Being the direct neighbor to Napa Valley has provided much fodder, debate, and even jokes over the years as Sonoma County fought to find its place in the wine world. Has the county finally found its place?
Recently, I was invited to attend a global wine think tank—Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines (FM4FW)—which included such wine experts and celebrities such as Steven Spurrier, Hugh Johnson, Eric Asimov, Miguel Torres, Elin McCoy, our own Lisa Mattson and Steve Dutton and more. The three-day conference in Champagne, France, engaged experts from around the world representing different disciplines of wine and grape growing. The goal of the conference was to find ways to collaborate to support an on-going successful wine community and business. It was inspiring, thought-provoking, and exactly what a data- seeking, collaborating, ag-loving nerd like me lives for!
After spending three days with global wine and vineyard experts, I spent time reflecting on Sonoma County’s place in the global wine market. Where do we fit in the global marketplace among the key measurement of success factors? Are we on par? Leading? Or, are we just following others in the business? Here’s an overview of what I learned.
Wine Quality and Farming: Sonoma County is right on par in this key area for success. Our winemakers and grape growers are kindred spirits with counterparts around the world who respond each year to Mother Nature to grow the best grapes and make the best wine possible from their region. In California and in Sonoma County, we deal with a more unique situation when it comes to labor, without a broader continent of folks interested in farming and winemaking for their livelihood.
Family-Owned Businesses: When you sit in the famed house of Moet and Chandon, where Napoleon dined on exquisite cuisine and drank some of the world’s first Champagne, it’s clear that our fourth and fifth generation family stories feel like a small beginning to the legacies that Europe offers the wine world. I’m proud of our multi-generational farmers and vintners, but I’m in awe when someone tells me they’re an 18th or 19th generation family of winemakers. The passion, the grit and the support that it takes to endure year after year of continuing the business should be applauded. It served as a reminder how important it is to support local farmers and vintners.
Connecting with the Consumer: With the ongoing debate that is happening in our own community around winery visits and tastings, it’s worthwhile to mention how envious many of our winery counterparts in Europe are that wineries and ag in California have found a path to connect directly with the consumer. Wine-tastings and special winery education events create long term loyalty. This was a much-discussed topic in Champagne where many family wineries were exploring tourism and collaboration with restaurants as a key to keep their wineries in business. All good things in moderation, of course, but we’re fortunate that tourists want to visit Sonoma County, our wineries and restaurants, enjoy our beauty and explore our county. Our approach is leading the way.
Sustainability Efforts: I admit, I was intimidated approaching such a distinguished guest list at the FM4FW opening reception. But soon after arriving, I was approached by a winemaker from Southern France who wanted to meet me. He was interested in participating in our sustainability program. After a breakout session that I led on the subject, it was clear that Sonoma County is a global leader. Not only have we made the commitment to sustainability, but we’re delivering on it. With more than 90 percent of our vineyards engaged in our sustainability efforts, vintners and growers—as well as the press—from around the world were interested in learning what it takes to succeed in this effort. For me, the most important part is that we’re leading the way in how we take care of and work with our employees and their families.
An evolving business
Is Northern California Taking the World by Storm? Hopefully, we never do because that would assume we’ve arrived. I prefer to think of this business I love as a continued evolution where we learn, revise, reinvent and continue to be relevant to our consumers. We continue to steward the land, and we have the privilege of farming and caretaking. We continue to support our community where we live and raise our families. And as for Napa Valley, our neighbor to the east makes a better partner than competitor. So, here’s to working together, moving forward and to being our best Sonoma County. After attending this conference, the overall take-home point for me is that we should be proud of our place in the world. So, take a bow Sonoma County!
Karissa Kruse is president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, a marketing and educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Sonoma County as one of the world’s premier grape growing regions. For more information, go to www.sonomawinegrape.com.
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