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Sonoma County winemaker seeks zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment

In a bid to improve the treatment of women in Sonoma County’s wine industry, an influential female winemaker has drafted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment and is calling on trade groups representing wineries and grape growers across the county to adopt it in a unanimous show of support for women working in wine.

Erica Stancliff, a winemaker who also serves as executive director of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, initiated the campaign following news reports detailing disturbing allegations of sexual assault by Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli, who was dismissed April 10 as co-owner and CEO of Christopher Creek Winery in Healdsburg.

“Every woman I’ve ever spoken to has been affected by sexual assault or sexual harassment. Every woman either has a #MeToo story or has witnessed something inappropriate. We tell ourselves it’s OK so we can function. But this behavior needs to stop and it needs to be called out. At the end of the day, if this can make one person feel safer, it’s worth it,” said Stancliff, who crafts wine for Pfendler Vineyards in Petaluma and her family’s brand, Trombetta Family Wines, in Forestville.

Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, which represents more than two dozen wineries that make wine from grapes grown in the south Sonoma County viticultural area, is expected to adopt the zero-tolerance policy this weekend, Stancliff said.

Stancliff has reached out to the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the two major wine industry associations in the county, as well as about 10 other local industry associations to tell them about her initiative.

Sonoma County Vintners, which represents more than 200 wineries and affiliated businesses, will review the proposal from Stancliff and share input while also considering other actions to address the issue, said Michael Haney, the organization’s executive director. In the meantime, he said, the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation, the organization’s philanthropic arm, will continue to support nonprofit organizations in Sonoma County that are focusing on sexual assault, which Haney called a “national crisis.”

Sonoma County Vintners suspended Christopher Creek from all its programs and activities after the San Francisco Chronicle published its first story on the allegations April 8.

Sonoma County Winegrowers, which represents more than 1,800 grape growers in the county, already has a zero-tolerance policy with protocols to prevent and address sexual harassment and assault, said Karissa Kruse, president of the group. She detailed a list of measures already in place at the association, including sexual harassment training for board members and staff and an external human resources consultant to accommodate people who feel uncomfortable talking about their concerns or experiences within the organization.

“Sexual harassment and predatory behavior are not acceptable and will never be tolerated at the Sonoma County Winegrowers,” she said.

Stancliff said most people she has talked with in the industry say they’re excited about the initiative.

“They say they either want to use this as a template for something they’ll create or it’s something they’d like to adopt and collaborate on with us.”

Stancliff said the plan, still being fine-tuned, has three elements: a pledge to hold associations accountable with a zero-tolerance policy; a proactive plan to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace and at consumer events; and lastly, the creation of a collaboration with Verity, a rape crisis center in Santa Rosa, to support victims.

Hearing stories of harassment and assault resonated with Stancliff, she said, because many victims of sexual assault and harassment think they’re alone. This faulty perception, she explained, is what motivated her to create an initiative to break the silence.

“It needs to be talked about,” Stancliff said. “It needs to be discussed. This should not be happening.”

To develop her initiative, Stancliff worked closely with Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, and Amy Bess Cook, founder of Woman-Owned Wineries, a Sonoma group that promotes wineries operated by women.

Castillo applauded efforts by the wine industry to develop protocols for keeping employees and guests safe from sexual assaults at wineries.

“Like no drinking and driving, there are policies that wineries can put in place to protect guests and employees,” Castillo said. “You want people to feel safe.”

Founded in 1974, Verity has been a safe haven for people to get support for decades, but the #MeToo movement “opened the flood gates,” Castillo said.

“Prior to the #MeToo movement, survivors felt they were all alone,” she said. “Again, Verity has been around for all this time, but it’s not easy to talk about this.”

In its 2018/2019 fiscal year Verity provided intervention services for 1,308 people in Sonoma County, from conversations on the 24/7 crisis line to in-person support and follow-up, Castillo said. Because of the pandemic, she added, the nonprofit has not compiled the data from 2019/2020 yet.

The crisis line is 707-545-7273, and the trained staff can help those who want to fill out a police report.

In addition to consulting with Castillo, Stancliff tapped Cook of Woman-Owned Wineries to research past practices.

“No one wants to characterize our beloved Wine Country as toxic or abusive,” Cook said. “When you look at statistics and listen to the stories, though, it’s clear that this industry, and Sonoma County, needs big change.”

As for statistics, Cook is referring to the Lift Collective, an advocacy organization for wine professionals based in Austin, Texas, that reports in its national 2020 Gender Survey that 64% of women and 30% of men say they have been harassed or assaulted by a peer or colleague.

Cook acknowledges that drinking alcohol is an inherent part of the wine industry and something that makes it different from other industries. Yet, she said, it’s the blurred boundaries that put people most at risk.

“It’s less about people getting drunk and doing stupid things, although that obviously happens,” Cook said. “But it’s more about people being in social proximity with their colleagues without clear boundaries set. For example, a 40-year-old winery owner may decide to party with his interns and then use them as his social life or dating pool.”

Cook said she’s encouraged by Stancliff’s initiative because it’s the responsibility of winery owners to set clear ethical standards and boundaries to ensure a safe workplace.

“The zero-tolerance policy signals ethical standards and means of recourse,” Cook said. “And while a pledge alone will not create meaningful change, it will help get folks on the same page about where values lie.”

Stancliff said Cook was helpful with feedback about other initiatives that didn’t quite get the traction they needed. Collaboration, she added, is crucial for the zero-tolerance policy to succeed.

“We all love the wine industry,” she said. “We all love Sonoma County. The last thing we need is for bad actors to sexually assault people and make people feel unsafe.”

You can reach Staff Writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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