Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Anti-Winery Sentiment is Building


The Winter of Our Public Discontent

John Steinbeck
Consistent with the farming traditions of the past, the wine business has long been known for its collegial, collaborative and giving ways. There are always exceptions but people in the wine business historically have worked together for the common good of all.

Up until today in the business, there hasn't been a sense that your neighbor was a rival or competitor. They have been more of a co-laborer, each helping to build the pie larger and get the message to the masses.

But life hasn't been quite as neighborly lately, particularly in the North Coast wine community where an anti-winery, anti-tourist sentiment has been simmering in many locales for years, building, and is now producing some of the following headlines in the area in which I live:


The Source of Our Discontent

A Mixture of Interests Collide
Where is the source of this discontent emanating - or maybe the better question is from who?
In some respects this backlash is self-inflicted because we used to promote the wine business as a weigh-station for wannabe rich and famous tourists. The general populace however roots for the underdog and hopes the top dog falls off their mountain top. That's been made abundantly clear with the Occupy Movement messaging and the related social threads since the Great Recession.

Ironically that lifestyle characterization for the wine business is largely a mirage because anyone in the business knows the average return on assets and pre-tax profitability really isn't that great compared to alternative investments. But perhaps if the business were seen by non-industry folks as it really is: family farms and hard-working family business people instead of affluent toys - perhaps then the non-wine community wouldn't process the discussion as "us against them" or "they can afford to go without." 
No matter the sociology, while the underlying sentiment might be a part of the issue, more directly to the question, the discontent is emanating from three primary groups; locals, politicians, and the wine business itself.
Local and non-local individuals are attracted to the wine country lifestyle, but at times the reality of living in a grape growing community and dealing with frost protection fans, sulfur spray, early morning tractors, tourists, traffic, and late night events -  that becomes an eye-opening experience and wasn't what they thought it would be like to live in wine country.

Other people moved to wine country with eyes open and found their perfect spot with just the right balance of activity, views, and wineries but they don't want to see change in their neighborhood or on their street. Let that be in somebody else's backyard. It ends up being a discussion of landowner rights once new landowners seek to develop their holdings. That situation is represented by this newspaper quote:
"Bill Hocker who owns a weekend home down the street from the project site, said it's much too big for the area and would draw 18,000 people up a rural winding road each year for tastings and events. Hocker said he is organizing neighborhood opposition to the winery project, similar to what's been happening to other winery projects in the past year. There's a whole host of issues we're going to attack on, Hocker said."

This isn't my best Picture
Politicians are another source of the discontent. When dealing with vocal opposing sides in a public debate, it's the rare politician who will take a firm stand unless they know they are in the super majority. They have constituents to please on both sides of a debate. Some politicians though pander to the anti-tourism sentiment and that seems to be growing. That view is represented by statements such as these:
"Proponents of tougher regulations, including Councilman Steve Barbose, had argued that an excess of tasting rooms could turn Sonoma into a one-note town friendlier to tourists than residents."
The anti-tourism view flies in the face of the economics and job creation in all wine regions. Napa Valley for example has over three million tourists visiting annually leaving $1.4 billion in direct spending and generating $51.7 million in tax revenue, while visitors to Sonoma County spent $1.55 billion and paid $65.64 million in taxes. That funds a lot of local programs that enhance the quality of life.

        The Wine Industry

The final source of the public discontent is coming from a minority of grape growers, winery owners, and winery employees each dissenting for different reasons, but producing comments such as these from the employees of a winery who are concerned with the permitting of a nearby winery project:
"It will be like a light bulb at night for their parties. The 37 planned spaces wouldn't be sufficient to handle the crowds. The access driveway is located on a particularly busy street, and be a misuse of the Winery Definition Ordinance."

Intention, Good or Bad, is Not Enough

It's hard to criticize these actions and comments. Each person is acting in what they perceive as their own self-interest, and we are all self-interested to some degree. There has to be a balance between serving a community and serving tourists. Almost all of us who are used to looking out their back yard at a vineyard, would be more than disappointed if the owner decided to put a barn 20 feet from our existing fence line and blocked our view. Who wouldn't raise a stink over that?

That said, it appears to me when industry participants themselves start fanning the flames of debate in the press, we've lost sight of the collaborative values upon which the industry has thrived. From my vantage point that is a step backward in thinking. We still desperately need each other for shared success, without which this kind public discontent leads to disturbing headlines such as this one:


Plenty of Ethan Allen Hawleys to Go Around

Hard Balancing Act
Each of the sources and parties of discontent have entirely valid points. But finding the right compromises between job creation, tax revenue, house values, jobs, and the varying local views of what is, and isn't desired in an individual's lifestyle and locale isn't an easy task. No question, it's a very hard balancing act but it's one that's needed.

Its also not a problem isolated to just Napa and Sonoma. A read of the press in the Central Valley, Willamette Valley, and Central Coast of California and many other places across the U.S. will find similar Op-Eds, self-interested debates and articles discussing everything noted here and more.

In my opinion the wine business has some work to do by first doing a gut-check and making sure we are still committed to our historic cooperative values. There is also a need for on-going regional PR efforts to remind locals of all the good the wine business does in communities, and how the presence of wineries enhances lifestyle and property values. And last, the business community needs to do a better job of educating local politicians on the benefits of the wine business, the evolved need for direct to consumer sales and entertainment, and the financial benefits tourism has in their regions.
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