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Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 6:08 am | Fair 50º


Santa Barbara County EconAlliance Wine Forum Looks At Industry’s Future

Wine and tourism industry panelists discuss the region's challenges for bringing in visitors, direct-to-consumer sales and promoting the region as a wine destination

Gabe Saglie, writer and Travelzoo Senior Consultant, moderates “Wine and Tourism: A Perfect Pairing” during the EconAlliance wine forum with panelists, from left, Jennifer Walker, vice president of marketing for Visit Santa Barbara; Shelby Sim, executive director of Visit SYV; Glenn Morris, CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber/Santa Maria Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Paul Patel of Explore Lompoc. Click to view larger
Gabe Saglie, writer and Travelzoo Senior Consultant, moderates “Wine and Tourism: A Perfect Pairing” during the EconAlliance wine forum with panelists, from left, Jennifer Walker, vice president of marketing for Visit Santa Barbara; Shelby Sim, executive director of Visit SYV; Glenn Morris, CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber/Santa Maria Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Paul Patel of Explore Lompoc. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara County’s wineries are fighting an uphill battle for consumers, according to speakers during a Wednesday forum sponsored by the Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County.

The EconAlliance forum, entitled “Santa Barbara Wine Country: Do We Have a Viable Future?” drew a crowd of nearly 200 people, among them winemakers and vineyard owners, direct-to- consumer sales experts and regional politicians.

Despite its reputation for growing quality wine grapes, Santa Barbara County ranks near the bottom in average monthly visitors per winery — well below the national average, Paso Robles and Napa — according to a slide presented by keynote speaker Rob McMillian, executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division.

Paso Robles, the wine region closest to Santa Barbara County, averages 1,342 visitors and Napa County 1,497, while the national monthly average is 1,136, McMillian noted.​

McMillian, three times honored as one of the Top 50 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry, has authored the annual State of the Wine Industry Report for more than 20 years.

With an educational slide show and a dash of humor, McMillian summarized the challenges Santa Barbara County’s wine industry faces:

» Half of the total number of grapes grown in Santa Barbara County are shipped away and sold elsewhere. This translates to a value loss of $1.28 billion, resulting in a loss of $25.8 million in tax revenue.

» General wine consumption is declining as baby boomers (those between 51 and 68) grow older and gradually drink less. That said, Boomers will continue to represent half of the total U.S. net
worth through 2030. The youngest age bracket, up and coming millenials, ages 22 to 38, will never match the boomers’ average income rate;

» The number of wine distributors has plummeted from 3,000 per 2,600 wineries in 1995 (1.15 distributor per winery) to 700 per 9,000 wineries in 2016 (0.08 distributor per winery). Distributors no longer find winery representation to be profitable.

» In a good news/bad news scenario: Good wine abounds, but winemakers, especially small-lot producers, can no longer get it to consumers via the traditional channel — distributors.

The number of tourists who travel to Santa Barbara County was a theme running throughout the forum. ​McMillian noted that the country’s tourists represent 53 percent of total wine consumers.

During the first of three panels, “Direct to Consumer Sales — Key to Financial Sustainability?” three women in charge of direct-to-consumer sales detailed how important “the vineyard experience” is to potential consumers.

They were Francesca “Frankie” Lindley, from Sanford Winery & Vineyards; Katy Rogers from Jackson Family Wines (owner of Byron, Cambria and Brewer-Clifton wineries) and Sonja Magdevski, owner and winemaker of Casa Dumetz Wines.

Using passionate language, the three reiterated how consumers tend to buy more wine and join wine clubs when they are allowed to venture into vineyards, touch grape clusters and learn for themselves how grapes in the ground becomes wine in a bottle. Staying in touch with club members via e-mail and social media simply doesn’t cut it, they noted.

“I sell wine by sharing the story of my wine myself,” said Magdevski, who works several days each week in her Los Alamos tasting room.

She takes small groups of wine club members to the various vineyards from which she sources her grapes, creating a down-to-earth learning experience for those who may know absolutely nothing about farming vineyards to produce premium wine.

Lindley brought up the thorn in the side of many Santa Barbara County winemakers: How they are losing consumers to Paso Robles, where restrictions on wineries are fewer, resulting in more on-site winemaker dinners, cooking classes and opportunities for teachable moments.

“Tourists are passing us by for areas with more vineyard accessibility,” she said. “The wine industry here is a valuable part of our community and we should all be rooting for it.”

The county’s wineries need to be able to rely on that connection with people in order to sell “our wines and our community,” Lindley said.

Gabe Saglie, writer and Travelzoo’s senior consultant, moderated the second panel, about wine and tourism.

It included representatives of four regional visitors bureaus — those in the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria.

Saglie asked the panelists if the county’s wine industry was falling short by not presenting a “cohesive message” to tourists as potential consumers of wine.

Shelby Sim, executive director of Visit SYV, reminded Saglie and the crowd that the four organizations were “created by the hotels we represent and by law we have to promote our own areas” first, and the region as whole second.

Paul Patel of Explore Lompoc agreed, noting that, “we’re pretty restricted as to how we can spend our funds” to attract tourists.​

Saglie and the panelists agreed, however, that the need to sell the entire county as a wine destination is “a no-brainer.”

The third panel, about wine, visitors, venues and regulations, included Santa Barbara County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, First District Supervisor Das Williams, and San Luis Obispo County's First District Supervisor, John Peschong.

In general terms, the three agreed that both counties need to continue to stick to their agriculture roots and emphasize small, family-owned wineries and not make tourism and the wine industry suffer because of strict regulations and some anti-growth sentiment.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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