Jean Arnold Sessions is stepping down as head of Sonoma County Vintners after two years at the helm of the county’s main winery trade group, which has in recent years worked to repair the sector’s image with local residents concerned about the impacts of wine tourism on traffic and quality of life.
Michael Haney, director of membership and government relations for the nonprofit group, has been appointed interim executive director as its board conducts a search for a permanent head. Haney said he would apply for the permanent position.
During her tenure, the group took over Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, duties it shared for almost 10 years with the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. In the aftermath, the group last year moved the Taste of Sonoma wine-and-food tasting event from MacMurray Ranch near Healdsburg to the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University and its Harvest Wine Auction from Chateau St. Jean Winery in Kenwood to the La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor.
Over the past three years, Haney has led community outreach for the group, which has eight employees and an annual budget of about $2.5 million. He said he has seen some improvements in the debate over winery expansion projects that have triggered opposition among local residents.
“We have started to make enormous strides,” he said.
Haney cited a community advisory council in the Dry Creek Valley area that has been helpful flagging potential problems for winery applicants before they come before the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. The vintner group would like to see the advisory council replicated in the Westside Road area, the site of several recent disputes over winery development, most recently the approval of a 60,000-case winery and tasting room for Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg.
Haney has his own boutique label, Black Dog Cellars, and is married to Julie Martinelli of Martinelli Vineyards and Winery in Windsor.
“I think we are a little more visible and even more impactful within our community,” he said.
Russell Joy, president of Sonoma County Vintners’ board of directors, said the outreach efforts have paid dividends.
“We started getting at the table where we can work things out,” said Joy, vice president of California operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns Sonoma’s Patz and Hall Winery.
The group has not made any formal decisions on where the Taste of Sonoma or the auction will be held this year, Joy said.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223.