Santa Barbara Vintners Seek Director

Fiolek leaves wine industry leadership post

by Jane Firstenfeld
Jim Fiolek Santa Barbara wine
Jim Fiolek said dozens of applicants have come forward following his resignation from the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association.
Santa Barbara, Calif.—The first weeks of 2013 were stunning to media who cover California’s wine industry—and to grapegrowers and winemakers in several of the state’s premier winegrowing regions. Contact lists and Rolodexes were whirling when longtime leaders left key positions in Monterey, Lake, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties. To date, only the Lake County Winegrape Commission has filled the void, appointing former deputy county economic development officer Debra Sommerfield to replace longtime president Shannon Gunier.

It’s hard to estimate the value an effective executive director brings to an association or commission. They answer first to their members, and must know their needs and accomplishments. They are matchmakers, cultivating mutually beneficial relationships among members, government and other community businesses and organizations. They become reliable sources for consumer and trade media, leveraging the value of every promotion and event with free, earned publicity.

In mid-January, Jim Fiolek wrote the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association (SBCVA) to announce his impending retirement after more than eight years at the helm. Well known for his playful personality, Fiolek mocked his aging eyesight: “My actual eyesight has gone from farsighted to nearsighted to almost no-sightedness over the decades, and there was always an astigmatism.”

More seriously, he wrote, “My vision for Santa Barbara County's vineyard and wine business started more than 40 years ago. It has gone through an interesting process, with parallels to my own eyesight. As the operator of a home winemaking and beer-making shop in Santa Barbara, a wine retailer, general manager and/or vice president at three of the SBCVA's original wineries, and now executive director at the SBCVA itself, I have looked at our business from many perspectives, yet with the same wants and hopes.”

“My current vision fully believes the association needs a fresh set of eyes. A new set of eyes.”

Tendering his resignation as of March 1, Fiolek said he would remain an active participant in the search for a successor, and he would stay on until someone is ready to take over. “I believe this is like a relay race: It’s better to pass the baton when everyone’s at full speed.” And then, he said, “I’m gone.”

A flood of applications
The transition probably won’t take that long. “As soon as my letter went out, we had literally dozens of applications, primarily from within the industry.” The job does demand someone with wine industry connections, he said.

“We have a marketing plan and vision. As people talk about what they’ve done, we ask ‘What would you see?’ We’re not looking for someone to come up with a match to our plan, but matching our vision with fresh eyes.”

The association recently announced plans to renew its original, “extremely effective” schedule of festivals, which leveraged and augmented member dues. In earlier days, Fiolek said, the revenue stream was roughly 30% dues and 70% festival income. That evolved to about a 50/50 split, he said. The festivals were small but lucrative, never selling more than 2,500 tickets.

Originally a volunteer executive director supporting himself as an auctioneer (a vocation to which he may return), Fiolek said that during his paid tenure, he feels his greatest success was to unify and recapture dwindling membership.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of money. Now we’ve got money in the bank and money in reserve. Not having unlimited funds, we had a model that at times was challenged by the economy.”

The biggest surprise, he said, was “Sideways.” The 2004 film was a critical and popular success that brought “exponentially more people” to the wineries of Santa Barbara County. The raunchy, rollicking adventures of Miles and Jack throughout the scenic Santa Ynez Valley, however, proved a double-edged sword, attracting tourists essentially ignorant of wine.

“The reason people came before was for the wine,” Fiolek observed. “We’ve always been about education, not entertainment.” Still, he acknowledged, “In some ways it was very helpful. A lot of wineries opened tasting rooms.” “Sideways” and the resulting flood of visitors helped to unite the county’s travel and hospitality businesses with the wine industry.

“We’re a natural resource,” he said. “The gateway experience to Santa Barbara. No other region is on the American Riviera. We’re essentially the Rhône Valley—not to mention we have a dozen wineries in the city of Santa Barbara. AVAs have increased in the county, many with their own associations.” Solvang, the village that served as home base for the “Sideways” misadventures, now has more than 60 tasting rooms, Fiolek said.

According to WinesVinesDATA, 199 wineries currently operate within the county. Fiolek said more than half of these are “alternating proprietorships”—depending on the vintage, as much as 75% to 85% of Santa Barbara-grown grapes are processed at custom crush and other facilities outside of the county. SBCVA membership has “essentially tripled.”

“A significant part of my job is to maintain the portal, whether people see it or not. I hope there is room for more growth.”

Santa Barbara, he said, is “far enough away from the citadel at Davis” to maintain something of a maverick nature. “The land is our teacher. We’ve learned a lot in a short period of time. We’ve got everything lined up: Cabernet in the right spot, Pinot in the right spot. We’ve learned from experience, not from the book. I’m proud of our vineyard managers and winemakers. The vine is the teacher.”

Zoning barriers remain
A major hurdle to continued wine industry growth in Santa Barbara is ongoing debate about land use. “Agriculture land is not nature conservancy land. And unlike residential land, it is supposed to be profitable,” Fiolek observed.

Like many other winegrowing areas within California and throughout the nation, Fiolek has been active in helping Santa Barbara winegrowers and vintners confront zoning issues. A winery ordinance review has been grinding its way through governing bodies and community members for years.

The fourth in a series of community meetings was scheduled Monday in Los Olivos to address the specific topic of “neighborhood compatibility.” What the next steps will be, or when a decision can be expected, are as yet unknown.

Meanwhile, the SBCVA continues on its missions, including its Vintners’ Foundation, which has since 2000 leveraged more than $40 million to nonprofit organization Direct Relief International.

When the association finds new eyes to address its future vision, Fiolek said, “The timing is perfect. It’s an area where the time has come again. Things are cyclical in this business. In the wine business, ‘new’ is counterintuitive. It takes a long time to establish a vineyard. I believe our time has come again.”

New positions for former association heads
Rhonda Motil, former executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, was named senior marketing director San Jose-based J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, one of the Central Coast’s best-known and largest wineries with 1.4 million-case annual production, per WinesVinesDATA.

After a nationwide search, Mark Chandler, longtime leader of the Lodi Winegrape Commission and more recently involved in the struggle to retain the now-defunct Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission, was appointed executive director of WineAmerica. The Washington, D.C.-based association represents wineries throughout the United States.

We’ll continue to keep our eyes on wine and grower associations across the continent in months to come. Please email jane@winesandvines.com with momentous new developments.

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