The potential silver-bullet solution to funding Santa Barbara County wine country’s perpetual marketing woes has been unloaded, as the proposed 1 percent fee on bottle sales is now off the table.
With opposition to the idea rising, and even a preemptive lawsuit threatened, the board of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association voted on Wednesday night to abort their mission, which has been in the works for two years. Had they been able to create a countywide business improvement district, or BID, the association expected to raise $1 million more annually, more than doubling its current budget. It would have been the first time the BID model, which is common in tourism and retail industries, was applied to a wine region.
The extra money, the association argued, would have put them on better footing to battle for attention, tourists, and sales against regions such as Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, and Temecula. In those wine countries, the regional associations enjoy bigger marketing budgets because a greater percentage of the area’s wineries sign on as members and are also willing to pay higher dues than what’s charged in Santa Barbara.
But there was opposition from the start to the Wine BID, and the Vintners Association’s series of meetings and outreach efforts failed to change many minds. In recent weeks, more than 80 brands threw their weight behind the Santa Barbara Wine Country Coalition, which opposed the proposal on a number of grounds. Then last week, Lompoc City Council voted unanimously to shield that city’s wineries from the fee, a move that could have been replicated in every municipality even if the County of Santa Barbara approved the BID.
Though the proposal did enjoy the support of many wineries both big and small, the prevailing winds against the fee were blowing quite hard, and causing a great deal of division within the wine community. So the Vintners Association pulled the plug on Wednesday night.
On Thursday morning, a letter went out to every winery in the county, members and nonmembers alike. Indeed, the letter is a direct invitation to those nonmember wineries to join the association in order to make a more collaborative and better funded future together.
“In recent weeks, it has become apparent, most notably through a threatened lawsuit, that this process is dividing our community,” read the letter, signed by the Vintners’ CEO, Alison Laslett, and the extended board. “This was never our intent; therefore, the Santa Barbara Vintners will no longer lead the charge to form the Wine Preserve.”
The letter continued, “We know that many of you will be disappointed by this news, as you have been supporting this effort from the beginning. Others will be relieved to hear the initiative has been dropped. Regardless, now more than ever is a time to support each other.”
Rather than institute the mandatory fee, the association will continue as a voluntary, membership organization. There is one board seat open, and others opening next June, so the letter encourages members to apply.
The letter also details various successes over the past three years, and notes that the Vintners Association did reach out to every winery, whether members or not, to distribute reopening information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many of you call and e-mail us, and use our resources. We are able to help since we are funded by members,” said the letter. “We invite all Vintners to join with us now to build a unified, dedicated, effective organization. Our ethos and our efforts have been for the benefit of the greater industry and that will continue.”
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