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Santa Barbara's Wine Industry Changes Course

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Morgen McLaughlin should have one of the best jobs in the world. As the executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association (SBCVA), it's officially part of her job to visit the over 100 wineries and tasting rooms the association represents. It's like being named mayor of Grape Town. As she says she tells her staff, "If you're having a bad day, remember you're in the wine business."

But it is a business, too, which is why it needs associations and executive directors to lead them. McLaughlin, who has been full-time on the job since August after being hired away from a similar job in the Finger Lakes region in New York, feels "I'm still in the honeymoon stage." But a big part of that stage is bringing on changes, from updating marketing materials -- the website will be re-launched in 2014 -- to shifting the focus of the Vintners' Festival in April so it's "less a one-day consumer event and more a four-day wine country weekend."

Peruse the current SB County Vintners' Association site and one thing you'll see repeated is how the region grows 55 grape varietals, which leads to the motto "Diversity Perfected." But it's also a motto that makes for tough sledding for McLaughlin and her crew.

"The areas and wineries most successful in the terms of marketing have been able to dial it down to a simple message," she points out. "Moving forward we have to be more focused in what we're promoting. In the Finger Lakes the industry was far more underdeveloped and there was one major single varietal, Riesling. We were able to carve out a niche and do it well."

One way SBCVA is doing that is promoting the separate areas in the county -- in fact, the feds just approved the fifth American Viticultural Area (AVA), Ballard Canyon, this month. That might seem wine geeky, but talking about how different regions have different soils and climates, even -- the temperature rises a few degrees every few miles as you move away from the cooling Pacific Ocean -- helps make the case for fine production, more areas for people to visit, more wines for people to try.

Meanwhile McLaughlin works on coordination as much as promotion, a busy liaison for winemakers (she herself was once one in Connecticut), the hospitality industry, media, chambers of commerce, and local government. "Unfortunately county ordinances have created an environment where wineries can't put tasting rooms by their grapes," she asserts. "It's hard enough to be competitive with Paso Robles and Sonoma and Washington state and then the county handicaps itself with these restrictions."

Look out world, McLaughlin will be leading the charge in many ways. "The wine industry in Santa Barbara hasn't been traditionally very vocal," she says. "Part of the 2014 plan is to be more vocal."

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