by Laura Ness
Regardless of the size of a winegrowing region or the number of wineries or vineyards in it, the biggest challenge is continuing to attract visitors in an ever-evolving marketplace. For many of them, add the challenges of a not large enough budget, not enough hours in the day, and not enough hands on deck.
With the inaugural Winery Association Leadership Conference only a few months away, the Wine Industry Advisor asked some wine associations to find out what challenges they are facing and have in common.
For some groups, especially newer ones, like Lamorinda in Contra Costa County, basic survival is the key. Says Susan Captain, board member of the Lamorinda Wine Growers Association, “Finding workers to help manage our Vineyards, city rules and regulations, small wild animals (raccoons, turkeys and foxes) grabbing our fruits.”
More established organizations, like Paso Robles or the Stags Leap District, struggle with apathy – people are just so busy with their own lives, paying attention to the group’s needs is secondary. Fortunately for them, the ship is pretty much on autopilot.
“If you asked me 20 years ago what were my challenges,” says Nancy Bialek, Executive Director of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association, “I would have said just struggling to exist!” Today, she says that the group is a well-oiled machine, and they have well-established events. Even so, she says creating opportunities that benefit all members is a challenge: everyone has a little tweak on what benefits them. The reality is that the AVA is a “secondary” priority and she’s always trying to bring it to the forefront. Nonetheless, she notes, “Communication can be glacially slow.”
Pat Spangler, who has served as President of the Southern Oregon Wine Association (SOWA) and Umpqua Valley Winegrowers in Southern Oregon, and is currently on the board of both, says the biggest challenge is agreeing on messaging that is going to differentiate Southern Oregon as a wine growing region, raise the visibility for the region’s wine and resonate with consumers. It’s a challenge getting people to support a group or regional focus when most wineries are so small, they worry more about driving traffic to their individual tasting rooms.
To combat the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude many wineries express when membership renewal time comes around, he says he wrote a letter at the end of each year detailing all the value the association had created for its members, including tradeshows, trade tastings, ad campaigns and passport-style events.
Terry Brandborg, who serves as President of the tiny Elkton AVA and also sits on the board of the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers in Oregon, identifies many challenges for the state, beginning with the need to increase quality across the board.
Building the necessary infrastructure in the Umpqua area, which lies between the metropolis of Portland and the culturally enhanced Ashland area, is critical. “We are always looking for how to get tourists to spend some time in our region. As you drive through the Umpqua, there are no visible vineyards or wineries along I-5, and we don’t have enough signage. More upscale hotels and restaurants are needed.”
Another challenge he points out is that of attracting, training and keeping great talent is an issue. Says Brandborg, “We have seen a lot more vineyard development than winery development, the vineyards are all geared towards mechanization, and there are not a lot of jobs involved. With the emphasis on vineyard development and not winery development, most all of that new fruit is going out of the area, not serving any benefit to the growth of the local wine tourism industry.”
He also calls out general apathy. “When we first moved here, there was a vibrant culture of the winegrowers and meeting attendance was high and very social. Now there is hardly anyone that comes to meetings other than the board members themselves. It is discouraging. I’m sure there are similar issues with other organizations, but all of the same people volunteer to do all of the heavy lifting for the organization and our industry.”
As Executive Director of the Monterey Winegrowers, Kim Stemler admits hers is among the larger such organizations in California. Getting the smaller subAVA groups within to participate in the conversation has proven tough. Belonging to multiple associations in a region can lead to membership fatigue. Big challenges for her group have been legal questions, and issues around salaries and benefits. Turning to help from her colleagues in other associations who stay in touch regularly, she recently restructured the office staffing from full time to part time help. One of her organization’s focal points is advocating improving hospitality infrastructure, which is sorely lacking in this largely rural and remote region. Another challenge is retuning the region’s message to appeal to millennial consumers who are predisposed towards red blends and not to Chardonnay, which is the area’s primary export.
Jennifer Porter has been Executive Director of the Paso Robles Winegrowers for 5 years. Apathy is the biggest problem: “lots of people pay a lot to be members, but we never hear from them. It’s always the same people who participate.”
She’s quick to point out that hers is not an ag commission, but a hospitality association, so they need to get members to renew each year. She says of 500 members, 163 are wineries, who provide the bulk of the funding.
“Those who are involved are huge advocates. But many don’t pay attention: they don’t see the value. They don’t open emails or come to meetings! We’ve resorted to robocalls to make people aware of membership deadlines.”
Currently, the bylaws only permit wineries and growers to be on the board: Porter is trying to open this up to all members.
Megan Metz, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers agrees with Porter: “Apathy is standard: it’s the old 80/20 rule.” Bandwidth to handle all the aspects of digital marketing, including website, SEO, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, in addition to events, is a constant challenge. As one of the smaller regions, she struggles with how to compete with the big guys. Getting grants is hugely important: this is a priority for most organizations we spoke with. Because the SCMWA dues only bring in about $100k of a $500k budget, they have to be creative on how to bring in more money from events. Communicating how dues paid translate into direct value for each member is a concern, too. “Some metric is needed,” she notes.
Chris Chandler, ED of Livermore Winegrowers, observes, “I don’t know that wine association challenges are that different than other, similar non-profit associations. Association executive directors and boards are always trying to find new (non-dues) sources of revenue.” She notes that the plethora of events is becoming a challenge in and of itself: many other non-profits utilize wine as part of their own fundraising events, which tends to dilute the uniqueness of wine and/or wine country events.
