It’s no secret that wineries spend umpteen dollars maintaining their vineyards, proudly pruning and preening their way to a better quality grape. In theory, official certifications put these efforts on a pedestal to gain authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the wine world. But does anyone care besides the wineries themselves? If, according to the 2015 Survey of American Wine Consumer Preferences, conducted by Sonoma State University and the Wine Business Institute, only 18 percent of the respondents indicated that organic, sustainable, or biodynamic wines influence their decision to purchase a wine, why get certified in the first place? The answer lies somewhere in the heart, not the wallet.
What doesn’t make sense from this recent survey is that consumers recycle, buy organic food, and extol the virtues of solar power. But buy organic-labeled wine, they historically have not. Countless wineries tend their vines organically, biodynamically or sustainably, but two-thirds of California wineries that adopt eco-certification do not mention their involvement on their labels.1 Meanwhile, in the grocery store, organically-labeled food sales have grown double digits every year since 19972.. So why is wine being left behind? Perhaps consumers assume that all wineries grow sustainably because the land would become fallow otherwise. Nonsensical as that is for those in the know, our industry needs to realize green messaging is fast becoming a relevant wine marketing angle on all sales fronts.
My colleague, Reka Haros, wrote in a recent Nomacorc post that the now-dominant millennials are “environmentally and socially aware idealistic people who give importance to value-driven brands.” So if wineries aren’t currently using the certifications to market to consumers, why are they doing it? In 2014, a survey conducted by UCLA to owners and managers of California wineries provided their top motivation for adopting sustainable certification practices. The list included providing a clean environment for future generations, improved quality of grapes/wines, long-term viability of business, maintaining soil quality, and growing consumer demand. Consumer demand arrived last on the list.
So I went to the source, asking three wineries to weigh in on why they spent time and money to gain green certification.
Sustainable since the beginning, Honig Vineyards in Napa Valley is no green bandwagon-er. Their brand story has historically relied on green messaging even though they’ve never heralded it on their labels. In fact, when I interviewed Michael Honig, his certifications weren’t even on their website (they are now). Honig has achieved the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) certification as well as Napa Green’s land and winery certification, a third party program founded in 2008. But Honig says he didn’t do it for marketing: “We did it for ourselves… we want to save the world and can’t save the world until we save our 70 acres.” He added, “A third party certification process is necessary since it lends more credibility. There’s a lot of suspicion for wineries who say they’re ‘green’ or ‘natural,’ but behind the curtain that may not be factual. Having someone unbiased judge your actions is very beneficial.“
Jon Ruel, CEO for Trefethen Vineyards also in Napa, has been certified in Napa Green since almost the program’s inception. He explains their participation in this way: “For us, sustainability is core to how we run our business. Our land has been in farming since the 1800s and we want to continue farming for generations to come. Programs such as Napa Green and CSWA are helpful in providing growers and wineries like us with useful guidance and affirmation that we are on the right track.” On the marketing side of things, Ruel stated, “The idea that these certifications can serve for wine marketing is secondary. We want people to buy our wine because it is delicious and authentic. We farm sustainably so that we can keep making delicious wine for years to come. That said, there are some consumers and wine buyers in the trade that are looking for bottles that not only taste great, but feel great.”
Trefethen doesn’t list their certifications on their website or their labels, except in non-consumer, trade materials.
Sustainability for the Environment
With the growing concern for environmental concerns, feeling great is what many Americans seek these days. Some wine organizations are responding. In January 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers announced their commitment to becoming the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region through a three-phased program to be completed by 2019. A survey they conducted revealed that 60 percent of respondents agreed that the quality of the wine mostly depends on the quality of the vineyard. And 38 percent stated that supporting sustainable agriculture is important to them.
The Sustainability Stigma
So is there is unspoken stigma surrounding organic that wineries are trying to avoid? Michael Honig admitted that there’s “a little bit of a political issue” surrounding sustainable or organic labeling and believes they shouldn’t broadcast it. Years ago, similar to the Kosher or boxed wine segment, perhaps wine consumers tried an organic wine and ran for the hills, never to return. Getting those consumers back into even the sustainable fold might be a challenge.
But one winery challenges this perceived stigma. Bonterra Organic Vineyards has been organically certified since 1993, and they’ve always touted their organic status on the label. Their Nielsen survey data indicates that 53 percent of consumers are likely to buy wine with organic credentials–-with 65 percent of those being millennials. As the number one wine in the organic category, their wine sales are up over 19 percent in the past year, backing up the Nielson data.
A Google search of “green certified wineries” reveals the following brands touting their sustainability certifications: Chateau Montelena, Hess Collection, CADE Winery, and Rodney Strong Vineyards. The other results are from the certification organizations themselves. So it appears the disconnect lies somewhere between the wineries’ marketing outreach and the consumers. It costs 10-15 percent more to farm a vineyard organically or sustainably—it’s more labor intensive (especially biodynamic agriculture) because it requires so much more attention to detail. But that begs the question… why aren’t more wineries announcing their efforts in a more direct manner? Whether LIVE certified, Lodi Rules, or anything else, naked harvesting by the light of the waning moon and pesticide-free farming could be the answer to more wine sales, if they’d let it.
Photo credit to: sheep and wine (DiscoverCalifornia.com); SCWA badge (Sustainablewinegrowing.org), Napa Green (napavalleyregister.com), organic winery (Liveleft.com), Organic vineyard with goats (tambourlaine.net), and owl box (sonomawinegrape.org).