Why Consumers Care About Sustainable Wines

As Americans pay more attention to where their foods come from and the farm-to-table movement picks up steam, it’s natural for consumers to start asking the same questions about their wines.

There’s evidence that such issues may translate into wine-purchasing decisions. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance website cites a 2016 survey by Wine Opinions of distributors, retailers, restaurateurs and media, which found that a majority of respondents consider sustainable practices either frequently or occasionally when selecting the wines they sell, at least in part because of consumer demand.

Wineries whose operations are certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic recognize the value of those practices in the marketplace, and they promote their sustainability to varying degrees. But most vintners say the main reason they’re sustainable is because it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s always been in our blood,” says Maria Ponzi, president of her family’s Ponzi Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Respecting the earth and the longevity of the land “is like a religion for us. It was ingrained in us from the very beginning,” she adds.

“It’s a deep part of our philosophy,” says Liz Bokisch, who owns Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi with her husband Markus.

“The DNA of the company has been around sustainability,” says Rodrigo Maturana, vice president of marketing for Fetzer Vineyards in California, which also includes Bonterra and its certified-organic and biodynamic vineyards. “For us, it’s the right way of doing business.”

Statements like those were common from people at wineries big and small on the West Coast and in New York. Some started farming their vineyards sustainably even before there was any organization that could certify the practices. But third-party certification is important to all of them.

Most are able to apply to groups like Lodi Rules, LIVE, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and SIP for certification. In the case of Bedell Cellars on New York’s Long Island, the winery banded with other area vintners and growers to create a certifying organization, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, according to Bedell’s winemaker, Rich Olsen-Harbich. The wine industry, he says, “wanted to get out in front of” the environmental concerns of Suffolk County’s 1.4 million residents.

An Added Value

Most vintners say that sustainability isn’t the first thing most consumers look for when choosing a wine. Price, for example, is often more of a motivating factor. And most say that price or grape variety are more important factors in determining who their competition is. But being sustainable can help a wine stand out, and it offers the consumer added value. Maturana calls it a “strong differentiating point.”

It’s “an added layer to what we do,” Bokisch says. The Bokisches also farm about 2,800 acres of vineyards in Lodi; most are certified sustainable under the Lodi Rules or are in the process of conversion.

Even though sustainability doesn’t necessarily determine a wine buyer’s choice, Bokisch believes that “consumers are really driving demand.” Large wineries want grapes that are grown sustainably, she says, even when they can’t benefit from any halo effect of certification because they draw grapes from so many sources.

So who are the consumers driving the demand? The No. 1 group, most agree, is millennials. “We definitely see millennials interested in how wines are made,” says Skylar Stuck, general manager of Halter Ranch in Paso Robles, which is certified by SIP (Sustainability in Practice). “Those millennials are definitely looking at labels,” Ponzi says.

Jan Barnes, vice president for marketing at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington, calls it the “millennial mindset.” Two of Ste. Michelle’s vineyards, Canoe Ridge and Cold Creek, are LIVE-certified.

Steve Lohr, CEO of his family’s J. Lohr winery in California, thinks sustainable wines also appeal to a group of 60-plus consumers he calls “the matures,” which he refers to as “healthy-planet thinkers.” Lohr’s estate vineyards and its three wineries are certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), and Lohr is the group’s chairman.

J. Lohr vineyards with solar panels.

Standing Out On the Shelf

But the demand goes beyond demographics. Stuck thinks Halter Ranch’s customer isn’t unlike the shopper at Whole Foods: “affluent, well-educated, nutrition-oriented.” That’s a sentiment echoed by Maturana: “A Whole Foods shopper has all the values that Bonterra has.”

Whole Foods comes up a lot when winery representatives talk about having a competitive advantage in retail markets. So do other green-focused grocery retailers. And sustainability is important with a lot of on-premise accounts, as well.

“I definitely see a trend in upper-end restaurants” where diners want to know where their food comes from, says Jean-François Pellet, winemaker and partner at Pepper Bridge and Amavi wineries in Walla Walla, Wash., which are LIVE-certified. Bedell’s Olsen-Harbich sees good demand from farm-to-table restaurants in New York City. Several vintners noted that some restaurants now have wine lists that feature sustainable wines and wines made from organically grown grapes, sometimes exclusively.