Notes Chandler, “I see it, and I’ve heard this from my executive director counterparts. The good news is the popularity of wine has found its way into so many aspects of our lives.”
She points to all the aspects of running any business, naming Human Resources, Operations, Marketing & Communications, Finance, Sponsorship, Advertising, Government Affairs/Regulatory, etc. “In a small non-profit, the roles may all belong to one or two people. Keeping current with newly passed legislation can be daunting. Keeping up with federal and state employment laws, for example, can be overwhelming for all small businesses.”
Ann Wofford, Secretary of the El Dorado Winery Association says, “We have the blessing and the curse of Highway 50: great drive-thru traffic, but unless guests already know that there are wineries along that section of the 50 corridor, it is a challenge to divert them off the highway and onto our back roads. That leads to the challenge of County, DOT and CalTrans restrictions and ordinances. Our businesses tend to be in rural areas and so clear and consistent wayfaring signs (and winery-oriented signage along Highway 50) is key. However, we are in a country setting, and so the blight of too many signs is very real, and ‘keeping it rural’ is extremely important to our neighbors who are not part of the agritourism economy. Too many signs would destroy the bucolic atmosphere guests are seeking: it’s a real Catch-22.”
Terrie Prod’Hon, Treasurer of the El Dorado Winery Association, notes that keeping such a diverse group of winemakers on the same page is a real challenge. The call to rally around a particular variety or collection of varieties is tempting, but the “diversity is our strength” idea is gaining traction. Building consensus and finding the right mix of events to serve such a geographically spread out area is always a main concern.
Bernadette Byrne, Executive Director of the Mendocino Winegrowers says she is hard at work on a specialty crop grant that will help her market the Mendocino AVA as a place of new possibilities for those who want a career in wine. The association, which is solely vintners and growers, relies on these grants to help spread the word about this vast AVA that is often perceived as too far and too remote. “Half the grapes we grow leave the county,” she notes. “How do we grow our winery base? How do we reach a new audience?” A significant goal of the grant will be to raise the price of Mendocino grapes.
“Mendocino is struggling as a county and our membership dues are limited,” Byrne notes. Having an effective board is really critical, and she notes it’s hard to get nominees to step up to the plate. She’s always looking for passionate winegrowers who want to evangelize, but with such a limited pool of candidates, she says, “How many times can you ask them?” Another challenge is that they are losing their already limited workforce to the booming cannabis industry. This is likely not just a Mendocino phenomenon, but one that will increasingly put pressure on the already underserved labor market.
Wendy Euchus, who runs the Madera Vintners Association, says 10% of her budget is funded by dues, so events are critical. They currently have 8 winery members. “Reaching and attracting an audience outside of our local market is our constant challenge. Our association is very event-driven, which attracts 7,000-10,000 per year alone, and that is great. However, those events are attended primarily by locals, and we need tourism from outside areas to sustain and grow as other wine regions have. Shifting our marketing from local to out-of-area is our focus lately.”
Dave Muret of the Santa Lucia Highlands Artisans Association has successfully guided the group from its humble beginnings to a small but powerful force in the marketplace. “Our group grew organically,” he says. “It started really small. Phase 1 literally was all about getting consensus. There are lots of family feuds in this area. We are a growers group: many didn’t have labels and didn’t see the value of investing in an advocacy group.”
Dave’s biggest challenge right now is finding someone to replace him, as he’s moving on to another opportunity. Of the challenges faced by the group, he says, “The financial part is the hugest challenge. We’ve raised dues and acreage assessments twice in 10 years. Our Gala has become a decent money-maker. You must get past that money hurdle.”
Melissa Lavin of the Amador Vintners Association notes that there is an Amador Winegrowers Association as well, and that 25% of the wineries grow their own grapes, so they belong to both groups. Her biggest challenge is awareness of the region, its history and its breadth.
“In our 4k acres, we represent the whole grapegrowing world with over 40 different varieties. Napa and Sonoma have been buying our fruit for 60 years.” She insists that most success in building a following comes from education and credits Lodi with doing a fantastic job of promoting Zinfandel. “Ours is older,” she says. “We have vines dating back to the 1800s.”
Lavin is social media savvy and recognizes the growing importance of digital media in reaching new wine drinkers in both her core market (Sacramento) and in southern California, an increasingly receptive audience. But chasing after members to provide current info and to keep their own websites updated is another big challenge for her. “They have to change: they have to adjust to the new customer.”
And that brings up another challenge: geography. “Today’s modern guest wants to be ferried around. Uber and Lyft are not happening in Amador County. We have to catch up.”
No matter what challenges a particular winery association may face, having the ability to share concerns, frustrations and advice with others in the same or similar situations, is a godsend. Several of the winery groups we spoke with often seek help from one another, as well as from the Wine Institute: some even enjoy getting together, trading stories and bonding over a wealth of different, yet predictably common experiences.
If you’re interested in learning more about what other winery associations are doing, and how they are handling their various challenges, you might want to join your colleagues at the first ever Winery Association Leadership Conference to be held February 22–23, 2017, in Washington D.C.
It’ an opportunity to hear more association stories and help build a compendium of best practices that can assist winery associations all over North America survive and thrive in an ever-changing world.