Though historically a region where competing producers played nicely together in the collective sandbox, Santa Barbara County wine country is on the verge of civil war, as a proposed fee to fund regional marketing efforts is drawing deep lines in those once still sands.
The 1 percent assessment — which would be levied as a countywide “business improvement district,” or BID — would apply to all bottles sold direct-to-consumer within California by Santa Barbara County wineries. The collected monies, estimated to be about $1 million per year, would bolster the finances and, presumably, the impact of the perpetually cash-strapped Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. The association is currently funded by membership dues, which amounts to an annual budget of about $400,000, far less than similar associations in other regions of California.
To create the BID, the Vintners must get 50 percent of the county’s wineries to support the fee, and then the support of the County of Santa Barbara and every other affected municipality. But the initial tally to create the district is a weighted one, based on each winery’s annual sales, so a small producer’s opposition matters less than a large winery’s support. In Santa Barbara County, where small producers predominate, opponents believe that the 50 percent mark could be tipped by a handful of larger producers. The Vintners Association says a straw poll indicated at least 60 percent in support.
And therein lies a primary rub for those who oppose the idea, and they’ve recently formed the Santa Barbara Wine Country Coalition to collectively argue their opinions. They sent a letter out to as many wineries as they could, rallying more opposition, and are ready to take their arguments to the county Board of Supervisors, which must sign off on the BID if it moves forward.
The coalition — which includes a broad swath of about 80 brands, from pioneers to new names, large estates to tiny urban garagistes — is concerned about a wide range of other issues associated with the BID proposal, including what they feel have been less-than-transparent tactics and a lack of outreach to better understand what the county’s wineries actually needed. There’s a general anti-taxation philosophy echoed by many involved in the opposition campaign as well as a lingering sense of mistrust about the association altogether and a fear that the BID will benefit larger wineries more than small ones.
“[T]he board decided to spend the last two years pursuing a cure without first checking to see what was wrong with the patient,” said David deLaski of Solminer Wines, who’s been leading the charge against the BID since it was first mentioned in 2018. “[S]upporters think once they get the BID passed, people will see how amazing the association runs and how much it benefits us all. Sadly, we will still have a dysfunctional association, and the funding may never even materialize.”
The Vintners Association, meanwhile, continues to view the BID — which they’re calling “The Wine Preserve” — as a silver-bullet solution to funding, much more predictable than the current reliance on membership dues. Proponents believe that the $1 million more per year would provide the stable footing required to compete against better-funded regions for tourist traffic, increased sales, and critical attention. They feel that very few consumers would balk at adding 35 cents to a $35 bottle of wine, as most are familiar with similar add-on fees at hotels and restaurants worldwide.
The new coalition has yet to propose an alternative funding model, although their recent press release suggests that the association might be better off if it were dissolved and reformed. “We’ve had the same bylaws for 40 years, and so much has changed in Santa Barbara County,” said Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Winery. “It’s time to restructure the organization.
See sbwinecountrycoalition.org for the 80 brands who are now supporting the opposition as well as links to the Santa Barbara Wine Country Coalition’s letter to vintners and press release.
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