Karissa Kruse says one of her top priorities when she assumes the position of president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers is to continue the joint marketing effort developed by the organization and the county’s vintners and tourism groups. Kruse, who had been hired as the Winegrowers’ marketing director in August 2012 has been picked by the group’s board to replace outgoing president Nick Frey, who will officially retire May 1. With the industry associations in Sonoma County already linked by the same marketing strategy, Kruse said the next step is to leverage that cooperation to elevate the reputation of the county’s wine and grape industry both nationally and internationally.
“What a win for the growers to have such a strong relationship with the vintners,” she said. Getting to know their neighbors Kruse will also continue to implement the group’s community outreach program to help Sonoma County residents who don’t work in the wine industry gain a better understanding of it. “They often don’t even know as much about our vineyards and wineries as our visitors,” she said. And while the county’s wine and grower groups have improved the region’s reputation in the wine trade and press, Kruse admitted the same isn’t necessarily true for the people living in the group’s own backyard.
“We haven’t done as good of a job of relating to our community,” she said. Some of the tension between growers and county residents has stemmed from vineyard development. Just recently, Sonoma County and conservation groups worked out a $24.5 million deal to preserve 19,652 acres of land, of which nearly 1,800 were to be developed into vineyards in a plan backed by the state employee retirement fund CalPERS, according to a report by the Santa Rosa, Calif., Press Democrat newspaper. Kruse said the proposal and deal were worked out well before her transition into the president position, but she views it as a “win-win” agreement for conservationists and growers. Simple supply and demand economics indicate there’s benefit to not having a large amount of new acreage getting planted with vines. Kruse said the winegrowers are focused on producing the highest quality fruit and improving the region’s reputation for fine wine. “It’s nice that it doesn’t have to go into development,” she said. Keeping the transition smooth Nick Frey joined the county’s grape growers association in 1999 and led the group through its reformation as a state commission in 2006. He will stay with the group through the end of the year to help ensure a smooth transition. When the change is complete, Kruse will oversee the roughly 1,800-member group, which recently changed its name from the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission to the Sonoma County Winegrowers. The organization has a small staff including a grower programs manager, winery and sponsor-relations manager and a part-time bookkeeper and part-time web developer. Growers pay $1.2 million to the group in assessments collected from grape sales.
“Karissa has been a great addition to the commission staff in just six months,” Frey said in a statement released by the group. “She is quick to learn and motivated to represent growers’ interests to the wine trade and local community. Karissa’s experience and energy are what is needed to continue moving the commission to new heights.” The promotion came at the end of an 18-month recruiting and succession-planning process, during which the group’s board identified Kruse as someone who could first help the group’s marketing efforts and then follow Frey.
Kruse earned a master’s degree in marketing and a bachelor’s in economics from the The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the winegrowers, Kruse worked for General Mills, Universal Studios and the Dairy Management Inc., a national marketing group for the U.S. dairy industry. Kruse came to Sonoma County in 2007 to purchase a vineyard and pursue a career in wine. She owns a 25-acre parcel in Bennett Valley AVA, of which 5 acres are planted to Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grapes are used for Kruse’s Argot Wines, a company she owns with a partner. Kruse said she makes about 2,000 cases with fruit from her vineyard and also buys grapes from county growers. “I’m not just the president, I’m a client,” she said.
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