After eight years of leading Santa Barbara wine country through never-before-imagined ups and recession-related downs, Jim Fiolek is stepping down as the executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, and nets have already been cast far and wide to find a replacement. “I look at this like the Olympics of last year and which relay teams were successful,” said Fiolek, who is 62 years old and started working in Santa Barbara’s nascent wine business in December 1971. “It was the handing-off of the baton: You don’t hand it off when you have no steam left; you hand it off when everyone is at full stride.”
Since Fiolek began as a volunteer director in 2004, the association’s membership has more than doubled to about 110 wineries and 17 growers — though those numbers fluctuate frequently — and Santa Barbara is now well-known on the international wine scene. Before taking the job, Fiolek had worked in a number of capacities for many other wineries, including Sanford and Zaca Mesa, and was also integral in starting the Santa Barbara Wine Festival, which was the first regional wine event and continues today at the Museum of Natural History each June. At the Vintners’ Association, Fiolek “put money in the bank” and even hired a small paid staff — including a salary for himself starting in 2006 — by breathing life into the two annual tasting and fundraising events: the Celebration of Harvest in October and the Vintners’ Festival in April, which this year returns to Mission Santa Inés for the first time in years, starting on April 19.
“Jim has been a spokesperson for Santa Barbara County grapes and wines for a long time,” said Kurt Ammann, the association’s board president and general manager of Star Lane and Dierberg vineyards. “We are really hopeful that we find somebody as passionate, as dedicated, and as articulate.” Though somewhat surprised and saddened by the news, Ammann also sees Fiolek’s departure as a time for opportunity and excitement, and explained that the association has already received nearly 20 applications for the position. “We want the organization to get fresh ideas to grow and reinvent itself,” said Ammann. As for Fiolek, he won’t be retiring. “I’m re-treading,” said Fiolek, one of the most quotable public figures in the industry. “Why get four new tires? The tires I’ve had have carried me very well. I like these tires. I’m not gonna change these tires with the relatively few laps I have left to go. They know the roads really well.”