Here’s a curiosity to quaff: The new leader of Santa Barbara County’s primary winery and vineyard association admittedly knows next to nothing about the wine industry.
“I like wine,” says Alison Laslett, who was named CEO of the Santa Barbara Vintners last week after an exhaustive five-month search. “That’s the extent of my wine background.”
What she is an expert at, however, is leading nonprofit organizations. For the past three years, the Marina del Rey resident, who grew up in North Carolina and Maine, ran her own leadership consultancy, and that followed about two decades of work with a variety of nonprofits, including Parent Revolution, where she used a $5 million budget to advocate for education reform.
“That’s been my interest since I was quite young: How can you work with people so that they can be as effective as they can be in their industry?” she explained. “I came out of education activism — you can’t find a more contentious industry. That gave me real skills for leading people who are trying to effect change. I’m a team builder, and my interest is speaking to disparate parties and helping them find common ground.”
Laslett succeeds Morgen McLaughlin, who was hired in April 2013 and left this past July for a job in Oregon running the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. Though she preferred working on marketing campaigns for the region, McLaughlin found herself drowning in county politics. Prior to her appointment, the county’s planning department responded to the concerns of some Santa Ynez Valley residents over wine industry growth by trying to update the winery ordinance. After five years of meetings and rule making, McLaughlin was able to successfully rally the wine community in front of the Board of Supervisors in November 2016 to defeat the update, which most in the industry felt was even more restrictive than the current rules.
That anti-industry sentiment and a rigorous planning process — which have led to a concentration of tasting rooms in developed areas such as Los Olivos — are just a couple of challenges inherited by Laslett, a Sarah Lawrence College graduate. Another is that Santa Barbara winery owners can be a finicky bunch, wanting more from their association membership yet not wanting to pay as much in dues as other regions such as Paso Robles.
The county is also home to six very distinct wine-growing appellations, with at least one more already proposed. Many of these have their own associations, and they tend to specialize in different grape varieties, from cabernet sauvignon in warm Happy Canyon to pinot noir in the cool Sta. Rita Hills. As such, conveying a simple and succinct story about Santa Barbara wine to an international audience is almost impossible. Some are leaning toward “conjunctive” labeling, in which “Santa Barbara” would be mandated to be somewhere on wine bottles, as that’s a move that other regions, such as Lodi, Napa, and Monterey, have employed without too much controversy. Expect that discussion to begin in earnest soon.
Laslett, who is in process of moving to Santa Barbara County after 17 years of living in Los Angeles, spoke to me last Thursday, the day after she was hired. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
What is your wine background? This is my favorite question everyone asks me. I like wine. That’s the extent of my wine background. What drew me up here was the gorgeous landscape and environment, but for this position, it was really the people. With everyone I spoke with, I found myself more and more engaged.
I wasn’t looking for a job in wine, but I was looking for a community that I could immerse myself in and really work with so they could achieve what they want to do. I found that in this wine community. I can see that it’s very strong and alive.
What do you see as your primary challenges? The only thing wrong with this region is that people don’t know about it. It’s two hours from L.A. and five hours from San Francisco. It has everything that it needs. It’s low-key. It’s authentic. It’s got great food, and the wine is even better. From what I can tell, it’s just that the vintners haven’t found a way to share this area’s wine as broadly as they could. That’s what everyone wants. I view my job as coming in to unify the vintners and bring them together to find their collective voice so they can share their wine. Wine is inherently communal.
What are your thoughts on telling the diverse story of Santa Barbara wine, which many say is a tough task? Every time this issue comes up, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Why do you have to produce only one kind of wine? Why can’t you just produce spectacular wines? I don’t know why you have to put yourself in a box like that, because Santa Barbara County can do it all. If you set the bar that Santa Barbara County wine is great wine, then you don’t have to just be great at pinot or great at chardonnay.
What are your thoughts on the wine country politics? When you deal with any kind of conflict, one of the biggest problems is that people aren’t listening to each other. People tend to shout when they feel they’re not being heard. The most effective thing is to give everyone a voice, so everyone gets their airtime to express themselves. People stand up when they feel threatened. What you have to figure out is why the growth of the wine industry is genuinely threatening people. What is that fear? When you dismantle a conflict and get to the core of it, you usually find that the fear is unfounded. People will always overreact to change. Human beings don’t like it.
Are you intimidated taking a job in an industry you don’t know much about? I am not. Maybe I should be. I’m confident in my skills to run an organization, and that’s my job. I’m thrilled I was hired without knowledge of the wine industry. My focus is to build this region into the best wine business that it can be. That’s what I know how to do. I can learn about wine along the way. ■