Former Tobacco Executive Is Making His Mark At Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

Posted: Jun 17, 2019

When Jim Mortensen, a former executive with Miller Brewing and Philip Morris, came out of retirement last September to be the new CEO at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, local wine enthusiasts and industry experts braced for major changes.

The Woodinville-based winery, acquired in 2008 by tobacco giant Altria, had recently reported declines in sales and profits. Mortensen’s arrival sparked questions about a possible shake-up — or even a sale — for the largest player in the state’s $4.8 billion wine business.

Nine months later, some of those questions have been answered.

Under Mortensen, Ste. Michelle has replaced key members of its senior management team. It has announced plans to pare back its sprawling product portfolio. As important, the winery has rolled out an aggressive marketing campaign that departs, often dramatically, from the 52-year-old institution’s somewhat staid brand.

There are now ads on Hulu and on billboards in New York City’s Times Square, a multimillion-dollar online strategy, even a push down-market: In March, Ste. Michelle began putting its 14 Hands wines in aluminum cans and selling them in convenience stores.

All of this would have been hard to imagine under Mortensen’s predecessor, Ted Baseler, who came to Ste. Michelle in 1984 and was so determined to cultivate an upscale image that he largely resisted screw caps long after other wineries were using them.

But it may be right in line with a man who spent decades pitching beer and cigarettes.

Mortensen is unapologetic. An outsider’s perspective, he argues, is exactly what was needed to confront changing consumer preferences, a digitally disrupted marketplace and a massive generation gap.

“These are new challenges, and new challenges require more innovative solutions,” Mortensen, a 61-year-old native New Yorker, said during an interview at the winery’s 105-acre “chateau” headquarters. “There’s no choice but to do that.”

To be fair, Ste. Michelle is hardly the only winery looking for a fresh strategy.

Since the 1990s, American winemakers have ridden the coattails of a baby-boom generation that drank more, and more expensively, each year. That demographic bonanza had a huge impact in Washington state, where excellent growing conditions and cheap farm land yielded a perfect product for America’s new wine drinkers — “premium” vintages (typically $8 a bottle or higher) that consistently beat out similarly priced California competitors on quality.

By Paul Roberts
June 16, 2019
Source: Seattle Times

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