Wendy Brannen recently crossed the country from Washington D.C. to Lodi, CA, to assume her new position as Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission — the organization representing more than 750 winegrape growers and 85 wineries in the Lodi American Viticulture Area.
Lodi is easily the country’s most widely planted AVA, comprising more than 110,000 acres of winegrapes. Brannen succeeds Camron King, who stepped down last year to become President of the National Grape and Wine Initiative (NGWI), based in Sacramento. Western Fruit Grower® magazine recently caught up with Brannen for the following Q&A.
Q: You come to the Lodi Winegrape Commission from the U.S. Apple Association and, prior to that, the Vidalia Onion Committee. What are the most important lessons you learned in those positions?
A: At the Vidalia Onion Committee, I used to always joke that I was the “Switzerland of Sweet Onions.” When you work for any commodity group, you are pulled in many directions by many different people for whom you work. They’re all good people and for the most part well intended, but they have their own objectives, which don’t always suit the needs of the group at large.
My job was to represent everyone to the best of my ability — growers, packers, processors, large, medium, small, organic, conventional — the whole gamut. The reason I think I was able to lead that diverse group as long as I did is that I tried to be consistent in how I reacted when difficult instances arose, and I made sure I had clear, concrete reasons to back the decisions I made. You’ll never make everyone happy, but if you can at least clearly explain why you made the call you did and make consistent calls throughout your tenure, you come out ahead more than you come out behind. And, I kept my mouth shut about each individual’s or organization’s business and didn’t engage questions from their neighbors.
Q: Both of those positions were mostly related to fresh produce. How do you think your new position will be different?
A: I think it’s what is the same, rather than what is different, that is intriguing. Agriculture is agriculture, for the most part, whether it’s apples or onions or winegrapes. Last week, one of our growers was kind enough to take me out in the vineyards and spend an afternoon walking me through the harvest process and answering my many questions about the growing cycle. I was struck by the similarities between growing grapes and what we were doing in the apple industry — the high density plantings on trellis systems have a good bit of cross-over, and I enjoyed talking about rootstock, pruning, and other familiar topics.
There are even similarities between Vidalia onions and Lodi winegrapes. Both are grown in very specifically defined regions with distinctive soils and climates. Of course, all involved in agriculture have to worry about weather situations and, pest control — be it botrytis neck rot and iris yellow-spotted virus in onions, fire blight in apples, or red blotch and Pierce’s Disease in winegrapes — and of course, skilled, reliable labor is always an issue.
This is the language I’ve spoken for years, and I am happy to stay connected to agriculture, which I love and with which I am comfortable. I am just drinking better wine now!
Q: What interests you about winegrapes in general and Lodi in particular? Why?
A: I have always contended that if you surround yourself with good people and believe in what you are doing, you will have an overall sense of happiness. Occasionally, I stop and pinch myself because I am so thankful to have worked for two such kind and outstanding commodity groups. Clearly I loved the Vidalia group, but I felt the same about apples — just a generous and grateful group for which it was a pleasure to work. I know from some of my colleagues in the industry that sometimes that is not the case. When I met the Lodi folks, I fell in love with their passion and personalities and knew they, too, would be great to work for and with.
This opportunity came to me out of the blue, but I was initially curious enough that I threw my hat in the ring. It was when I started really hearing the Lodi story and learning about the people here in the Lodi area who built this remarkable industry, that I became serious about seeing where the opportunity would go. Lodi grows outstanding grapes. Lodi makes outstanding wine. To be able to share that story and become a part of a culture that deserves to be proud of what they have done and are doing — that was something I had to be a part of!
Q: Are you very familiar with the winegrape industry? What’s your initial take?
A: Not very — unless enjoying wine counts. But there is something to be said for bringing a fresh take, and this is a very progressive group of individuals who believe in the power of marketing. Thankfully, they don’t expect me to be a wine expert right now — just a marketing expert — so I am enjoying learning the industry and planning how we can grow and spotlight our industry in the future. I am fortunate to have inherited a strong, capable team, so I am excited to work with them on our marketing goals. I am 100% confident we have good things on the horizon.
Q: Have you set any short-term goals as of yet? Any long-term goals?
A: One of the structural components of this group that impressed me is that we have very involved committees — grower research and education, wine tourism marketing, consumer public relations and marketing, our education foundation that encompasses the Lodi Wine Visitor Center and Tasting Room, and our top-notch Lodi Rules third-party-certified sustainable viticulture program. This is a group effort here, so I want to make sure I don’t come in and make changes where changes aren’t needed. They’ve built a good template for success, so we are in the enviable position of simply continuing to grow.
As for long-term goals, I’ve always been more of a short-term kind of gal. You work hard at your short term goals and the long term goals take care of themselves.
Q: A lot of growers, particularly the younger growers we’ve been talking to as part of our GenNext Growers Initiative, say they are concerned about bridging the gap between farm and fork, or, in the case of winegrowers, farm and glass. They say that as farmers get more efficient, which means there are fewer people involved in agriculture, the gap is getting wider. Does this concern you?
A: Not really. The flip side of that concern is that people are more curious than ever to hear the story behind their food — or drink. And in Lodi, we are uniquely situated to tell really good stories about where our wines come from. We have many fifth-generation farms in Lodi, and where many agriculture industries are feeling the pinch of aging stakeholders, we have a strong contingent of young growers and winemakers here who are happily — and successfully — sharing our legacy stories. We have pronounced industry support that empowers the Commission to continue creatively sharing with consumers how our grapes make it from vine to glass.
Lodi has more than 85 wineries in a region that is not as congested as other areas, so when people come here they get the unique experience of those owners and other hands-on individuals truly taking time to tell visitors our history, our practices, and what makes our wines special. In just a few short weeks, I have read consistent comments from travel writers, bloggers, and wine editors that when they come to Lodi, the warmth of the people here and the personal touch they offer their guests is truly unique.
Q: What’s your favorite winegrape varietal? Why?
A: I used to get this question all the time when I was with USApple, and my political answer was, “The one I am eating at the moment.” Like most of us, I have drunk my fair share of ‘Chardonnay,’ ‘Merlot,’ and ‘Cab,’ but the beautiful thing about Lodi is the diversity.
So, right now I am — don’t hate me for doing my job! — spending a fair amount of my weekend time going out to the wineries with our resident sommelier and trying the diverse, lesser-known varietals Lodi has to offer. I tried my first ‘Picpoul Blanc’ the other day. We have a very contemporary grower/vintner who produces only whites, and her Picpoul vines are descendants of Spain. The literal definition of picpoul is “lip stinger”— but it was less sting and more pleasing crispness to me! I’ve also enjoyed delightful ‘Albariños,’ ‘Tempranillos,’ and, of course, our world-famous ‘Zins.’