Averting a Major Blow to Santa Barbara County Wine Business

Averting a Major Blow to Santa Barbara County Wine Business

For over forty-four years, Zaca Mesa has contributed to the growth of people and families in this beautiful Santa Barbara County wine region. Next year we will have five employees who have worked here at least twenty years. More precisely, forty years, thirty-five years, thirty-two years, and two at twenty years each. They have raised their families here, and now their children are working, young adults starting families of their own in this area.

On November 22, 2016, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to reject what would have been the most restrictive winery ordinance in the United States. The Santa Barbara Vintners Association led by Morgen McLaughlin did an excellent job challenging every aspect of the ordinance as written- here is a link to the SBVA written challenge to the ordinance. Had it passed, that ordinance would have dealt a certain death blow to the Santa Barbara wine industry and threatened not only the livelihoods of those who have worked in this industry for up to forty years, but destroyed any opportunity for future generations to have the same opportunity. In a time of insecure employment for many and agricultural communities being torn apart because of mega-mergers, the wine industry has proven over thousands of years to be the mainstay of agricultural preservation and employment continuity generation after generation. The proposed ordinance threatened that.

Although the vote was 4 to 1, it was by no means a certainty. In fact, it was expected to pass, and the local headlines afterward rang out that it was a stunning defeat for a regulatory measure that was five years in the making and expected to pass. What started out as a few Ballard Canyon neighbor complaints of noise and traffic due to some winery events a couple of years ago morphed into a county-wide “let’s get the big-bad winery industry” regulation. Ballard Canyon represents a small fraction of the Santa Barbara County wine industry as a whole. Yet a few people who live near that fraction was going to punish the entire county industry for the perceived bad behavior of a few of their neighbors. Local residents have a right to be heard and their concerns addressed in a neighborly fashion. Punishing the entire industry with onerous, business-killing regulation is not the solution.

While this was a temporary victory for the wine industry, the industry continues to be under the continuous onslaught of regulatory pressure. For example, there are over 10,000 regulations wineries have to deal with to comply with state Direct to Consumer (DTC) business. Beyond each state’s DTC regulations, at the Federal level, the Department of Energy now has a specific regulation for wine refrigerators. It estimated the rule would cost the average small business $12,500 to test whether their equipment meets specifications. The agency said the $12,500 testing cost is “unlikely to represent a significant economic impact for small businesses.” That naïve government agency viewpoint of the collective, continuous business economic body-blows from government regulations puts more and more wineries in survival jeopardy. At the California State level, new storm water regulatory compliance cost Zaca Mesa $60,000 in Capital Projects last year and will cost at least $12,000 per year in compliance registration and reporting fees. The list goes on, but what was so potentially damaging about the defeated county ordinance was it would have choked off the necessary revenue streams to pay for those other, new regulations.

Well, all is not doom and gloom. The ordinance was defeated. We still make great wine. And our vineyard manager, Ruben Camacho, will be able to celebrate his fortieth year at Zaca Mesa next year.