THE GRAPE DIVIDE

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The philosophy behind formation of the Arizona Vignerons Alliance is fundamentally a sound one:

Create standards of excellence & compliance that will drive industrywide quality, which should benefit all legitimate producers in the state whilst benefitting the consumer. It may also provide a much needed national (and global) vehicle to drive awareness of Arizona wines where the populace is not familiar with how good and respectable our wines have become.

So the formation of a governing body whose primary purpose is to drive excellence, consistency, and success sounds like a great idea to just about everyone! If managed effectively and fairly, it should lead to better wine, further growth in sales, and drive markets not yet established. Everyone wins!

So what could be wrong with this?

As with any big change there will be resistance and skepticism. People are inherently leery of change and in this case these concerns are amplified because the four (eight) founders of the alliance seemingly created it with little or no participation from most of the other winemakers in the state.

It also appears the new AVA has no association with the long-standing Arizona Wine Growers Association (AWGA), which may have it’s faults but undeniably has a well-established foundation of Best Practices and is comprised of legitimate wineries from all the growing regions in the state (Willcox, Sonoita/Elgin, Cottonwood/Clarkdale/Cornville).

The AWGA is governed by well-intentioned (volunteer and elected) members and officers doing their best to promote the same goals as the new AVA: Improve quality, increase awareness, and drive success locally and abroad.

So this begs the questions: Does the decision to create the new vignerons alliance inherently give it’s founders the power to run it, develop the standards by which all other wineries are judged, and control the organization moving forward? Is it even necessary?

It may take some time to answer these questions, at least if the founders are willing to listen and heed some of the feedback they’re bound to get. If they aren’t willing to listen, that will certainly make it harder (if not impossible) for them to achieve their stated goals, since exclusion will have the side affect of reducing competition, dividing resources, and weakening those winemakers less established in an already tough market.

Or worse, the AVA could refuse to assist competing winemakers with differing business or philosophical motivations than the founders. In other words, the AVA is meant to be a vehicle for universal success, but could serve as a potential platform to push personal agendas, giving the founders undue influence on competing wineries they disagree with or those who choose not to participate.

After looking around on the AVA website you can see the founders made significant efforts to state they have good intentions. They say the motivation for their alliance is based on what’s already been done in European countries where the wine industry is centuries old. They say they want what’s best for their businesses and their families, and that they’re working toward goals that will benefit everyone, including the consumer. And for now, I have no reason to doubt them.

Except for one thing: The way this organization was conceived and formed behind closed doors. Transparency breeds trust, and it seems the founding members of the AVA missed a great opportunity in that respect. Or did they?

Perhaps they felt the diplomacy and patience needed to form a truly voluntary alliance was just too much effort? Maybe they felt the formation of a democratic alliance similar to the existing AWGA would be futile, and who knows, maybe it is. There certainly is no published or (apparently) overt desire to drive a wedge in the burgeoning Arizona wine industry… But unfortunately that’s exactly what they did and I suspect they knew this going into it.

They’ve gone public and in doing so deserve scrutiny, if for no other reason than the unilateral way the Alliance was formed and stacked with self-appointed leaders. Leaders who each have their own vineyards, their own priorities, and can now push an agenda more beneficial to themselves than their smaller peers and equal competition.

In addition, some of the provisional rules already published seem designed to exclude specific winemakers from certification by the AVA. Why should an Arizona winemaker using 100% Arizona grapes be excluded from certification just because they don’t use grapes from vines older than five years? And as for the barrel-aging process, why should that be a limiting factor either, as long as the intended consumer enjoys the final product at a price point accessible to them?

There’s a good chance many of the founders of the AVA will never read this, or if they do they’ll dismiss my words out of hand. After all, who the hell am I?

My answer to that question is, I’m your customer!

I’m the consumer who keeps you in business, and I’m an ardent advocate & supporter of all things Arizona, especially your wine. And as a consumer I feel like I was just forced into a discussion that’s very uncomfortable for a lot of people to have… where it’s impossible to really know the truth or consequences of this new alliance.

I may not have a financial stake in this whole thing or even a seat at the table, but I certainly see the potential for it to hurt the industry rather than help it… This could divide an industry that really needs to be working as a team right now.

So if any of the AVA founders have read this far and are listening, my hope is you make the effort to reach out to all winemakers. Give all an equal opportunity to be part of this process. Give all a say in forming the rules by which they’ll be judged, and be transparent with your efforts. The perception of bias and elitism is reality if that’s the way it ends up coming across to everyone but you.

There’ll be wineries who still have no interest in participating, but that decision mustn’t lead to decisions and rules that hurt them. If the AVA isn’t political and it isn’t divisive, a decision not to participate shouldn’t preclude others from having a voice in the development of standards ultimately meant to apply to everyone (or no one).

As you move forward with the development of this governing body, try to respect the fact you aren’t the only ones with something at stake. And you aren’t the only ones who deserve a seat at the table just because you were the first to sit down.

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It’s a very big table and there’s more than enough to go around…

Christian Burns McBeth

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