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Stephen Pepe: The Vintners needs to be restructured, reformed
Guest Commentary

Stephen Pepe: The Vintners needs to be restructured, reformed

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The Santa Barbara Vintners was created in the early 1980s. At that time there were two AVAs, now there are eight, and a handful of wineries — now there are 270 plus or minus. GPS, cell phones, the internet, and PCs did not exist.

There were scores of independent grocery stores, now there are four chains and Costco. There were hundreds of California wine distributers, now there are less than a dozen. There were scores of independent hotels, restaurants and wine shops, now there are several large chains like Marriott, Ruth Chris Steak House, BevMo and Total.

In the last four decades The Vintners has served the Santa Barbara wineries well, but it has not adapted to the 21st century. This is reflected by the fact that only about 78 wineries out of 270 are members. Rather than restructuring for the new century, the Vintners and its board, which is dominated by the large wineries, have spent a year making four proposals during a pandemic and now harvest, to impose a tax on direct to consumer sales and thus compel the 200 or so wineries who have not joined the Vintners to pay for the Vintners’ and the large wineries' vision of how to market SBC wines.

This is the wrong approach, and so last century.

In response to the untoward power grab by the large wineries, some pioneers of the SB wine industry and new wineries formed the Santa Barbara Wine Country Coalition, which has attracted 70 winery supporters and this number is growing daily.

The name change is more than symbolic. If SB Wine Country is to be successful it needs an organization whose focus is on SB Wine Country, not just the SB Wineries.

How will this be done? By structuring the organization so it is representative, not dominated by the large wineries, and where membership and financial support are voluntary and not compelled by a tax.

This can be accomplished by having each of the eight AVAs select their member to the board. Additionally, at large board seats can be used to ensure all wineries, small, medium and large have a seat at the table. Since 50% of the county's grapes are sent to out-of-county wineries, there needs to be board representation for vineyards that do not have a winery in the county.

Also, there should be board representation for wine related businesses — caterers, event planners, hotels, restaurants, tour companies, event rentals etc.

How will this be financed? By broadening the tent and representing all segments of the SBC wine country. This can be financed by a voluntary penny or two per bottle for wineries, a small per-ton fee for vineyards without a county winery and similar incremental charges for the wine related businesses.

SB Wine Country needs a broad-based organization funded by voluntary contributions that represents the entire SBC wine industry not just the wineries.

Stephen Pepe is a Lompoc resident and vintner.

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