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Paso Robles, SLO collaboration a sign of the times


The winery organizations of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County last night held a promotional dinner in San Francisco, the first time the organizations had collaborated, in a move that could mark a new era of increasing cooperation between such entities.

The dinner, at Spruce, was hosted jointly by the Paso Robles Wine County Alliance and the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association. Both have in the past “done their own thing,” so to speak, although the former has, in my experience, been much busier in hosting consumer events, while the latter — SLO County — has been a bit reticent.

It seemed to me there must have been a reason why the two organizations finally decided to get together — and it’s pretty obvious what the reason was and is: the economy, and the dour state of the wine industry. Tensions between rival wine regional organizations are nothing new, of course. Look at the skirmishes over Sonoma County’s new conjunctive labeling law, which is likely to be signed into law by the Governor any day now. (I blogged about it last month.)

I think in the case of Paso Robles and SLO County, Paso did such a good job establishing its reputation over the last ten years that they must have thought there was little to be gained, and perhaps much to be diluted, by conjoining themselves and their reputation to that of the county as a whole. And for that, you have to credit the P.R.W.C.A. and its skilled leadership, not to mention the vintners of Paso Robles. They’ve done a really tremendous job.

As for SLO County itself, my hunch is that they felt they didn’t really need to market themselves. Instead, they seemed to let their appellations — Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley — and the fine wineries within them speak for themselves. SLO County placed its bet, as it were, on being a cool climate wine region, and it may be that they wanted to distance themselves from Paso Robles, which is perceived as hot.

But those calculations were thrown overboard when the economic climate turned sour. I don’t know who approached whom, in this case — who did the wooing and who was the wooed. I don’t know if any of the member wineries on either side said, Wait a minute, this isn’t really that good a deal for us. Certainly last night, all was happiness between the representatives of the two regions.

The bottom line is that everybody has to work together to get us through this mess. I know there’s always going to be some residual tension between regional organizations, especially those that are contiguous or nearly so, or in the same county. There’s rivalry between Napa and Sonoma, even between Rutherford and Oakville. But it’s a healthy rivalry, like the Red Sox and the Yankees — good for both teams, good for baseball.

The one thing I wonder about, in the case of SLO County, is whether the idea of an entire county marketing itself makes sense anymore. Counties are so big. They contain multitudes of terroirs. In every winegrowing county there are many rooms, each different, which makes it harder for a county to present a coherent message about its wines. In SLO’s case, aside from Paso Robles, they do have the Arroyo Grande and Edna valleys, which are utterly distinct places, within themselves and compared to each other. When you promote SLO County, does that tend to diminish Arroyo Grande and Edna? If SLO’s reputation rises, will wineries within Arroyo Grande and Edna be tempted to put SLO on the label, instead of their smaller valleys? Will we see conjunctive labeling come to SLO the way it did to Sonoma?

This all signifies that California’s appellations and the system in which they operate are undergoing profound changes. Regional leaders are rethinking their approach to almost everything related to marketing and P.R. In an economy as tough as this, they’ve got to pull every rabbit out of every hat they possibly can. There will be mistakes made, but I think it’s a good thing that the regional associations are showing greater signs of cooperation than in the past, and I applaud Paso Robles and SLO County for taking this step.

  1. UPGRADE: To the Paso Robles Wine County Alliance and the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association for banding together just like the Kiwis do under one all black flag when they storm the US wine industry front time in and time out.

    As a grower Steve, we disagree that the rivalry between Napa and Sonoma AVA associations, grower/vintner associations, etc. in the two counties are “healthy” It’s disruptive to the overall strength of Sonoma and Napa Valley wine sales, camaraderie, and runs up the association bills for those of us who pay for them, in an economy where we can’t afford expenditures that don’t prove valuable.

    We will be reallocating our association fee budget in the 2010/2011 fiscal year towards those associations where value is evident and petty notions of county vs. county or vineyard vs. winery have been overcome. Yearly summer softball games between “competing associations” unfortunately don’t cut it anymore folks. Thanks for the post on associations who are leading the way towards change Steve.

  2. In the late 1980s California had a Wine Marketing Act which the Mendocino County Vintners Association supported, but which the rest of the State’s winery associations allowed to sunset. I asked my employer why he didn’t support the retention of the marketing order, and he said he didn’t want to spend his dollars to support someone else’s brand. That seems to have been California’s attitude for many years now.

    Alternatively, Washington State has built a solid (and deserved) reputation as a producer of quality wines and as a region that works together to get things done. The 800 pound gorilla (CSM) has always seen the value of working together with the Washington Wine Commission and all of the State’s producers.

    I’m glad Paso Robles is working in the same direction.

  3. Rusty you make great point of CSM. Although I don’t directly cover Washington I’ve always heard the same thing from the state’s smaller producers.

  4. Steve,
    Don’t quite understand your reasoning that because a county is large and has a multitude of terroirs/climates, they can’t effectively market the entire County. In fact, that would seem to me to be a benefit…that you have a diversity of wines & styles.
    On a similar note, they have recently created the SierraFoothills Alliance to market that region of four counties. In fact, they’re holding their first event, a tasting of those wines, this Sunday over in Danville. Good move on their part, I say.

  5. TomHill, in reply to your question, I think it’s harder to market a county because if it has a wide range of terroirs and styles, then it’s difficult for the county to present a coherent image for wine, beyond a generic “X county makes good wine.” Besides, then the smaller AVAs within the county might feel overlooked, or they might think that their own particular message is being diluted and dumbed down. Interestingly, California wine counties are now partnering with their Convention and Visitors Bureaus (or whatever they call their tourist boards) to present complex messages, of which “wine country” is just one part.

  6. Geoff Cornish says:

    There is no reason for PR and SLO not to use an accelerated version of the French method. Bordeaux consists of many a different flavor, varietal, and very distinctive terroirs. Yet the Bordeaux brand for all of its mystique, and myriad qualities of product, embracingly encompasses a multitude of wine makers bottlings that all together give a very clear picture and identity of “the B brand”, through the actual tasting of the wines from one “area” to people all over the world. It comes only with time and representation and on a recent trip to Europe, none of PR of SLO wines were even present in the marketplace ?? Who takes care of that aspect… ?

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