WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Heather Unwin has been teaching a wine marketing class at Walla Walla Community College. Soon, she’ll be spreading the gospel as executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance.
Unwin, 57, was announced Monday to replace Duane Wollmuth, who died of a heart attack July 11. Her first day on the job is Jan. 3.
“The Walla Walla Valley has this ability to harness their community and collaborate,” Unwin told Great Northwest Wine. “Very few places in the world have this level of community foresight.”
Unwin spent 3 1/2 years as the executive director of the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area Alliance, a position she resigned in June 2015. In the meantime, she’s been heading up Fuse SPC — a social purpose corporation based in Richland, Wash.
Next year, she takes on a job that some believe is the best in the West Coast wine industry. There were more than 60 applicants for the position that serves wineries, growers, businesses and community agencies as members and partners in both Washington state and Oregon. Board directors for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance include Amy Alvarez-Wampfler (Abeja), John Blair (Dunham Cellars), Corey Braunel (Dusted Valley Vintners), Mary Derby (DaMa Wines), Tim Donahue (Walla Walla Community College), Joe Forest (Tempus Cellars), Debbie Frol (L’Ecole No. 41), Muriel Kenyon (Otis Kenyon Wines), Jason Magnaghi (Figgins Family Wine Estates) and Josh McDaniels (Doubleback).
6-month search to replace Wollmuth
Unwin said she recognizes the industry continues to mourn the loss of Wollmuth, a revered figure in the Walla Walla Valley who helped launch Three Rivers Winery in 1999 and owned Biscuit Ridge Vineyard. Among his successes included creating the annual Celebrate Walla Walla Wine festival and Reveal Walla Walla, a barrel auction for the wine trade.
“At every event, Duane’s presence is felt,” Unwin said. “He set the tone and the caliber for how that region will move forward. It’s my job to honor that legacy, take all the good work that he started and make sure that it continues. His are big shoes to fill. There are no two ways about it.”
Wollmuth’s appointment to the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in 2011 coincided with the region’s recent rise of prominence. That timing is not lost on Unwin.
“All the amazing grapes they are growing and wines they are making, particularly over the last four years, have allowed them develop this incredibly global brand,” Unwin said. “They’ve mobilized in such a way that it works just as well for the wines they sell on Main Street as it does for their wines being sold around the world.”
Unwin studied in Great Britain and graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in pharmacology. She went on to a career in marketing that included positions with CompuServe and Time Warner. Her husband’s science career led them to the Tri-Cities, where her skills and global appreciation for wine first led to her role as marketing executive for Terra Blanca Winery and Estate Vineyard on Red Mountain. She worked nearly five years for the Pilgrims until the Red Mountain AVA Alliance reached out to her.
“Carol Munro of Chateau Ste. Michelle suggested to me when I first went over to Red Mountain that I should go over to Walla Walla and ‘buy Duane lunch because he just does things so well and you should learn from him,’ ” Unwin said. “Over the years, he would give me a lot of guidance in listening to the members and how to decide the best way to move forward.”
150 members in Walla Walla Wine Alliance
When Unwin resigned from the Red Mountain AVA Alliance, there were 23 members. The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance counts more than 150 members.
“What you have with Walla Walla is this amazing executive board with a set direction,” Unwin said. “Their planning, their vision and their mission is very clear on what they want me to do and how they will support me going forward. I feel really, really confident. The whole process has been three-months long in them getting to know me and me getting to know them and the community.”
Along the way, she’s served as an instructor for the Wine & Spirits Archive and an adjunct business instructor at Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus. She’s on the board of directors at Leadership Tri-Cities, with a focus on economic development. Unwin also spent three years on the board of directors at the West Richland Chamber of Commerce and was a community representative on the Tri-City Herald editorial board.
“What I’ve learned is that everyone in Walla Walla is a stakeholder in the future of the wine industry,” Unwin said. “And the wine industry is very much involved in the community. That’s another part of this job that’s very appealing to me.”
The job description includes general operations, organizational finances, event management and awareness of public policy affecting Walla Walla Valley wineries and growers. That means keeping an eye on the economics, agriculture and government in two states.
“I will rent a place in Walla Walla initially because Steve travels so much out of the Tri-Cities, so we will be ‘bi-townal,’” she chuckled. “This is a real privilege to join the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and see what marvelous things we can do going forward.”