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New Director for Santa Barbara Vintners

Focused on building reputation, targeting key consumer groups

by Andrew Adams
morgen mclaughlin
The incoming executive director for the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, Morgen McLaughlin, will start her new job April 19.
San Rafael, Calif.—The former head of the marketing group for the Finger Lakes wine region is the new executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association in California.

Morgen McLaughlin left her post as president and CEO of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association based in Corning, N.Y., to take job in Santa Barbara County. McLaughlin, whose family owns a winery in Connecticut, starts April 19. “I’m looking forward to diving deep into different vineyard sites and seeing what makes each part of the county unique,” she told Wines & Vines this week.

After former executive director Jim Fiolek retired, the group’s board conducted a search for about three months before choosing McLaughlin, according to a statement released by the group. “The final decision was tough, but we are confident and excited to have Morgen joining the team,” said board president Kurt Ammann, the general manager of Dierberg Vineyard. “Her experience is a perfect fit to thoughtfully grow our organization and significantly increase the benefits for our members.”

McLaughlin said her long-term goal is to raise the visibility of the county and its four AVAs of Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and Happy Canyon. In the short-term, she said her top goal is to get the group’s membership re-engaged with the organization.

She said she plans to begin meeting with members to discuss issues important to them and gain feedback on a marketing plan. Whereas the Finger Lakes has had great success honing its message around Riesling, McLaughlin said Santa Barbara could build a message around the diversity of its sub appellations and grape varieties.

While the county is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which also account for the greatest share of planted acres, it is home to more than 50 varieties and more than 17,000 acres of wine grapes. The vintners group was founded in 1983 and now has more than 100 winery members and more than 20 growers.

McLaughlin said she knows that from an East Coast perspective the region’s reputation could use a boost. “A lot of consumers nationally don’t realize how much of wine industry there is in Santa Barbara,” she said. According to WinesVinesDATA there are 201 wineries in the county.

To improve consumer awareness of the county, McLaughlin said she will overhaul the group’s digital marketing strategy by improving its website and reaching out to the trade and media through social networks.

And McLaughlin said she plans to use concrete consumer metrics to gain an understanding of the core consumer groups that could be attracted to the region and then aggressively market them. She said a data-driven strategy she used in the Finger Lakes proved quite successful.

The obvious target is the area surrounding Los Angeles, Calif., because of its proximity and demographics, but McLaughlin said the metropolitan areas of Phoenix, Ariz., and Denver, Colo., have good potential as well.

McLaughlin’s first experience in wine came at her family’s winery, McLaughlin Vineyards in Sandy Hook, Conn. She said her grandparents purchased the land in the 1940s, and her parents started a winery and vineyard in 1978. The 160-acre farm includes 15 acres of cold-hardy cultivars such as Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc. The winery produces 2,500 cases of wine.

After she graduated from Boston College in 1994, McLaughlin served as co-owner and general manager of the winery for 12 years. Her family still owns and runs the property.

McLaughlin’s husband Nathaniel Smith is in wine sales, and she said the two of them were willing to make the move out west with their three sons if an opportunity presented itself. “We both love California,” she said.

McLaughlin will be starting with the vintners group just in time for its signature event, the annual Santa Barbara County Vintners Festival. This year’s festival takes place April 19-22 at the historic Mission Santa Inéz in the Santa Ynez Valley.

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