“It took me a while to figure this out, but vintners are artists,” explains Alison Laslett, CEO of the Santa Barbara Vintners. “They are individuals. They’re eccentric. They’re passionate. They’re dedicated. They are all of the things that you would associate with successful artists. And their wines are as different from each other as art.”
This is one of the many lessons that Laslett learned during her first four months on the job, which has been a “drinking from the firehose” introduction to an industry in which the nonprofit-sector professional had zero prior experience. She was also immediately tasked with planning for the 36th annual Santa Barbara Vintners Festival, a task made more challenging by the February retirement of Fran Clow, who’d worked for the association longer than anyone.
“There was a time when I was completely overwhelmed in February,” said Laslett. “I was learning about the festival, I was trying to meet as many people as possible, and I was working 12- and 14-hour days. All of the sudden, people just started showing up in my office. They were members of the wine community who knew I needed a hand. They wanted to see me be successful, and that’s been one of the most wonderful things.”
This year’s festival, which is on Saturday, April 21, 1-4 p.m., at River Park in Lompoc, will be much like the past: more than 100 wineries pouring their latest, dozens of food booths cranking out gourmet eats, and (hopefully) plenty of sunshine to while the hours away. There will be a “Bubble Lounge” this year, showcasing the dozens of sparkling wine producers, and — as a response to the recent spate of natural disasters, which also hit winery coffers hard — a way for anyone, even if you’re not attending the event, to buy a ticket for a first responder. “Our hope is to be able to offer 100 tickets to our first responders,” said Laslett. “They can be our community guests at the festival this year.”
Once the fest is done, Laslett — who’s already visited more than 30 wineries and vineyards since starting and recently found a Ballard farmhouse to live in — plans to start meeting more of the association’s 175 members face to face. The biggest challenge for Laslett, as it was for her predecessors, is explaining what the association does and why it’s important to be involved, as many of Santa Barbara County’s 293 wineries are not.
“This is not the most satisfying check that you write to join an association,” said Laslett. “It’s very hard to draw a straight line between this check and what your individual business gets from it. When you are a struggling winery and you feel that the $1,200 check would be better spent on Facebook ads, it’s very hard to convince yourself that this is really what you should be doing.”
But membership lifts wine country as a whole. “Santa Barbara doesn’t have the recognition it should for the quality of wine that it produces,” explained Laslett, who plans to take this message directly to vintners. “When you have a one-on-one conversation and you understand what people’s concerns are and you explain the values of the association, people do understand it. It’s understanding that being part of the collective is powerful.”
She also may hire a PR firm and is identifying more money for marketing and expanding education, including the new Membership Morale program, which sponsors tastings for the winemakers. “First you share wine, then you share friendship, then you share knowledge,” said Laslett. “That’s how they’ll evolve into a very powerful community force.”
TOASTING FIRST RESPONDERS: Everyone’s doing what they can to help support those brave souls who fought against the Thomas Fire and waded through waves of mud during the 1/9 Debris Flow. Pure Order Brewing Company came up with The Montecito Red, a vibrant red ale with Citra hops, which will benefit the Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance. Catch a glass at 410 North Quarantina Street, or see pureorderbrewing.com. … Though the wine is from Washington State, Nocking Point — a collaborative wine club started by actor Stephen Amell of CW’s Arrow — is donating $20 for every new member who signs up with the code “FIRSTRESPONDER.” Half goes to RAKlife-Help California (a Ventura–S.B. organization) and half goes to First Responders Outreach through the Gary Sinise Foundation. They’ve created two wines to mark the effort: The First Responder’s Rosé, a grenache-cinsault blend from Walla Walla made by actor Sean Boyd, and the First Responder’s Red, a merlot-syrah blend from Columbia Valley made by none other than Bill Murray. See nockingpointwines.com.