After eight years at the helm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, Jim Fiolek is stepping down as executive director to clear the path, in his words, for “new, fresh eyes.”
“My vision for Santa Barbara County’s vineyard and wine business started more than 40 years ago,” Fiolek said Monday after making a formal announcement to board members Friday. “I believe the (association’s) wants and hopes remain the same. But we need new eyes.”
Fiolek, 62, was praised by several of the association’s seven board members Monday as someone who “has given his all” to the industry over the last 30 years.
“It’s almost unquantifiable the impact Jim has had,” said Wes Hagen, an association board member and vineyard manager and wine maker at Clos Pepe Vineyards in Lompoc. “I hope we don’t lose him in this industry completely, and he’ll find a way to add his expertise and love, and compassion. He’s a wonderful man. I hope as we move forward we don’t lose that sense of what he’s done for us.”
The association has 110 member wineries and 10 member vineyards, up from about 50 when Fiolek took the position in August 2004. He has been active in the county’s wine industry since 1972, when he sold wine-making supplies to the fledgling industry and taught home wine-making classes at Wine Art in Santa Barbara, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Fiolek also worked as a vice president and general manager at several wineries for about 20 years starting in 1982, including Sanford Winery, Brander Vineyard and Zaca Mesa Winery.
“I don’t think the vision has changed, but the business itself has changed,” Fiolek said of his decision to step down. “What I’ve always said is, ‘I’m not what I do, I do what I am,’ and I’m not going to change that.”
Hagen praised Fiolek for steering the county’s wine industry through the explosion of interest following the release of the movie “Sideways” in 2004, and the work he did to keep both the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions thinking about Santa Barbara County wine country as the local industry matured.
Hagen said he’s excited about moving forward with new technology to market the area.
“I’d like to find someone who’s really, really savvy with new media. Someone who can really push us forward,” Hagen said of the association’s search for a new director. “There are millions of people looking for something to do on the Internet. All these things will be very important over the next 20 years. My focus is knowledge, outreach, technology and finding new ways to give people the wine experience, besides getting wine poured over a table.”
Kurt Ammann, president of the association board and general manager for Dierberg and Star Lane vineyards in Lompoc, said the association is “sad” that Fiolek is “going in a different direction.”
“He’s made a huge contribution to the association but also to all the wineries in Santa Barbara County that have been members for years,” Ammann said. “We’re hopeful and excited for what the future may bring, but it’s also bittersweet to have a changing of the guard.”
He said as a board member, the things he’d like to see for local wineries are more exposure, more interaction, better branding and better recognition for Santa Barbara County vineyards throughout the state and country.
Ammann said the board is meeting Thursday and with Fiolek’s help will finalize a job description and create a timeline for filling the director’s position. Fiolek has loosely said his last day will be March 1.
He said, however, that he’s not looking at the change as retiring.
“I’m planning on staying on this ship. That’s where it’s standing right now, and that’s where the course is headed,” he said, adding that he couldn’t elaborate any further.
As far as ongoing talks about revisions to the county’s winery ordinance, in which he’s played a vocal part, Fiolek said he’ll continue to participate in the discussion.
The county’s ordinance, crafted in 2004, determines the types and numbers of special events that can be held at county wineries.
“I’m planning to do whatever I can do that’s helpful,” he said. “I’m not anticipating going out as a lone ranger, but if people want me to continue working with them, of course I will.”