The words “organic wine” used to strike something between distaste and outright fear in most wine drinkers. For years, the only people interested in organics were on the tree-hugging fringes of society and the organic version of products like wine and beer often didn’t live up to their conventional counterparts. Nowadays, a stroll down the aisles of any grocery store confirms just how many brands have launched green initiatives. From popular potato chip brands to toilet paper, even manufacturers considered “conventional” are moving forward with environmentally-friendly practices and products. Makers of beer, wine and spirits are capitalizing on the trend, too, releasing high-quality products that promise to be good to – or at least mindful of – Mother Earth.
“This issue of sustainable versus old-school chemical-driven practices, it’s not a fad,” says Tom Geniesse, founder of Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit, a retail shop in New York City built out of green materials. “It’s a product of a heightened awareness of the importance, from a health perspective, of the future of our grandchildren on this planet.”
That might sound like hippie talk, but when you consider that the organic food and beverage category as a whole grew 9.5% in 2011 (and the numbers are on track for sustained 9%-plus growth through 2013, according to the Organic Trade Association), it’s a good idea to take notice of this section of the market.
“We’re a business that’s tried to create a buying experience for our customers that helps them make better, smarter decisions. We don’t focuses only on organic and sustainable wines, but it is a category that we pay close attention to and is well represented within what we sell,” explains Geniesse. “We’ve found that if you were to give someone a choice between a less healthy choice and a more healthy choice, if price and quality are equal, they will choose the more healthy choice. Often, they will pay more. Health I’m defining as not just for their own body, but for the environment.”
The “healthier” choice for the environment is not always a clear one. Many consumers now look for the certified organic seal when it comes to their food and beverage purchases, including wine, beer and spirits. For wine, in particular, the organic label can be a tricky one to grasp. There are wines made from organic grapes that are not certified organic due to certain practices or additives introduced in the winery. In the United States, certified organic wines must have no sulfites added to prolong shelf life, which many winemakers don’t believe is viable.
Much more common are sustainable wines: not necessarily certified organic, but made with an aim toward minimal impact on the environment. This could mean that the grapes are grown without the use of herbicides or pesticides, or perhaps that the final product is packaged in environmentally friendly materials. Usually, sustainable wine producers have opted not to go all the way with organic certification either because of the high costs and rigorous process involved or simply because they don’t want to be bound to the certification’s restrictions. For example, a winery may very rarely if ever use pesticides, but still prefer the flexibility to do so in a season that requires it without fear of losing their organic certification. As a happy medium, some wineries, like Bodegas Luzón in Jumilla, Spain, hedge their bets by going organic for only a portion of their production. Bottlerocket carries both Luzón’s organic Monastrell and its non-organic version – and is proud to sell them both, says Geniesse.
Easy Being Green
New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW), the organization for New Zealand’s grape and wine sector, is unique as far as national or regional wine associations go. It mandated that by 2010, all member companies had to have an accredited sustainability program in place. From small-production family vineyards to large million-case wineries, nearly every New Zealand wine producer has taken efforts to minimize its impact on the environment.
“The idea is not to say what they’re allowed to do or not do,” says Philip Manson, general manager of sustainability at NZW, which has partnered with research facilities on studies examining water, waste and energy usage. “It’s about engaging our members, getting them to think about how they’re growing grapes and making wine, and how that compares to their neighbors.”
Yealands Estate, which bills itself as the largest, most sustainable privately owned winery in the world, was the first to be certified carbon-neutral since its inception, meaning that it offsets all greenhouse gas emissions. It uses spent grape vines both as a renewable energy source and a natural fertilizer, and has a fleet of Babydoll miniature sheep roaming its acres of vines as living, breathing mowers and weeders. Yealands is not alone in its belief that sustainability is as good for the earth as it is for the bottom line.
Winemaker Andrea Leon of Lapostolle in Chile, which was certified organic in 2011, points to the use of energy-efficient technology in Lapostolle buildings and facilities, recycling organic matter from the winemaking and agricultural processes for composting, and sustainable packaging made from recycled materials that are 15% lighter and therefore cheaper to ship as green but also cost-effective practices.
“For Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and her husband Cyril [de Bournet], sustainability comes natural as a part of the winemaking philosophy, [which] embraces extreme care for the pristine and precious environment, ” says Leon. “It’s our belief that sustainable consumer products are here to stay and are woven into the fabric of American life.”
For Matthew Cain, founder of Yellow+Blue, providing consumers with sustainable wines was only part of the equation. His business model is based on the premise that organic and sustainable producers agree to distribute their wines under his label, packaged in eco-friendly Tetra Pak, and that the American consumer is savvy enough to buy quality wine in what looks like one-liter juice boxes. Yellow+Blue equals green: get it?
“Carbon footprint-wise, ours is about half of what it would be if we bottled and shipped the wine from the wineries,” says Cain. “We’re trying to build the 21st-century business model of the wine trade. We don’t own vineyards, but we only work with growers who farm organically or sustainably… Is it really right to bottle it at the source, ship it halfway around the world only to have the end consumer drink it and throw the bottle away? In the U.S., only 15% of bottles get recycled. 85% go into landfills.”
