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Life After Mendo Grape/Wine Commission

Shot down by grapegrowers, county seeks new path to recognition

by Jane Firstenfeld
Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission
Steve Burns (left) and Mark Chandler (right) were brought in to help Megan Metz, executive director of the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission, implement a five-year marketing plan this spring. Mendocino County winemakers and grapegrowers have since voted to disband the commission, leaving members scratching their heads about how to publicize the area.
Ukiah, Calif.—The slimmest of margins sent the 5-year-old Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission (MWWC) into oblivion last week, to the surprise of many in the community and throughout the industry. As the county’s unique grower/vintner commission, a majority of voters from both segments was required to secure another five-year term. While 67.8% of winery voters were in favor, only 45.05% of grapegrowers wished to continue, and grapegrowers far outnumber wineries in the county, accounting for 273 members vs. 98 wineries.

“We only lost by nine votes on the growers side,” said Megan Metz, who became MWWC executive director in 2011. “If we’d been able to combine the two, we would have won by two votes.” Metz told Wines & Vines that the commission office officially will close June 30, although staff and members remain committed to two long-planned events: a junket for some 30 sommeliers July 15-18 and the 30th annual Mendocino Wine Competition slated for Aug. 5 in Hopland. “We are focused on those two; we’re not going to drop the ball.”

Ironically, on June 11 the commission hosted 750 members of the trade and media at its (final) annual Taste of Mendocino in San Francisco.

What went wrong?
The rural sprawl, family farms and diverse grapegrowing regions that make Mendocino both a valuable grape and wine source and an appealing destination may have contributed to the commission’s demise. A noted pioneer in sustainable winegrowing, Mendocino claims 12 regions as different as foggy Anderson Valley, renowned for Burgundian varieties, and warmer areas like Redwood Valley and Hopland, where Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel thrive.

Grower Joe Zicherman, co-owner of Zicherman-Roemer Vineyard in Anderson Valley, talked about the schism between the “coastal” and “inland” growers. “I voted against continuation,” he said. “Essentially, I ended up getting taxed twice.” Anderson Valley growers can opt in as members of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, with dues based on vineyard acres. As a state agency, MWWC membership was mandated; growers contributed a per-ton fee.

“As an Anderson Valley grower, I identify more with our AVA or northern Sonoma,” Zicherman said. “Our winegrowers association is very successful,” he said, citing the annual Pinot Noir festival. “I don’t have to join but am more interested” in association activities.

Zicherman termed the demise “unfortunate” and said MWWC might have continued “if times were better. I don’t take any joy in seeing the commission go away.”

“I am disappointed, but not totally surprised” by the vote, said Steve Giannecchini, who grows 40 acres of grapes in inland Ukiah. “I voted for it. My feeling’s always been that there’s strength in numbers. We need any recognition. A lot of ‘mom and pop’ operations feel they can do it themselves.”

Citing the successful Lodi Winegrape Commission, he said, “Lodi grapes used be the cheapest in the state. Now they are nationally recognized.”

Selling some 80% of his produce to wineries in Sonoma County (which also has a thriving winegrape commission), Giannecchini suggested, “I’m sure the Sonoma wineries are glad” the commission failed. At an average price of $900-$1,500 per ton, he said, Mendocino grapes remain a relative bargain.

The cavalry arrives too late
In March of this year, the commission announced it had retained marketing gurus Mark Chandler and Steve Burns to develop a comprehensive plan for the Mendocino industry. In almost two decades, Chandler had taken the Lodi Association to stellar international heights; Burns helped found the Washington State Wine Commission, bringing the state global recognition.

There was no time for their plan to come to fruition. “It was all for naught,” Burns said. The MWWC had some bad breaks and bad timing, starting with the initial executive director accused of embezzlement (the funds were eventually returned), and an almost yearly management turnover.

The economy didn’t help, Burns said. “You began a business at the edge of a great recession and assessed it five years later. Deciding it was not viable was not a fair shake for a groundbreaking concept.”

Chandler expressed his disappointment in the vote, especially since Mendocino does not have any other countywide grape/wine organization. Still, he remains optimistic. “There are lots of options going forward; we’re going to have to see. Even during the last election, there was talk of coming back with a growers-only commission. There are options, and I understand the frustration of the growers.

“We tried to get people to take the long view, to give it another five years. It was a bad five years,” he said, pointing out that success in Lodi took 15 years, and now that area’s grapegrowing image is “100% recast” as a source of high-quality winegrap es.

Chandler and Burns’ plan for Mendocino was delivered “lock, stock and barrel,” Chandler said, with a heavy emphasis on market development activities, industry events and marketing promotion. “I know the plan would have been successful” if it had been put into action.

What next?
“As a grower, I think it is very important for Mendocino to invest in its future by communicating what is unique and special about us,” said Paul Dolan, the environmental activist and former Fetzer chief who now farms organic and Biodynamic grapes near Ukiah.

“I truly think the best way to do that is through the wines and the wineries; they are the voice to the consumer and trade. Unfortunately, for the moment we have lost our voice, message and messengers. I hope we’ll be able to work together as a community of winegrowers in the future to create a new venue for communication.”

Fred Buonnano, owner of Philo Ridge Vineyards and the MWWC’s first board chairman, is already working in that direction, organizing a vintners’ meeting June 21 at Brutocao Cellars  in Hopland.

“The commission was formed with great intent, the first put together with both growers and wineries.” Serving two masters with related but not identical agendas made it difficult, he acknowledged. He’s hopeful that a new entity will rise from the ashes.

Next week’s meeting, open to people within the county, will provide “an opportunity for everyone to get together and talk about what we should or should not do, what a structure will look like.” The wineries, he said, understand that the county needs a voice. “Anderson Valley has a fabulous reputation,” he said, “but Anderson Valley doesn’t have the bandwidth” necessary to promote the county.

“It’s a shame the commission’s gone away,” Buonnano said. “We gave it our best effort, and it’s done a lot to raise consciousness.”

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