green acres

Thursday, November 05, 2009

“Does Green Sell Wine?” is the provocative question raised by Wilfred Wong in his column in the current issue of Vineyard & Winery Management. Wong is BevMo’s cellarmaster, and a dedicated participant in wine judgings – last we spoke he said he averaged more than one major competition a month. He tastes a lot of wine, and he sells a lot of wine.

So I thought it quite interesting that his column challenged the notion that sustainable and/or organic wines automatically have a selling advantage, simply because consumers have been trained to equate those terms with earth-friendly (hence desirable) farming practices.

Wong cites a number of examples from his personal experience, and talks to sales, marketing, and brand development people within the industry, ultimately concluding that it makes more sense for wineries to promote quality rather than sustainability.

I agree. Not only are green practices ho-hummers as far as impacting sales; they no longer have much (if any) impact for PR purposes either. I’ve given up trying to sort out in a wine column what exactly “organic” wine is. It’s a hopeless quest. The term organic remains extremely confusing for most consumers; let’s face it, everything in the grocery aisles these days seems to be organic. The word has been completely co-opted by big business.

In terms of wines, it is rarely made clear whether organic refers to vineyard practices or includes the actual winemaking. Sustainable has come into vogue as a somewhat more flexible but still good-sounding alternative. But if I am Mr. or Mrs. Consumer standing in the chardonnay aisle looking over 60 or 80 different options, I’m looking at price, label design, shelf-talkers, scores, and familiar (therefore tried-and-true) names – not reading the small print to see who’s sustainable.

Biodynamic – not mentioned in Wong’s piece – does have a certain amount of cachet among more knowledgeable consumers. But even a dedicated practitioner of biodynamic farming such as Christophe Baron at Cayuse does not make a big deal out of it. He will, however, point out his new draft horses, and take an interested visitor to a new vineyard being ploughed by hand. That’s a great hook to hang a story on. Simply being biodynamic is not.

The frenzied rush on the part of many wineries (and PR people) to broadcast their earth-friendly practices is (hopefully) running out of steam. Do I really need to know about your new owl habitat in order to evaluate your wine? By all means put the eco-friendly stuff somewhere on your website, and if you desire, use a meaningful certification on your back label – a logo that says you have met the standards of something like Walla Walla’s Vinea – the Winegrowers Sustainable Trust. But don’t expect that to set your wines apart from the competition. It’s worthy and admirable, and should be de rigueur for all wineries, because it’s the right thing to do. But it’s not going to sell your wine, or convince a wine writer to feature it in a story.


Andy Plymale said...

Tom Glase's new experiment at Balboa might be a good test case. It seems like the green marketing might work in his case, though I don't think that his motivation is primarily marketing. He seems to be targeting a young, hip consumer, and is building his brand around the concept, though as I said, I think that is not primarily a marketing decision.

Pete Danko said...

I can't comment on the sales aspect of this question, but have a few thoughts from a PR perspective.

I've advised clients since, oh, maybe 2007, that new environmentally friendly initiatives, while always a good thing, would not likely result in substantial increased media interest. The field had already becaome too crowded. That said, there are wineries I worked with that got a huge PR bump from their environmentally friendly ways. Sokol Blosser comes immediately to mind. I'd attribute a third or more of the coverage the winery received in my time working on the brand directly to its green reputation, and even more coverage was accrued indirectly. But that was a situation where Susan and the family had a long-standing, deep commitment to being green, one that was initiated and flourishing long before it became fashionable. In other words, it became an essential part of the winery's identity. Whenever someone was working on a story related to green wineries, they knew to call us about Sokol Blosser.

Now, there is one way a winery can hope to find PR value in making a new foray into being green. That's by directly engaging consumers in the activity. For instance, before I left my previous position I worked with a winery on developing a cork recycling program. That's a program that consumers (and accounts) can participate in and that also has appeal to media — not so much to wine writers, mind you, but to other media that can often be even more valuable (no disrespect intended, of course).

PaulG said...

Excellent comments, Pete, and I agree, Sokol-Blosser's green aspects were newsworthy – I used Susan as a source on more than one occasion. But that was early on, before everyone and their draft horse jumped on the 'green' bandwagon. So it probably will always work for S-B, because they are 'grandmothered' in.

