This winter, the Washington Wine Commission hired a new executive director in the form of Steve Warner, who began his career in the military—think U.S. Air Force special operations, then Navy diver—before joining Bristol-Myers Squibb. From there he worked his way up the pharma food chain, first into finance, then marketing and global marketing. Most recently he was in Romania, where he served as a managing director for Merck.
What’s a guy like Warner doing in a place like this? Drinking the juice. Meet Steve Warner, the latest person charged with putting Washington wine on the map.
What’s your first call of duty?
“High on my priority is finding the best way of understanding industry unity." Then, he says, it’s finalizing the five-year plan—due in June—followed by constituent relations. (He’s sort of a geek. Hey Steve, does CardMunch have a field for tasting notes?) Next is deciding where to put the industry’s resources. “Right now we’re leaning more toward trade media.”
Finally, with only 35 to 40 percent of all the wine sold in the state coming from Washington, Warner’s on a mission to develop a level of fanaticism some might better equate with the Sounders’ Emerald City Supporters, or the most rabid Seahawks fans.
What could a background in pharmaceuticals possibly bring to this job?
“Hey, I know, I don’t come from a wine background, but I’d ask that you look at it from a different perspective; this could actually be a benefit to the commission. I come in with a fresh perspective, with my eyes wide open. I’m objective. I don’t owe anything to anybody, and I can treat everyone equally, whether they’re east, west, north or south.”
Besides, he says, he started in the science side of pharmaceuticals doing fermentation—obviously not for making wine but for medicine.
Warner grew up in Cle Elum and Roslyn before moving to West Seattle as a teen. The aunt and uncle who raised him as a teenager still call Seattle home.
The people who raised him? Yes. At 14 Warner could see his future prospects, and didn’t like them.
“My mom was sort of a hippie and had other priorities in life, and I have always been close to my aunt and uncle, so at one point I asked if I could live with them and go to school full time.” Warner crossed the mountains and enrolled at West Seattle—where he served as captain of the much-losing football team.
What are you drinking now?
“Until people started taking me around, I wasn’t a big fan of cab franc but I’ve been enjoying it a lot more. And, we do so many wines wonderfully… We have more 90-plus-point wines here than any other wine region in the world. Other than that, I lean more toward the Bordeaux varietals, and I think that’s an area where we tend to excel in Washington state.”
And when you’re not drinking wine?
“I’m kind of a beer and pizza kind of guy, although I do like to keep a nice bottle of scotch around.”
What was your first experience with wine?
“Pouring for my aunt and uncle, who were having a tasting event at their house. It must have been around 1980, 1981, and I didn’t understand why people weren’t drinking all the wine, so I’d carry the tray into the kitchen and sneak a bit and taste it.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Thailand that I became a core consumer because our closest friends were into wine and they drank wine every meal.” Here he learned the difference between good wine and wine in a box. The downside? Imported wine is very expensive in Thailand, Korea and Romania. “I could have probably bought a car with the amount I spent on wine in the past couple of years.”
How’s your cellar now?
"Empty. On March 22nd my closest friends [in Romania] came over and we drank all the wine, all the scotch and all the beer. Well, all the beer except for one bottle."
Personally, what’s next?
“I move my family back, which will be complete April 19, at which point I won’t have to commute to Romania.” (He has three daughters—ages 15, 14 and 11—who are excited for the move because, as they tell him, the best shopping in the world is in America.)
Here’s hoping that move goes more smoothly than the move from Korea to Romania. Then, the packers packed the family’s passports and shipped them ahead, leaving his wife, kids and pets rambling around Seoul for a few weeks, at a bit of loose ends.