As far as geographic demand, both coasts are strong markets. Lohr calls California and the Northeast “hot spots for sustainably produced wine,” and says Oregon and Washington are also key markets.

“The whole West Coast has much more sensitivity toward sustainability,” Maturana says, adding that the Northeast does too. It can even be an advantage in export markets. Lohr says being sustainable is important for buyers in Canada, Sweden and Norway.

Closer to home, sustainability can be an important component in a winery’s direct-to-consumer business. Wine clubs and tasting rooms give wineries an easy platform for spreading their message. Stuck notes that big windows in the Halter Ranch tasting room look out on the winery’s 280-acre vineyard on Paso Robles’ west side, making sustainability a natural part of the conversation.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington.

Sharing the Message

Whether in the tasting room, in sales materials or on the bottle itself, wineries vary in how heavily they promote the fact that they’re certified sustainable.

Most say that their wineries’ bottles carry some sort of certification seal, either on the front or back label. Halter Ranch, Bokisch Vineyards and Ponzi Vineyards are among the wineries that have their certifications on the back label. Bedell puts its seal on the front label, as does Bonterra. (Fetzer’s front label declares the company to be “Pioneers in Sustainability,” but because it purchases a lot of grapes the wine isn’t certified, although the Fetzer winery is).

Likewise, J. Lohr mentions its “sustainably farmed vineyards” on its back labels, but the winery doesn’t include a certification. Steve Lohr says the winery will be able to use the CSWA logo on its front label in 2018, but he hasn’t decided whether to do so.

Winery websites are also important tools for getting out the message. Most of the sites have a section devoted to the issue. (Some are easier to find and are more extensive than others). J. Lohr, for example, details a lot of its practices, from farming to social equity to the installation of a solar system that provides nearly 90 percent of its Paso Robles winery’s electricity needs.

Halter Ranch uses its site to promote the awards it’s won for green business, like one from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in early 2017.

Although Bedell Cellars’ site has a section on sustainability, its main feature is a link that sends you to the site for Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing. That group has developed an app for a member wine trail, as well as signage for vineyards that are certified. At the winery, “we don’t try to hit people over the head with it,” Olsen-Harbich says. Still, “we make it part of what we talk about.”

At Pepper Bridge and Amavi, Pellet says they don’t use their sustainability much as a marketing tool. He says he can “go on and on” about what they’re doing – everything from solar power and LED lighting to eliminating capsules on the wine bottles to working with the Audubon Society to bring the right birds to the vineyard — but the website is less detailed than some about the wineries’ practices.

Ste. Michelle’s Barnes says that company, too, has also been “pretty quiet” on the topic. “It’s the right thing to do,” she says. “It’s not the selling point for the wines.” That said, the Chateau Ste. Michelle wines from Cold Creek and Canoe Ridge have a certification seal on the back labels, and the company includes sustainability in its sales materials and on its website.

Perhaps the company that’s most active in promoting its sustainable message is Fetzer/Bonterra. The Fetzer website details the company’s commitment to sustainability dating back to 1968, when it was founded by Barney Fetzer. (The company is now owned by Chilean wine giant Concha y Toro). The site also highlights Fetzer’s B Corp. certification, which is awarded to companies recognized for trying to be a force for good. Maturana acknowledges that the certification isn’t well-known to consumers, so the site aims to educate them. Bonterra’s website stresses that winery’s organic and biodynamic practices.

Fetzer also uses shelf talkers, neck hangers and ads in wine media. And the company has partnered with what Maturana calls other “responsible brands,” such as New Belgium Brewing and Cabot cheese on joint retail displays with the theme of “purchase with a purpose.” On the West Coast, Fetzer advertises on billboards and geo-targets social media.

All the wineries contacted push the message in varying degrees with the trade, too. Sustainability “is definitely a tool I use when it’s necessary,” Maria Ponzi says, adding that it depends on the account.

Whether sustainable practices produce better wine – and whether consumers think quality is higher — may always be up for debate. “I do believe the wines have gotten better,” Olsen-Harbich says.

Ponzi says sustainability is “an emotional appeal to most people. Is it a better product? We like to think that it is.”

A Northern California resident, Laurie Daniel has written about wine for more than 20 years. Her wine column appears in several California newspapers, and her articles have appeared in magazines such as Wines & Vines, Food & Wine, Wine Country Living, Drinks and the Wine Enthusiast.

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