Wine Industry Shakeup: Leader of Santa Barbara's Largest Winery Group Steps Down

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/22/17
photos by Tenley Fohl and Allison Levine

The head of the Santa Barbara wine industry’s most influential group is stepping down. Morgen McLaughlin has been Executive Director at Santa Barbara Vintners since 2013. After she leaves her post in mid-July, she’ll become Executive Director at the Willamette Valley Wineries Association in Oregon.
 
Ms. McLaughlin’s impact on the organization that’s an advocate for the majority of Santa Barbara’s wineries – 130 out of the county’s 200 – is undeniable. Some of the changes she drove were small, but important: the group’s relatively new moniker, for example – Santa Barbara Vintners – replaced its more cumbersome predecessor, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. Ms. McLaughlin also pushed for increased training of member wineries in areas like hospitality and responsible beverage service, as well as increased engagement between the local wine industry and Santa Barbara government officials.
 
Morgen McLaughlin (Fohl photo)
Her greatest strides were, perhaps, in the group’s never-ending effort to increase the visibility of local wine, both domestically and internationally. “Santa Barbara County deserves to be considered as a top wine region in the world,” Ms. McLaughlin said in an exclusive interview this week with the News-Press. “To be a player on that stage, you have to think worldly.”
 
To that end, she helped spawn a slew of road trip opportunities for Santa Barbara wineries. Sporadic trips to Los Angeles, the holy grail drive market for Santa Barbara wineries, were marked with intimate culinary gatherings at lucrative venues throughout the city. She also took a handful of promotional trips abroad, responding to what she sees as a growing interest by international media and trade “to learn about California wine beyond Napa and Sonoma.”
 
She adds, “Having to increase the profitability for our tasting rooms versus having a place on the world stage – those are two very different executions. I’m happy with what we did on both those tracks.”
 
But Ms. McLaughlin’s most vivid memories from her years in Santa Barbara may well be the roadblocks. “The job and its challenges were much greater than I expected,” admits Ms. McLaughlin, 44, who points the finger at local politics and overly aggressive land use restrictions that are squelching the Santa Barbara wine country experience.
 
“On the surface, the job seems easy,” she says. “This region in one of most well-known parts of the world. You travel, and people salivate when you mention Santa Barbara. You’ve got an amazing location, perfect weather, and wines that run the gamut of style. You think it’s a very easy story to tell. But then you quickly realize how restricted wineries are in land use.”
 
Indeed, county rules governing development by wineries have long been famously obstructive in Santa Barbara. When winemaker Michael Larner finally won approval last month to build a winery and tasting room on his Ballard Canyon property, for example, it was only after a contentious and expensive seven-year fight. Lawmakers and filibustering neighbors point to issues like traffic and noise while winemakers and advocates like Ms. McLaughlin point to other wine regions’ far less restrictive rubrics. The result? A wine country experience defined mainly by tasting rooms – clustered tasting-only venues in Los Olivos and downtown Santa Barbara, for example – rather than wine estates.
 
“You can’t remain competitive on the world stage, and you can’t attract serious wine drinkers and connoisseurs, by just having a tasting room-only model,” insists Ms. McLaughlin. “They want to experience a winery, vineyards, dinners in a barrel room – touch and feel! And you have to have a pipeline of new projects.
 
“The wine industry has not been able to get people into elected office who really understand wine and tourism and agriculture, and the intersection of it all. Until that mentality can evolve, having someone like myself onboard is simply not the best utilization of my skills.”
 
Ms. McLaughlin also laments the absence of a county tourism office in Santa Barbara.
 
“You have all these smaller tourism groups – Visit Santa Barbara, Visit Santa Ynez Valley, Visit Santa Maria, Solvang, Buellton, Lompoc – each with their own marketing, board, budget,” she says. “Each plays a part but they’re doing it individually. For Santa Barbara to be competitive against Paso Robles and Sonoma and Napa… they have to pool money to be used collectively and to deliver a cohesive message to the consumer. I spent 2-1/2 years trying to bring these respective associations together and to agree to fund a significant investment in wine tourism, but I wasn’t able to get it done. Until that happens, we’re going to continue to see low visitor numbers."
 
Ms. McLaughlin points to data released just this month by Silicon Valley Bank and Wine Business Monthly that tracked monthly tasting room visitation numbers throughout the U.S. for 2016 and that put Santa Barbara second to last among California regions, just ahead of Mendocino. Paso Robles’ numbers, at 1342 visitors per month, nearly doubled Santa Barbara’s 751 (and rivaled Napa County’s 1497).  To be fair, Paso and Napa are larger than Santa Barbara, and they have more tasting rooms. “But we’re 100 miles from eight million people,” says Ms. McLaughlin, referencing L.A. “We should be leading in visitation numbers. The Santa Barbara caché is just not being tapped.”
 
Morgen McLaughlin, left, speaks during a 2016 pinot noir trade event at L.A.'s Republique, as winemakers like Palmina's Steve Clifton, Fess Parker's  Blair Fox and Alma Rosa's Richard Sanford look on (Levine photo)
As she turns her sights on Oregon and the 230 wineries she’ll be representing, Ms. McLaughlin’s excitement hinges a lot on how the Willamette Valley is different. “They don’t have land use restrictions. Not to say that as the region grows they won’t be faced by that, but right now they have responsible growth and wineries are able to get permits and host guests,” she says.
 
“And the focus on pinot noir is refreshing,” she adds. The popular red wine is the most widely planted grape by far in the Willamette Valley, which stretches from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south, and which grows 80% of all the wine in Oregon. “It is, first and foremost, a pinot noir region.” Santa Barbara, on the other hand, while also a coveted pinot noir site, lays claim to growing many other varieties well, too. And while diversity is an interesting story to tell, it’s not an easy one to market.
 
Ms. McLaughlin will be moving to Portland with her husband, wine distributor Nathaniel Smith, and the youngest of their three sons, who’ll be starting high school in the fall.
 
Matt Murphy, President of the Santa Barbara Vintners Board, says that “while I am sorry to see Morgen go, I could not be happier for her to have the opportunity to lead another world class wine growing region.”
 
Mr. Murphy says the Board is focused now on filling the Executive Director position, which is garnering “intense interest from people all over the country,” according to Ms. McLaughlin.
 
“One of the primary headwinds facing our local wine industry is a challenging regulatory environment, including, but not limited to, restrictive land use polices, limiting growth of the Santa Barbara County wine industry,” says Mr. Murphy. “One of the core competencies of the next Executive Director of our association will be to build on our association's successes combatting these regulations and advocating on our behalf at the city and county levels of government.”


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