Karissa Kruse

Karissa Kruse is a Sonoma vintner, grape grower and head of the Sonoma Winegrape Commission.

Paul Franson photo

Karissa Kruse has a mission.

The charismatic president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission wants to raise the price wineries pay for Sonoma grapes, which now sell for much less than those in Napa County, and her approach is multifaceted.

Part of her strategy is to position Sonoma as a leader in sustainability. The commission’s board of grape growers has set a goal of having all of its members fully sustainable by 2020.

That’s an ambitious goal, but they’ve already made a lot of progress: half of the vineyard acreage already meets that goal and 64 percent are in the process of certification.

Is sustainability important to consumers?

In a 2015 poll, Nielsen found that 73 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings, up from 50 percent in 2014. Sixty-six percent of all consumers would pay more.

A study by Wine Opinions found that frequent wine drinkers would be more likely to buy Sonoma wines if they met the sustainable goals.

Kruse admits that the process is not easy. “Sustainability is confusing,” she said, and it has no legal definition. “How do you create messages that motivate to consumers?” And they in turn have to motivate wineries to pay more for the grapes.

Kruse, who is both a grower and vintner herself, has another challenge. She has to overcome Sonoma County’s notorious rivalry between its grape-growing regions, who only had to put “Sonoma” as well as their appellation on their labels starting in 2014.

Napa growers and wineries settled that issue long ago, and it’s one of the valley’s biggest strengths.

The wine and grape industry in Sonoma is different from that in Napa in other ways, too. Kruse heads a public commission funded by a mandatory assessment of 0.5 percent of the dollar value of the grapes on growers who sell more than 25 tons of wine grapes.

Wineries that grow their own grapes are exempt, but some pay voluntarily anyway for the benefits.

The growers have to approve of these assessments, and they must find it worthwhile. They recently voted to extend the commission for five years.

The county also has a winery group, Sonoma County Vintners, but it has struggled even more to overcome past competition between regional associations.

Even now, only about 170 of the county’s 425 wineries belong, and the county’s overall trade auction only merged and superseded the popular auction from Sonoma Valley last year.

As a result, the Sonoma growers have indirectly taken the lead in promoting the county’s wines, unlike the situation in Napa, where the powerful Napa Valley Vintners, have done an exceptional job of promoting (and protecting) the valley’s wines and almost every vintner belongs.

The Sonoma Wine Grape Commission works closely with the Sonoma winery and tourism arms to promote the wines, too. They run ads and sponsor events like the recent Super Bowl in Santa Clara.

Visit Napa Valley does the same with the vintners.

The Napa Valley Vintners also lobbies effectively for common interests; the Sonoma commission, being a governmental organization, can’t lobby although it can educate officials.

Napa Valley doesn’t have a mandatory wine grape commission; the Napa Valley Grapegrowers primarily provide education, though it has a foundation that helps workers and does take positions on issues. Like it, the Sonoma commission also holds many educational sessions for growers.

In addition to the promotional outreach for the grapes, Kruse also has another challenge. As in Napa County, many residents of Sonoma are questioning further expansion of vineyards and wineries. “Everyday, I’m out there fighting for the right for growers to farm,” said the passionate leader.

In Napa, the Farm Bureau and low-visibility Winegrowers of Napa Valley, which includes the most powerful local leaders, advocate for the industry. A new group Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards & Environment has formed in Sonoma to lobby for growers.

Since Kruse can’t lobby, she sticks to education, which includes water and pest issues. “It’s a no-brainer to deal with water, pesticide and environmental issues,” said Kruse.

As part of this effort, they are planning “afternoons in the Vineyards” like those sponsored here by the growers and vintners.

A path to her job

Kruse has had a varied career, but one that almost seemed designed for her job. She has a strong background in marketing of consumer products, agricultural commodities and even entertainment, as well as farming itself.

She was born in South Dakota but her family moved to Colorado Springs when she was 10. Both parents grew up on farms in the Midwest, and she spent summers on her grandparents’ farms.

That convinced her that she wanted to work in a big corporation in a big city, so she studied business and marketing at Wharton, ending up with an internship with United Artists, the giant entertainment conglomeration. She also worked in public relations on Marvel Comics and with Nike in Oregon.

She wanted a job where she could learn, however, and went to General Mills, famed for its staff development. There she worked on Honey Nut Cheerios. “I had a $80 million ad budget when I was 21,” she noted.

The call of the big city took her to Nestle in Los Angeles, but she quickly realized it was a bad fit. She ended up a brand manager for Universal Studios, working on promotions for such hits as “American Psycho” and “Erin Brockovich.”

After four years, she felt she had done as much as she could there, so she returned to Wharton for the master’s program. With her background and talent, she became the head teaching assistant and got her MBA two years later.

Her summer internship was marketing Barbie dolls for Mattel but she later turned down a job there. Moving to Chicago for her boyfriend, she started consulting for Kimberly Clark, then started working with the dairy farmers’ promotional organization. “It was getting back to my roots,” she said.

She and her boyfriend got married, moved to Santa Rosa and started growing grapes in 2008 and making wine. “We wanted to do something different,” she said, admitting, “I get bored easily.”

She also consulted but tired of all the traveling, and pitched the local grape commission. It was looking for a full-time person, and she was hired to head marketing after a long process in 2012. “They hadn’t had a marketing person for a year, and they didn’t really have a marketing plan,” she said.

One basic question was whether to market Sonoma grapes to consumers or leave that to the wineries that bought them. When the former director, Nick Frey, retired in early 2013, she pursued and got his job.

Kruse immediately decided to speak to consumers. “Our commitment to sustainability created a platform for dialog,” she said.

She says she loves working with growers. “We can argue, but at the end of the day, everyone cooperates. There’s no competition among farmers.”

She and her husband split but have stayed business partners on their 25-acre vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, where six acres are now planted and they’re heading for 13. They grow chardonnay and pinot noir at up to 1,000 ft. plus some syrah and grenache.

Their wine brand is Argot, and they make about 2,500 cases per year, 40 percent sold direct, the rest through distribution in a few markets.

Steve Sangiacomo, a member of the board of the grape commission, said of Kruse, “She’s a visionary leader who’s raised the bar from an industry perspective. She’s a fearless leader with a tremendous work ethic and, focus and drive to succeed. She also understands how to work with growers since she’s a grower herself.”

Sangiacamo said that she seemed committed to her work with the grape growers, but like others, he wonders what her next act will be. “She thinks outside the box. Who’s knows what’s next for her?” he said.