Sonoma State University survey finds wide support for North Coast wine industry

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North Coast residents have a mostly positive view on how the wine industry affects their quality of life, though a large number believe it contributes to traffic congestion, according to a Sonoma State University survey.

The survey, which was conducted for the university’s School of Business and Economics, found that 88 percent of respondents said wineries have either a very positive (46 percent) or positive (42 percent) impact on the quality of life in their county.

It also found that 83 percent feel wine businesses help “create a mostly positive image for their county,” compared with 2 percent who feel they create a negative image. Ten percent thought they create both a positive and negative image.

But the survey featured some troubling news for the wine industry, which has undergone greater scrutiny in both Sonoma and Napa counties in the past year over water usage and an influx of events that have brought increased traffic and noise complaints from neighbors. Both counties have formed advisory panels to seek solutions on permitting for winery events as well as other matters.

Most notably, the survey found 84 percent felt the wine industry contributed either a great deal (37 percent) or some (47 percent) to increasing traffic and congestion. Napa County residents, at 63 percent, were more likely to blame vintners for a “great deal” of traffic; in Sonoma County the corresponding figure among respondents was 32 percent; in Lake County it was 17 percent.

The School of Business and Economics paid for the $10,000 survey. It houses the Wine Business Institute, which has received funding from the wine industry, including support from Korbel Champagne Cellars of Guerneville and Wine Spectator magazine. A majority of the institute’s board is made up of wine executives.

David McCuan, the SSU political science professor who conducted the survey with Richard Hertz, an adjunct faculty member who is principal of Hertz Research, said the survey was not influenced by the close relationship between the industry and the Wine Business Institute.

McCuan said the survey was requested by William Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics.

The work was meant to inform the North Coast community as policy decisions affecting the industry are publicly debated, he said.

“Our goal is not to provide spin. Our goal is to provide a baseline of research to build for the general public perception of the industry,” McCuan said.

The online survey was based on interviews with 520 residents in the North Coast and Central Coast. Sonoma County had the largest number of respondents, at 221 residents. The authors said the sample size of the North Coast survey (322 interviews) ensured results that would be nearly the same as interviewing the entire population of Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, plus or minus 6 percent.

“What we are trying to do is get the view at 38,000 feet as opposed to the myopic view by the industry or the other side about the specific behaviors,” McCuan said.

McCuan said he is now going through written answers provided in the survey to focus on specific concerns shared by respondents. Those answers could inform subsequent surveys McCuan said he would like to do.

No questions were asked about water issues in the survey, which McCuan noted will be critical going forward. As part of a new state law, Sonoma County must form a local agency by June 2017 to implement policies to sustain groundwater levels in each of the area’s 14 underground basins.

In addition, the only notable query on winery events was whether respondents had attended such events. The issue is important as officials in Sonoma County have recently cracked down on vintners such as Bella Vineyards and Wilson Winery in Dry Creek Valley for alleged permit violations related to events. Planning boards in both Napa and Sonoma counties also have been confronted with vocal opposition to proposals for new wineries and amended permits for events at existing sites.

The survey found 51 percent of North Coast respondents said they visit tasting rooms, 23 percent attend winery events, such as barrel tastings, and 17 percent go to wine release events.

Industry critics have of late used the moniker “Big Wine” in their bid to frame the debate about the spread of wineries and impact of vineyards. The industry, however, has long maintained that it consists mostly of multigenerational family farmers, though the two largest vineyard owners in the county are families representing E&J Gallo and Jackson Family Wines, both of which own more than 3,000 acres each.

The survey found that 35 percent of respondents said they thought most wine businesses are composed of small or medium-sized businesses, while 13 percent think they are mostly large businesses or farms owned by corporations. Forty-six percent said they thought there are roughly equal percentages of both.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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