Thanks again for a great post.

Mark Bunter said...

When I saw the picture heading the blog, that of the horse-drawn plough, and the stony soil, I was thrilled. This summer I finally got to make the pilgrimage to La Chapelle. As my wife and I were returning down the steep narrow track along the ravine, we heard lots of loud, angry shouting from up the hill, on the slope opposite La Chapelle. We couldn't see the source, somewhere above and behind a tree-studded hedge of sloes. It sounded like a journeyman boilermaker cussing out an infuriating apprentice, with all the lungs and spleen he could marshal. I was a little frightened for the poor soul receiving such a vigorous verbal drubbing ; I was curious, but reluctant to investigate. As we descended, the voice grew fainter, and I gladly dismissed the unpleasant mystery. Then, through a gap in the hedge, I looked back up the hill. Struggling mightily, a house-sized man in sagging dungarees and sweat-soaked shirt was turning an iron plough around the end of a vine row as he shouted commands to the impassive draft horse that towered above him. He muscled the plough over onto it's side, then wrestled it into position for the next row . The horse's huge hooves slipped and slid in the loose cobblestones and gravel as he made the tight turn. Then, with a bellowed command, they began ploughing the new vine row. This Hercules of a vigneron certainly hadn't chosen a horse and plough as the easiest way to cultivate his hillside. Sometimes, though, difficult things are worth doing. Perhaps selling "green" wine is among them.

Geoff Cornish said...

I'm in a high traffic retail store, in a high-end location, and there is no shortage of people who'd like a straight story about everything in wine from bio-dynamic to green, sustainable, and the impossible dream of 'sulfite-free' wine to "cure all their allergies!" Many ask, a few listen, then thinking they know better than qualified sommeliers, (maybe they do !) choose the same safe, old, buttery oaky, chard or dry, 'big' cab they love anyway ! Yes, green has a bearing, but what is green ? and who's really saying so? No clear standards, nor a well-controlled proven certification emblem is a sure-fire recipe for a salesmans super-bole. Finding the right value and style of wine for the client beats 'green' every time. After all, do you buy expensive, poor-fitting, old-fashioned chemical die-free clothes or what looks good in the mirror or to the other gender ?

Phil O said...

While the opinion may be green does not sell wine in itself. Could it not be said that it is more of a brand building element. While the sticker that says “Now Organic” may or may not have an impact on consumer purchasing. Developing green practices through your operation and properly marketing them is a powerful tool when tied with the proper quality to help differentiate your brand from others in the market.

Art said...

I think that Paul hit the nail on the head when he said that it "should be de rigueur for all wineries." And without question, there is a "natural" or "real" wine movement out there being driven by consumers, some retailers (mostly wine bars that use such standards to set themselves apart), and a few importers/distributors who are committed to these producers. An interesting book that explores the subject in a very passionate and compelling way is "Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country" by Robert Camuto -- I had the pleasure of hosting Robert when he was in Seattle early in the year, and it's good to see more interest among Northwest wineries in following the French lead.

Brett said...

the only problem with green is that it costs more. Or at least, is associated with costing more. I think that in this case, the general public already feels like Vinography is green. I do not think that green sells wine. Green sells cars, green sells windows and washing machines. There is no gree varietal.

Todd Hansen said...

Paul is correct that sustainable is a fuzzy definition ... I remain unconvinced that when it comes to grape farming, organic is greener. Perhaps this is why the "green" message has had limited resonance in the marketplace. Part of the challenge is that the grapes that make the best-tasting wines aren't the hardiest - concord wine anyone?

Copper sulfate is used by many vineyards as an antifungal - sure it is organic, but it is corrosive to human health, can harm the liver and lungs, can accumulate in soil, and may promote the spread of drug resistant bacteria. Sulfur is organic but its re-entry period is much longer than advertised unless you want your eyes irritated after 30 minutes and throat raw at the end of the day. Never mind that an organic vineyard usually will be spraying (and thus running the tractor) through the rows more often than a vineyard that uses a light touch yet embraces modern science. Several synthetic antifungals have been shown to have lower environmental impact, operate within a specific narrow spectrum, boast four hour re-entry periods and require less-frequent application than organic counterparts.

