lohr to determine the organization’s course. “It was very rewarding, everything I love doing: building the business, key relationships and financial success,” she said.

“At that time, all the revenues came from memberships,” she told Wines & Vines. Motil worked on founding key associations and launching the associate membership program, earning support from Monterey’s well-established tourism industry. “This is a job for someone who’s not interested in doing the same thing every day.”

To lead a nonprofit wine trade association as a great executive director, Motil advised, you need to be an excellent marketer. Other essential traits:

• Be a great strategist;
• Business development skills;
• Manage the needs of diverse groups: Balance the needs of large wine brands vs. those of tiny wineries. Make sure the benefits are of value to wineries across the board.
• Understand needs of the community and the association;
• Build relationships.

“Unfortunately, it is difficult to make everyone happy. You want to please everyone, so the person paying the base amount is as happy as the person paying the most, and you must do this with a small staff and small resources,” Motil said.

The utility of grants
Grants increased the organization’s budget. “Portions of the grants helped get frontage signage done” for wineries off the beaten path, for instance. “The specialty crop grant (from the 2008 Farm Bill) helped us build our social networking, providing real-time information from members on a database,” Motil said.

“We integrated that with another partner who did mobile applications, Visit Monterey County. We were able to do some print ads, and a key thing, help rebranding as Monterey Bay, the Blue Grand Canyon, which helped get the trade and media interested.”

Motil was “willing and eager to reach out to like-minded businesses,” and served as an adviser for the Monterey County Visitor Bureau. “In order to build an industry, you’re not going to do it yourself.”

One final grant to promote the region’s wines at retail locations across the nation remains funded through this year, Motil said. In this program, four individual Monterey brands, including both wine and the county’s abundant agricultural crops, can bring special promotions to retailers; the program will wrap with a tour bringing major buyers to Monterey this spring.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished over the past 10 years,” Motil said. “We’ve built such name recognition, planted grapes, opened tasting rooms.” Even though juggling member needs and herding busloads of visiting journalists had often made it a 24/7 job, she concluded, “I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing that evolve.”

What will MCGVA be looking for in its search for Motil’s successor? That has yet to be determined. In an email, Stacie Jacob wrote: “As part of the restructuring process the association will be creating a job description as they search for a new leader. This process is beginning with a membership survey that will go out in January.”

shannon gunthier
When Shannon Gunier first started representing growers from Lake County, Calif., she said, "People from Napa and Sonoma walked by us like we had leprosy." Now winegrapes from the county command the third-highest prices in the state.
What’s up in Lake County?
Unlike the MCGWA, which depends on voluntary membership, the Lake County Winegrape Commission is a state-mandated organization. Growers pay annual assessments based on their winegrape production and wineries on wine production. Like the former commission in neighboring Mendocino County, the association comes up for a vote every five years. So far, after 20 years, it continues to thrive.

Also in contrast to Monterey—with its fancy hotels, spectacular natural attractions and decades of world-famous cultural activities—Lake County does not have much infrastructure to support tourism. Though it’s adjacent to both Mendocino and Napa counties, with few overnight accommodations and fine dining venues it remains remote.

Still, grapes from its 8,800 vineyard acres are prized and have found many buyers from Napa to Texas.

Gunier’s successor knows the territory: Debra Sommerfield was deputy chief administrative officer for economic development for Lake County, with more than 15 years of experience in marketing and economic development in the public and private sectors.

A historic view
Gunier recalled, “When I first came here there were four wineries, and then Kendall-Jackson closed. In 1991, the statewide California Winegrape Commission voted not to continue. After it decided to disband, Bob Romiere, a grapegrower and Marin County supervisor, asked the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG), to help us start regional commissions and collect grower commissions. Lake County and the Lodi District were the first to sign on.”

It was a simpler time. “We had 40 growers selling to 12 wineries,” Gunier recalled. Like Motil, she and her husband Rick were marketing pros. “I was from Southern California,” Gunier said. “I didn’t know anything about agriculture.”

Nevertheless, she applied for the new position at the nascent commission. “I told them I had group management experience, but if they showed me, I’d do my best. I was so honored when Bob Romiere called me: ‘The bad news is, you got the job.’” She was named president of the new association in 1992.

“We had a budget of $32,000,” Gunier recalled. “It was a lot of trial and error, but we were going to differentiate ourselves by going high-end. We did four-color brochures, hired designers, nothing hokey. We went to trade shows, and people from Napa and Sonoma walked by us like we had leprosy.”

Things started looking up around 1994, when superstar winegrape grower Andy Beckstoffer started acquiring vineyard acreage in Lake County.

“We built momentum and worked hard,” Gunier said. “The growers had a lot of faith. We didn’t want to be just ‘the blend.’ The first two years were brutal. It was a struggle.” She was the commission’s only staff, part-time for five years, and her husband helped out.

“We could have gone the other way, like Mendocino, ruled by ‘Old Grower’ thinking,” Gunier said, referencing the vote to close the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission. “We are used to being the stepchild. Not everyone here wants everyone else to know” about the region.

“We are kind of the opposite of Mendocino. We are successful because we are organized. The Lake County Winery Association started five years ago, and we work with them.”

Lake County recently won an $80,000-plus grant to promote its Sauvignon Blanc: Summer in a Glass program to raise awareness and educate consumers and the wine industry through educational activities, public relations and information to promote the varietal wine in the marketplace and assist growers, wineries and industry partners to share knowledge and best practices through workshops, and web-based and social media.

Lake County, Gunier acknowledged, will never be Monterey, but it now commands the third-highest grape prices in California, behind only Napa and Sonoma; and it is second only to Mendocino in sustainability.

“We don’t have anything handed to us, but we will become an adventurous county. We are genuine. I think people leave here having a good time,” she said.

Gunier shared her bullet points for association leaders:

• You’ve got to be a cheerleader. Carry the flag and believe in it.
• Be strong. Make your board make marketing plans. We did that simply by asking: What do you want to be when you grow up?
• Plan with buy-in from your growers. Bring their ideas back to them. Board members have to talk to each other. Sit back and let them work it out.
• Be in the marketplace and see what’s going on.
• Set an agenda for every meeting: Two hours and it’s over. Be succinct. Don’t waste anyone’s time. “I used a three-minute egg timer,” Gunier said.

After 20 years, Gunier’s most satisfied that she did a good job and is appreciated by her growers. “It means the world to me.”

The most frustrating part of the job? Dealing with the state. “I was lucky to work with a nice economist, but rules are tightening. You’ve got to placate those people: Don’t get the mother ship mad,” Gunier warned.

In her new role, working with her husband at their North Coast Winegrape Brokers, Gunier said she’d miss most “The confidence of knowing this job really well. I’ve got some learning to do. It’s different than being the queen.”

On the other hand, she’ll still be working from home and living on the lake. And still having a good time in Lake County.

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