Santa Maria Wine Association Dissolves... Think Tank is Born

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/12/14)

A group committed to promoting the wines and vineyards of the Santa Maria Valley has fallen from the vine, announcing this week that it will dissolve.

Chardonnay at Byron Vineyard (credit: Gabe Saglie)
The Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association was founded 10 years ago to supplement the attention the region was getting from the local wine industry’s overarching body – the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, or SBCVA.  The group collected dues from Santa Maria-based growers and winemakers to produce Santa Maria-focused tastings and events.  Its biggest claim to fame was the annual Chardonnay Symposium, launched in 2010, which drew hundreds of consumers to a comprehensive three-day affair celebrating Santa Maria’s white wine darling.

But new leadership at the SBCVA led the Santa Maria group to rethink its strategy.

“The decision was made almost entirely because of the new leadership,” says Matt Murphy, whose family owns Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria and who was elected president of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association last year.  He’s referencing Morgen McLaughlin, who left New York’s Finger Lakes region to assume the executive director’s role at the SBCVA last April.

“There’s excitement from us on the board, seeing what Morgen has been able to do in a short amount of time,” says Mr. Murphy, who’s especially excited about the “new and unique spin” that Ms. Laughlin has put on the annual spring and fall tasting events produced by the SBCVA.

“We see that now there’s potential for Santa Maria Valley to be even-handedly represented among all of Santa Barbara’s AVAs,” he adds.

Cambria Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley (credit: Gabe Saglie)
Santa Maria is, in fact, one of five AVAs, or federally-designated American Viticulture Areas, within Santa Barbara County.  Established in 1981, it’s also its oldest, building a reputation over the decades for pinot noir and chardonnay, mainly, and becoming home to such high-profile labels as Au Bon Climat, Qupe, Foxen, Cambria, Byron, Bien Nacido and Riverbench. 

While the SBCVA is tasked with promoting the wine region as a whole, each individual AVA – including Sta. Rita Hills, the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon and Ballard Canyon – has found it necessary to form its own marketing organization to bolster visibility.  These sub-groups collect dues above and beyond what members may also be paying into the SBCVA.  The dissolution of the Santa Maria Valley body stems from the board’s new perception that “we can now go further as a unified association rather than as a splintered group with limited funding,” according to Mr. Murphy, who joined the SBCVA Board of Directors just two months ago.

Many of the former members of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association are banding under a new moniker: the Santa Maria Valley Wine Think Tank.  This dues-free and all-volunteer group of winemakers and farmers will aim to conceive new ways to promote tourism to the Santa Maria Valley and to bolster its image.

Cambria Chardonnay prepped for shipping (credit: Gabe Saglie)
In a Tuesday press release, Ms. McLaughlin said, “The Santa Maria Valley is a jewel in the crown of the Santa Barbara County wine region.  As the SBCVA continues to work towards its strategic mission of raising the visibility of Santa Barbara County and its five AVAs, the ideas and input from this new think tank will be vital in assisting our efforts.”

The Chardonnay Symposium will continue, although it will now be produced and promoted by the Dolphin Bay Resort in Shell Beach, in San Luis Obispo County.  “It’s becoming a hallmark event,” admits Mr. Murphy.  “But putting it on was starting to control what our Board was doing year-round, and it was in our best interest to pass it on.”  The fifth annual Symposium is scheduled for the weekend of May 16th. 

For more information on the SBCVA, click here.


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