In a sense, I take the same approach to farming as to my personal health. Try to stay healthy. Take a holistic approach. Use natural cures where practical, but embrace modern technology where it makes sense. I use a tank mix that is mostly organic for spraying fungicide. My tractor ran less than four hours per planted acre last season and that includes work on new plantings that required cultivation, and mowing ten acres of fallow land a few times to keep the blackberries in check. I spread compost by hand on weaker vines, and hoe weeds by hand during the growing season. My vineyard is full of all sorts of flora and fauna - from wildflowers, weeds, ladybugs, earwigs and spiders, to robins, raptors, mice and moles. I've considered seeking sustainable certification, but the added cost and administrative burden make it difficult to justify. Many of my neighbors have similar attitudes.

So please, especially when it comes to wine, don't presume that a product that isn't certified organic is necessarily more harmful to the environment or grows in a barren, insecticide-ridden, lifeless, artificial environment.

Art said...

I love to find winemakers like you, and it's worth the effort to seek them out! Most of those in Europe who do what you do are not "certified" -- and what value is it really, when after years and decades of abuse, you get some label after just a year or two of sustainable/holistic practices? said...

Actually it is against the law for any product to use the words 'certified organic' if the product is indeed not organic. So its truly not that difficult to differentiate. I think the term 'sustainable' is the broadest and hardest to define.
Yes, consumers do care. How do I know? Because there have been countless studies on the growing organic market , both stateside and worlwide.
"According to Nutrition Business Journal, sales of organic wine (which includes certified-organic wine and wine made from certified-organic grapes) grew to $129 million in 2007. In a 2008 international study conducted by the Wine Trade Monitor of France, 25 percent of all respondents saw positive growth for organic wines. Smaller brands, including those that are made with organically grown grapes, will continue to drive the U.S. market and outperform their mass-market wine competitors."
Amy Atwood

Tom Lynch said...

If I read your post (and many others on this topic including Wilfred's) correctly, the issue is this - labeling something as sustainable, green, etc. is NOT going to make people buy it, because people first and foremost want great wine at a good price.

That point is what the research has said from the beginning - people want to buy products from companies practicing social and environmental responsibility. But, they will not pay more, nor will they work harder to find them or understand confusing claims. The problem is that marketers heard consumers like green.sustainable, so they worked to find their sustainable angle and made it the centerpiece of their marketing. but the research never said that would work.

So, if you're going to market your worthwhile sustainable efforts, that marketing will ONLY help as a tie-breaker, IF it is done right. For example, if your wine is good enough, priced right, has a compelling label, and the consumer is down to a few similar options, then your sustainability message can break that tie, if it is done right. Right means simply, clearly, and in plain English.

It isn't a matter of promoting quality RATHER than sustainability, it is a question of how to go about presenting consumers with ALL of the reasons they should buy your wine at the right time. The lead message should almost always be quality, so it should be first. but that doesn't mean it should be the only message.

Tony Norskog said...

As the producer/marketer of 150,000 cases of certified organic wine annually it is very clear to me what the definition of organic is. If the label carries the USDA Certified Organic sticker, it's organic. All others are seeking some 'green sheen', generally in the interest of marketing.

Once you've seen a few of your comrades, who in their 40's and 50's die of weird cancers perhaps due to some time in the tractor seat spraying chemicals which "operate within a specific narrow spectrum" (didn't they say that about DDT?) you have to ask the big question about toxic exposure and it's value.

In the end, I'm a little sorry that Sulfite use is the differentiation between an organic wine and one 'made with organic grapes'. Organic agriculture is the moraly responsible choice, sulfites (more or less preservatives in one's diet) are only a personal choice. Anything we can do to encourage less toxic loading of our enviornment is positive.

Michelle Keller said...

