In December, the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association hired marketing and communications professional Wendy Hilberman as its new executive director. Hilberman is now the point person in charge of promoting the area’s wineries and the vast tourism industry of restaurants and hotels that has grown up around them. It’s a big job covering a big area. Home to over 150 wineries, the Russian River Valley AVA stretches from northernmost edge of Petaluma to just north of Healdsburg. (AVA stands for American Viticultural Area, the American version of the French “appellation.”)
Hilberman and her husband began visiting Sonoma County 15 years ago and she says fell in love with the Russian River Valley. She may be the first person ever to move from Oregon to California in search of a slower-paced lifestyle. An Oregon native, Hilberman holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Portland State University and a Bachelor’s of Science degree from the University of Oregon. Before coming to Sonoma County, she lived with her family in Portland and worked as executive officer for a state commission reporting to the governor, working on issues impacting the health and welfare of Oregon’s children.
Now that she’s a had a few months to get her feet wet in her new job — and given the rain over the past month, that was easy to do — we decided to find out more about her and what she has in mind for the organization that has a such an outsize impact on life in western and northern Sonoma County.
1) What does your working day look like?
Every day is a little different, but one of my primary focuses is to connect with our membership. That entails visiting vineyards and tasting rooms and getting up close and personal with what our members are doing and what they need from the RRVW to support their work. I absolutely love this part of the job, we have an incredible membership. I have been so impressed with how welcoming and helpful everyone has been. In addition, I also get to work on marketing, events and communications.
2) What would people be surprised to learn about the Russian River Valley?
Although we are known worldwide for our acclaimed Pinot Noir, it comes as a surprise to many that Chardonnay is actually the region’s widest-grown variety. Chardonnay has been grown here since the early 1960s.
3) How does you past experience in Oregon relate to what you do now?
I have been working with nonprofits since I was in college. I love working for an organization that is mission driven. In Oregon I worked on advocating for issues impacting Oregon’s children and their families. It was extremely empowering to help write legislation, lobby for bills and then watch the governor sign them. I felt very proud of the work we did on behalf of Oregon’s children.
4) Who is your hero/heroine and why?
My hero would be Jo Rymer Culver, she was my commission chair in Oregon. She owned her own company, raised a family and had her priorities exactly where they needed to be. She was balanced and assertive and a great role model.
5) What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I grew up in a very small community in Blachly Oregon, population 200. I attended a tiny school K-12 with a total of 180 kids. Five to seven kids in a graduating class, which is staggering. My childhood back yard was a huge forest that we roamed in, built forts and ran into native wildlife on occasion. We had a big garden and fruit trees and we canned our own food and raised animals. I had an amazing childhood. I was also a couple miles from this beautiful natural lake, Triangle Lake, growing up. My sisters and I would bike or walk to the lake every day in the summer. We would spend our days water skiing, hanging out at friends' lakefront homes and exploring. Summers were my favorite time of year.
6) What was the primary value instilled by your family?
The primary value instilled by my parents was a strong work ethic. They both worked very hard at their jobs. My mom worked at the family restaurant and my father was in the timber industry. Everyone contributed to our home and making it all work.
7) When you were in college, what did you want to be?
I dreamed of going into politics. In my graduate program, I had caught the political bug. My favorite professor was the president of the Oregon Senate, and he was an incredible inspiration. It made me think about how even someone like me could dream and do something to inspire and impact the world we live in. That was truly the start of my career working in nonprofits and governmental affairs.
8) What made you want to work for the RRVW?
I love the Russian River AVA. It is truly a special place with growers and winemakers that work hard, make an incredible product and always have a smile on their face. I also love working with membership organizations, and you could not ask for a more dedicated and talented membership base than RRVW. I saw so much opportunity to build upon the RRVW’s solid foundation and increase the exposure and vitality of the organization.
9) Do you have any new initiatives for RRVW?
This year we will be focusing on continuing to elevate the RRV AVA, promoting its world-class winegrowers, wineries, hotels and restaurants. We will be working to develop a strong brand identity across multiple platforms to promote and distinguish the RRV as a world-class winegrowing region. As part of that initiative we will building a new website that will promote the region and our members, reinforce our brand identity, drive traffic to the RRV and provide a platform for members to showcase their wines.
10) What is your favorite wine?
That’s a tough one. It’s like asking what my favorite food is, so many to choose from. I tend to enjoy chardonnay, pinots and zins. If you come by my house for dinner that is generally what I will be serving at my dinner table.
11) What’s your favorite pairing?
I love a great pinot noir with a rack of lamb. Compliments the meat perfectly.
12) What do you do to relax?
I am a big fan of the bubble bath. I take one every night. Working out and hiking are a close second though.
13) Do you have any passionate hobbies?
My children. They are all consuming, and now that they are teenagers I am uber-mom. I treasure the time in the car, even if it’s dead silent. I know all too soon they will be driving and my car time will be gone.
14) What type of books do you like to read and what’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?
I almost always read fiction. I like to escape, and I love to read. I have a stack of books in the bedroom, and I go through a couple books a month. I am currently reading “The Lake House” by Kate Morton. One of my favorite books that I have read this year is “Memory Man” by David Baldacci. It was such a crazy, fast-paced thriller. I passed it around to my in-laws and my husband, and everyone loved it.
15) If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?
I have always envisioned myself on a tropical beach in Mexico writing and publishing novels. I have always loved books and writing.
16) What’s the best part of your new job so far?
The people. I have the most incredible board members, who jump all in to projects and initiatives. I have worked with many boards over the years and the RRVW is one of the best I have ever worked with. I also get to work in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I have a huge smile on my face every day.