Cain admits that his demographic trends younger. For older or just more traditional consumers, he says, it’s a question of the wine trade better communicating issues of sustainability. When he first launched the business in 2008, retailers weren’t convinced they had a customer for his product. But the company has grown four-fold since its inception. Cain believes consumers are “on board,” and that it’s the retail business that has to catch up.
“At present, there is no legal term or official category for sustainable wine in the U.S.,” says Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which provides third-party verification for wineries’ sustainability practices. “Since sustainable is a relatively new concept, a regulated legal term may evolve as it becomes more mainstream… Retailers have to be able to identify green wine.”
Identifying what’s green isn’t always obvious, either. Andy Mitchell, director of vineyard operations at Hahn Estates in Monterey, CA, believes that even organic farming has its pitfalls when it comes to sustainability: “When you look at the carbon footprint, organic farming can require tractor work [instead of sprays for mildew], so you’re burning fossil fuels that go back to the ground.” Hand harvesting of grapes is generally seen as more holitic than machine harvesting, but Mitchell claims that Hahn’s machines can be mounted with implements to take care of extra agricultural work as they pass through the field, further reducing fossil fuels and impact on the soil.
Spirits companies have hopped on the green bandwagon, promising an eco-friendly alternative to industrially produced liquor. American Harvest Organic Spirit, from Sidney Frank Importing Company, for example, is an organic vodka infused with a proprietary blend of ingredients. Not only is it organic, but the distillery supports renewable energy in the form of wind power; organic waste from the distillation process becomes cattle feed; and the bottles are 100% recyclable, decorated with water-soluble varnishes. “For American Harvest, supporting organic growing practices is one way to support a sustainable future,” says Julie Byrne, brand manager at Sidney Frank. “The audience for organic products is more mainstream than you might think, as well as loyal and willing to invest in products that they feel good about buying.” Even brands thought of as conventional are investing in green practices. Patrón Tequila has long considered sustainability one of its core principles. It not only composts its own organic waste – the spent agave fibers from the distillation process – but does so for neighboring distilleries at no cost. It has also developed a reverse-osmosis technology that allows it to reclaim water used in the tequila’s production. According to Greg Cohen, the communications director of Patrón Spirits, the Mexican government is working with Patrón to share some of its innovations with the rest of the tequila industry.
“There’s varying degrees of what makes a spirit ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable,'” says Cohen. “What it means to us is to focus on ways that we can limit the environmental impact of our tequila production. And, fortunately, other distilleries are engaged in similar practices, too. I think that will certainly grow to become common practice across our industry.”
Herradura, another tequila producer, has worked to offset its environmental impact over the past 15 years, including implementing a multimillion-dollar wastewater reuse and filtration plant, as well as renewable energy, composting and recycling programs.
“Although we are seeing a growing demand for organic and sustainable consumer products in general – mainly from Europe, the U.S. and Japan – in the U.S. and Mexico, the sustainable spirits category is still a niche,” says Valdemar Cantu, brand manager at Herradura. “It is exciting to see more sustainable spirit brands being introduced every year, but it remains a very small sub-category compared to non-organic spirits.”
A growing number of craft micro-distilleries are capitalizing on the consumer demand for sustainable spirits. By definition, a locally produced spirit can be a sustainable choice simply by virtue of not having been shipped from far away to store shelves. Catoctin Creek Distilling in Purcellville, VA, is not only certified organic, but makes an effort to source its ingredients locally. For brands aiming for a larger distribution base, a focus on how ingredients are sourced can be a boon, as well. FAIR, as the name suggests, specializes in certified fair-trade ingredients, such as goji berries from Tibet, coffee from Mexico and quinoa from Bolivia. Because these are sourced from small, independent farmers, they tend to be grown sustainably, if not organically. “Fair-trade ingredients are grown by farmers who are dealing with the land on an individual basis. They are not mega farms that are growing products in the least expensive way possible,” says Jack Bays, president of Bay Pac, which produces and markets FAIR. “The fact it’s sustainable or organic or fair trade gets people to purchase it, but they won’t continue to buy it unless it meets the quality of non-organic products.”
If Coca-Cola has a sustainability initiative in place, then you can bet than big beer companies like Anheuser-Busch do. The macro-brewer claims to have reduced its water usage by more than a third, invested in biofuels and solar power, implemented comprehensive in-house recycling programs and introduced lighter, more eco-friendly packaging. Of course, these efforts are all relative when you consider that the company is responsible for close to half of all beer sales in the U.S. Craft brewers, on the other hand, can claim to be sustainable by virtue of being small, local companies that can source certain ingredients locally and distribute on a limited scale.
While comprising only a fraction of the overall beer market, craft beer is a growing category that differentiates itself as a wholesome, high-quality alternative to a mass-produced product. A number of craft brewers have embraced low-impact packaging (i.e., cans) and some have gone further in their sustainability efforts, such as Brooklyn Brewery, which is the first New York City company to use 100% wind-generated electricity. The brewery also sends its spent grain to a New Jersey facility that turns it into pig feed. Brooklyn’s co-founder Steve Hindy has said that the decision to switch to wind power came after the New York City blackout of 2003 when the outage affected the brewery’s production and could have resulted in the loss of thousands of gallons of beer. If ever there was a reason to invest in sustainable practices, the sustainability of one’s business is good one. Hippies may have started the green movement, but it’s savvy and forward-thinking entrepreneurs who will surely carry it into the mainstream.