There’s no denying the steady growth of Santa Barbara’s wine country over the past few decades, but hard facts about the industry’s effect on the regional economy have been as elusive as a bottle of 1976 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir.
That changed this week when the Santa Barbara Vintners released a 27-page economic impact report to a very packed house at Alisal Ranch in Solvang, where a who’s who of more than 200 winemakers and their associates gathered for the annual association meeting on Tuesday. Through primary research, public data, and a widely accepted financial analysis formula used by the Federal Reserve and major corporations, the report concluded that the industry contributes a grand total of $1.7 billion to Santa Barbara County. That’s based on, among myriad other metrics, more than 5,700 direct jobs, $93 million in state and local taxes ($7.5 million of which go straight to county coffers), $2.4 million in charitable contributions, and 860,000 annual winery visitors.
Authored by Stonebridge Research, which has completed similar reports for 24 other wine regions since 2004, the report also showed potential for much more reaping, confirming what industry boosters have long claimed: that almost half the grapes grown in Santa Barbara County are shipped to other parts of the state to be made into wine, which means bigger bucks for those counties. But the research also revealed, to a few audible sighs in the Alisal crowd, that nearly 80 percent of Santa Barbara wines must use out-of-the-county resources of some sort, from warehousing and trucking to graphic artists and equipment brokers, before they are sold.
“It’s really a startling number,” said lead author Barbara Insel, who estimated that another 2,000-plus full-time positions and $300 million more could be created in Santa Barbara County if just 20 percent more grapes stayed here. “You’re creating a lot of jobs for San Luis Obispo County.”
All of this information comes at a very strategic time for vintners, as the County of Santa Barbara’s three-and-a-half-year-old process to update the existing winery development rules will finally come to a head in 2016. That update was prioritized in 2011 by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors, who requested a review of the 2004 winery ordinance as a response to some wine country residents worried about traffic, drunk driving, special events, and other growth issues. The ordinance revisions, which kicked off in August 2012, are expected to come before the Planning Commission in the next few months.
Whether this new report will make a major difference in that arena is unclear, but County Supervisor Doreen Farr — whose 3rd District includes the vineyard-laced Santa Ynez Valley — was not surprised by the numbers. “We know that the wine industry is tremendously important to Santa Barbara County and has enormous economic benefits,” she said. “That’s pretty well established.”
Farr said studies like this do inform decision-makers, but that the winery ordinance update — which she may vote on if it comes to the Board of Supervisors before she retires at the end of 2016 — isn’t just about money. “At the end of the day, zoning came into place to have us live side-by-side as congenially as possible,” she said. “That’s always my goal when I am looking at any kinds of changes.”
The vintners, meanwhile, hope their new report makes it clear how integral they are to modern Santa Barbara County. As S.B. Vintners board chair Brook Williams said at the start of Tuesday’s meeting, “It’s important that we show how valuable the wine community is to this community.”
By Paul Wellman (file)