Cash pours in as Santa Barbara wine industry ages

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The wine industry employs over 5,000 people and contributes $1.7 billion to the economy of Santa Barbara County, says a report released this week by the Santa Barbara Vintners’ Association. Stonebridge Research, which has completed similar economic-impact reports for 24 other wine regions since 2004, did the study.

Matt Kettmann, editor at the Santa Barbara Independent and Wine Enthusiast, says the report provides a factual and timely starting point to talk about Santa Barbara winemaking.

For years, the county has been working to update its Winery Ordinance, which regulates allowable winery uses and sets standards for development. That’s now coming to a head. The update will most likely hit the County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for final approval this year.

“The vintners wanted to get ahead of that and say, ‘look, we want to show how much impact we have on this economy and make sure that when you make decisions that might impact how fast we can grow, you know what that might mean for the county coffers,'” said Kettmann.

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Ampelos Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. Photo: Matt Kettmann

The ordinance update and economic impact report are both part of an ongoing tension between those who want Santa Barbara County to grow as a bustling wine destination, and those who prefer their home to remain the slow, quiet, quaint region they have known and loved.

“A lot of neighbors were concerned that their quality of life was being impacted by the growth of the wine business,” said Kettmann. Disgruntled locals complained about increased traffic, drunken driving and big events being thrown in their rural communities. In 2011, their voices were heard. The board of supervisors voted unanimously for the county planning staff to update the ordinance.

The report also focuses on another economic plea. According to the document, almost half of the grapes grown in Santa Barbara County are shipped to other parts of the state to be made into wine.

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Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. Photo: Matt Kettmann

“A lot of the grapes grown here are sold to places in Napa and Sonoma, and those counties are able to make more money off them than we are,” said Kettmann.

The vintners complain there are not enough local production facilities, in part because the county makes it hard to build them, and if they were able to keep more grapes in county, there would be a greater benefit to the local economy.

You can learn more about the Winery Ordinance Update on the county planning website.

Matt Kettmann catches up with us every Wednesday morning and afternoon on 88.7 FM in Santa Barbara. You can hear his past segments on food and wine on our website.