I find Mr. Pepe’s recent commentary suggesting a restructuring of the Santa Barbara Vintners (SBV) ironic and completely out of touch as he has shut down his winery, no longer makes wine, and now only leases his land to a Napa winery. Additionally, Mr. Pepe was on the SBV Board in the past, where he had ample opportunity to address the funding problems and came up short.
Let me correct the record. In 2017, the SBV board of directors implemented a complete turn-around of the organization. The association needed to be run with clear expectations, accountability, strict financial controls, and adequate funding to meet all of the Vintners’ goals.
To achieve this, we hired Alison Laslett, a nonprofit expert who had worked with organizations such as Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She is the most experienced, competent, and strategic leader the organization has ever had. Under her leadership, the SBV turned the Vintners Festival from a financial loss to a $40,000 profitable event last year.
The SBV also secured, for the first time, a $385,000 California Agriculture Grant to market the region to the LA area. Under new leadership, the SBV has doubled their budget and dramatically increased visitation to the area. With wine BID funding, these efforts can become sustainable with consistent growth.
Six of eight potential revenue streams have been addressed and there remained only two for the Vintners to pursue: the Wine Preserve and a grape commission. Since a grape commission requires collaboration with two other counties (SLO and Ventura), we decided to pursue the Wine Preserve. It is a reliable source of funding from a 1% assessment on the Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) sale of wine from a winery’s tasting room and excludes wholesale sales which not every winery participates in.
To build support over two years, the SBV held many meetings with wineries informing and educating people about the Wine Preserve. Mr. Pepe references “four plans” as though this is a negative. Through dialogue and committed listening, we have engaged with our stakeholders, including the Board of Supervisors, and crafted streamlined proposal amendments.
It is easy to use Santa Barbara County’s winery numbers to spin a story. With almost 300 wineries in the county, more than half have annual sales under $100,000, with half of those wineries selling less than $10,000 annually. The top 80 wineries represent approximately 80% of the economic industry. The SBV has 78 members and represents the majority of the wine industry economically.
This year, the new SBV navigated the wine industry’s path to re-open due to COVID-19 through negotiations with the state and county. We did this on behalf of all 300 wineries, hunting down all winery emails and sending them every update, regardless of membership status. We were one of the only counties in California to chart a path for every single winery to reopen; we did not want even one to fail.
For 40 years, the SBV has been a voluntary organization relying solely upon membership dues, which meant that many have been riding the coattails of the few. We are completely overhauling the organization to include all tasting rooms in the county, with each paying their fair and equitable share, so that we do not just survive but thrive.
To suggest that the SBV needs to be restructured would have been reasonable three years ago, but to suggest it now is simply uninformed and ignorant.
Stephen Janes is the President of the Santa Barbara Vintners board of directors.
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