Bringing the Wine World to Sonoma

After fires, Sonoma Vintners set to renew push for global recognition in coming year

by Andrew Adams
wine vineyard vinexpo explore conference
The Vinexpo Explore conference will bring wine buyers from around the world to Sonoma County in September. The inaugural event, seen here, took place in Austria in 2017.

Santa Rosa, Calif.—After introducing a new interim executive director, the Sonoma County Vintners is looking to further enhance its members' profile in the international wine business.

Heading into 2018, the group’s leaders are striving to ensure Sonoma County is getting headlines for its thriving wine country and not devastating wildfires. Just like the Sonoma County Winegrowers, which also held its annual meeting last week, the Vintners are eager to put the fires behind them.

It was the last meeting for Jean Arnold Sessions, who is departing after two years as executive director. Arnold Sessions praised her staff, who represented the Vintners during the October wildfires as her home in Sonoma Valley was threatened and members of her family lost homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa.

“For the way this community has pulled together after this incredible end of the year 2017, I could not be more proud to be part of the Sonoma community,” she said.

Arnold Sessions was in the midst of moving to a new home when the group’s board president, Russell Joy, who is the vice president of California operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, called her about the executive director position on an interim basis. Arnold Sessions said she was surrounded by moving boxes, and after two years with the Vintners she just now has time to finish the move. “I’m still amidst all those boxes; I’d like to unpack now,” she said.

The Vintners were looking for a new executive director after Carolyn Stark left the post in 2016. Stark had held the role for a year, having replaced Honore Comfort, who was in the post from 2006 to 2015.

Joy, who was the former president of Patz & Hall Wine Co. before its acquisition by Ste. Michelle, praised Arnold Sessions for her work and introduced the new interim executive director Michael Haney. “You’ve left us in really good hands,” he said.

Haney had been the Vintners’ director of membership and government relations, and prior to that he was the executive director of the charitable wine auction l’Ete du Vin. Haney also produces wine under his own label, Black Dog Cellars. “Let me first thank all of you,” Haney said. “2017 was a challenging year for many of you in this room.”

Haney went on to highlight some of 2017’s successes, including the Sonoma County Barrel Auction raising $794,500 and the Taste of Sonoma event that brought together 165 wineries pouring for nearly 2,000 guests at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. He also announced the group had signed another two-year deal with Visa Signature to collaborate on winemaker dinners and other events.

A survey of the fires’ real effects
Former executive director Comfort now works with Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park and is helping to lead a wide-ranging survey of the wine industry following the fires. Rather than the total destruction often portrayed in national news accounts of the fires, she said the fires instead showed the wine industry—and the community at large—at its best in being resilient and eager to help or donate to the relief efforts.

The results of the survey are expected to be released later this month and are intended to help bolster the message that the North Coast wine business is open and ready to get back to normal.

When Comfort began as the Vintners’ executive director, Sonoma County was an “aspiring wine region,” she said, and it’s rewarding to see the county take its place as a leading region. “All of you together changed the narrative of Sonoma County.”

International opportunities
The county hosted the international conference Wine Vision in December 2016, and this year it will be the site of the second Vinexpo Explorer conference. An offshoot of the French-owned Vinexpo shows held in Hong Kong, Bordeaux and elsewhere, the Explorer event is smaller and designed to bring the wine trade directly to wineries.

“How do we get those consumers and buyers to our booth? The answer is we’re going to bring them here,” said Jackson Family Wines CEO Rick Tigner.

Tigner introduced Vinexpo CEO Guillaume Deglise, who spoke about the company’s first Vinexpo Explorer that took place in Austria. He said the Explorer show will bring about 80 importers, distributors, retailers, sommeliers and journalists for a grand tasting, one-on-one tasting with winery staff and winery tours. The event will take place Sept. 23-25.

The Vintners are looking for wineries willing to host some of the events associated with Vinexpo Explore, and Tigner urged those in the audience to consider it as a way to open up a relationship to a brand-new market.

Tigner said the competitive business of selling wine is just getting harder, and the flow of imported wines to the United States will only increase. “I’m telling you today, with distributor and retailer consolidation it’s getting hard,” he said. “My advice is to do really well with DtC (direct-to-consumer sales) and expand your horizons outside of North America.”


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