Even though the general consumer is pretty confused, there are a few educated wine buyers who are focusing on organic and biodynamic wines. See Chambers Street Wines in NYC or Rosso in Santa Rosa. These educated buyers can lead the way and point consumers to companies that aren't just using the terms "green" or "sustainable" in a dishonest, PR-focused manner.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Interesting read. I was quite struck that at this year's Wine Blogger's Conference in Napa/Sonoma, every winery (every one) pitched their green credentials to the bloggers. What I wondered was, why are they so interested that we know this? Presumably so that we pass the information along and the belief is that it is a differentiator that helps to sell wine. This is in contrast to many Washington wineries I can think of who farm sustainably/organically/biodynamically but have never done much to promote the fact. This would seem to be more because they are doing it simply because they think it is the right thing to do rather than that it's the right thing to do and there might be some money to be made. The emphasis of the California wineries made me really wonder if this was something that a lot of consumers came by asking and were concerned about. This post makes me think the answer may be no (which would be aligned with my expectations).

Imbert said...

Hey Paul:

Good column. Since I'm no wine expert, I can only give you my consumer's perspective. As such, I do not scan the label for a reference to organic because, like you, I feel the term in and of itself is no longer trustworthy. However, I do weigh much more carefully where the wine comes from and feel it's probably more environmentally responsible and economically supportive to buy good wines as close to home as possible. It seems like a lot of fossil fuels go into bringing European, Australian or South American wines to this market even if they are sometimes more affordable. Then there is the question about the need to prepare wines for long-distance travel that might make their "chemistry" somewhat less than desirable, arguing in favor of consuming local wines. What are your thoughts on the transportation aspects?

PaulG said...

Thanks, everyone, for weighing in with such thoughtful comments. Obviously a topic that deserves further discussion. I'm trying to balance this blog between reviews/notes on specific WA and OR wines and wineries, and topics of more general interest. Your feedback is extremely valuable and much appreciated.

Art said...

According to the link below, there are now four certified biodynamic vineyards/producers (my particular interest) in Washington State:

Reeds Lane
Wallula Gap
(Pacific Rim says they are too)

DrinkTheEarth also has this to say about consumer acceptance:

"Through recent correspondence we’ve had with Demeter USA, there are currently more than 50 certified biodynamic wineries in the United States (more if you count individual vineyards that have been certified). The existence of organic bars such as Terroir in San Francisco, and GustOrganics in NYC has shown us that some consumers have begun to make the distinction between organic/biodynamic and traditional wines in the marketplace. Many wineries we’ve personally spoken to over the past year have said they are either pursuing or investigating sustainability efforts. Will that translate into more wineries achieving biodynamic certification? Requiring a significant long-term commitment, biodynamic farming is not for everyone."

Art said...

Sorry -- Wallula Gap IS the biodynamic vineyard that Pacific Rim uses.

Alex Sokol Blosser said...


Thanks for bringing this topic up! Always one near and dear to my heart as being "green" is something my mom, Susan, ingrained into our business a while ago and one that still flurishes even though she has retired. For us at Sokol Blosser it is quality first and formost that we sell and market about our wines, and being green is just HOW we get to that quality. Most of our consumers who spend $35 and up for a bottle of our Pinot Noir buy it for its quality, and not because it is made from certifed organic grapes.

One thing I am very aware of is how many other producers say that they farm organically who are not actually certified organic thus confusing consumers and trade alike. Since 2002 when the USDA passed the National Organic Program Act (NOP), the word organic became a legal term that actually means something. So now you are either certified organic under the USDA guidelines or you are not. As a small produccer I have researched these NOP guidelines for farming organically and feel that they have not "sold out" to the corporate farmers and is a very strong organic standard. In fact the USDA Organic standard is so strong that Canada is harmonizing their new national organic standard to it. When was the last time Canada took our lead on an environmental standard? I don't profess to state that the NOP organic standard is a panacea, but it is a very strong standard that has created the blossoming of our organic farming culture in the US since 2002.

karen tripson said...

Do all the 'sustainability' organizations charge a certification fee? Are the fees prohibitive to small wineries? (NOP, OTOC, LIVE, Demeter, Renaissance de Appelations, etc)

I missed anyone making much comment of sustainable practices making better tasting wine with more authentic terroir. Is that an issue in this conversation?

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