There are people in the Wine Industry that don’t own vineyards or make wine, yet their impact on our business is indisputable. They are the people behind our winery associations, our media and our trade and they’re making a difference. “People” was created to acknowledge their role and celebrate their successes.
Writer: Jim Brumm
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Steve Burns is a man who loves what he does for a living. What he does is promote wine and wine regions, perhaps better than anyone. As co-owner of O’Donnell Lane, LLC, in Sonoma, California, Burns has his hands just where he wants them—on the leading edge of the wine industry.
Burns was born in Germany, the son of an army colonel, and lived all over the world as he grew up. Though his father had hopes of him following in his footsteps, Burns hoped to become a veterinarian. He joined 4-H as a boy and studied animal science at Cal Poly in San Louis Obispo. In college he “realized I wanted to get out and do more.” He switched his major and graduated with a BA in business management.
Laughing, he told me, “My first job was selling bull semen for the Angus Association!” Traveling around the Pacific Northwest, this was the genesis of a long career working with trade associations.
“I learned a lot of lessons doing that job,” he said, “both in working for myself and understanding membership-driven trade associations and how they work.” The Angus Association sent him to Sacramento, California, where through a friend’s contacts he was offered a job on the staff of California’s then governor George Deukmejian.
“I didn’t agree with him on many things, but I liked him,” said Burns. In his work with the governor he learned the ins and outs of politics, a subject he loves. He learned how to organize and how to present issues to people. He learned about bringing large groups of people to consensus, a skill that would serve him well in the future.
After working in politics, Burns was offered two jobs: one with the Prune Board, and one with the Wine Institute of California. He joked as he spoke of this crossroad in his career. “Hmm… I could go with the prunes, or I could go with wine… let me see…”
He took the job with the Wine Institute and never looked back. For eight years he served as their international marketing manager, learning the fine details of doing business overseas, and dealing with cross-cultural sales and marketing. His experience in working with associations helped greatly with his success there.
Later the Washington State Wine Commission recruited Burns to help them build recognition and success for their nascent wine industry. “At the time there were only about eighty wineries in the entire state,” he said. “I told them I would personally visit each of them.”
In visiting these wineries (which he discovered entailed traveling thousands of miles to the most remote areas of the state) Burns discovered there was a lot of dissention among them. “They had no plan,” he said. “When you have multiple people and personalities, you have to have a plan, otherwise you can get distracted.”
Having a solid, focused plan, and then working diligently to see it through, is the key to success for any organization, according to Burns.
“We sat down and first discussed the question of our definition of success,” he said. “We decided that the association would be strictly for marketing Washington wines; if what we were doing wasn’t furthering that step, we would stop.”
Burns’ focus and creative ideas, along with his ability to inspire and bring people to consensus garnered spectacular results. During his tenure he oversaw Washington’s wine industry as it grew from 80 unfocused, individual wineries to over 240 wineries working together to market their region and wines together.
Due to his efforts, Washington is no longer seen as a fringe, relatively unknown wine producing region; today Washington wines are recognized around the nation and throughout the world as world class. Under Burns’ leadership wines from Washington went from curiosities to highly sought-after vintages served in restaurants from coast to coast. Today Washington is one of the fasted growing wine regions in the country.
“The successful associations are the ones that develop a plan and work together,” said Burns. He explained that having had some clients from outside the wine industry has helped him with clients within the industry. “We have to understand that in the wine business we have one product and we need to focus on that. It’s what holds us together.”
Today at O’Donnell Lane, LLC, a marketing firm owned by Burns and his partner, Burns continues helping wineries and wine associations spread their message. Current clients include the Wine Institute of California, Middleton Family Winery, Chateau St. Michelle, and the Oregon Wine Board, all of whom are reaping the benefits of his energy and insights.
“It’s about regionality,” he said. “Today I focus on California wines, and it’s such an interesting time. Never has there been a better selection in varietals and price points. Because we’re the largest wine market in the world, everyone is trying to sell wine here. This is the best time with the most opportunities for wineries. Last year California exported a billion dollars worth of wine.”
Burns pointed out that wine is the only California export that retains its California identity on the table. Walnuts, prunes, artichokes—once on the table they could have come from anywhere. But the label on a bottle of California wine reminds consumers of where it came from.
Burns sees a changing wine market driven by younger consumers in the future. “This is a great time for wine tourism; it’s a great time to be a wine consumer. The wine industry is exploding and things are changing. For example, I know a twenty-three-year old woman who just loves screw caps on wine bottles. She has no mental baggage about corks. That’s great! There are opportunities everywhere for innovation and new ways of marketing. It’s not easy; you have to hustle, but the opportunities are there. People today want to know the winemaker, the grower. They’re buying authenticity.”
Burns’ natural affability and talent for quickly spotting solutions to problems keeps his services in demand. His work today includes conducting retreats for association board members with the goal of building consensus across a range of issues—helping define the problem, come up with a plan, and then work that plan.
“It’s a matter of taking a hard-core look at your business,” he said. “We look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and move forward accordingly.” He paused and added, “I want to have long-term relationships with clients that want to do really interesting things.”
Burns, who brims with passion and excitement when he talks about his work, loves going into a difficult situation and finding solutions. “I find it rewarding to be able to gain consensus,” he said with a smile. “I enjoy bringing disparate thoughts and opinions to the table and finding consensus. I love seeing the positive outcomes. I love what I do and I love this industry.” The feeling is mutual.