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Keep the Green Message Simple

January 2010
by Jim Gordon

Could it be that the wine industry’s considerable effort to go green and then to communicate this movement to customers has failed? Even worse than that, could the whole thing be on the verge of backfiring and turning wine drinkers off the whole concept?

I took those questions home from last month’s Green Wine Summit in Santa Rosa, Calif. Professor emeritus Robert Smiley of the University of California, Davis, led the keynote session, entitled, “Is It Greener on the Other Side? A Consumer’s View.” He introduced three speakers who, each more than the previous, documented the failure of the wine industry to convey its green message, and urged action to set things straight. Read more about it in our Headlines section.

The speakers were two market research experts and an influential wine merchant, all of whom expressed strong opinions directly to the many vintners, growers, marketers and suppliers in the audience.

Brian Lechner of The Nielsen Co., which collects some of the best data about U.S. retail wine sales, reported that overall table wines sales had been up 3.3% during the previous 52 weeks, while wines marketed as organic were up a whopping 12%. The problem is that this is a very tiny category, and the broader category Nielsen calls “Organic-plus” was down 1.2%. Wines in this category include those grown sustainably or even organically—but their labels may not say so.

In addition to sales data, Lechner also presented recent research on online discussions about wine. He found that “organic” and “sulfites” are the two most frequent key words that pop up when people talk about organic wine. The issue of sulfites is a separate one in winemakers’ minds, but apparently not in consumers’. Lechner’s conclusion was positive, saying the research showed that wine marketers have a great opportunity to answer consumers’ questions and help them understand.

Christian Miller of Wine Opinions and Full Glass Research was more blunt. He showed slide after slide from recent surveys, which demonstrated that even frequent, serious wine drinkers have very little idea what sustainable means, what the difference is between organic wine and wine made from organic grapes, and so on.

Worse, he believes the level of confusion about what sustainability means has increased. “I think the wine industry needs to deal with this, and at a high level,” he said, and that it goes beyond the responsibility of individual brands.

Peter Granoff of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco and Oxbow Wine Merchant in Napa said the view from retail is gloomy on this front. Consumers aren’t getting much clarity from wine communicators, he said. “If we don’t get our heads around this issue very soon, it’s going to (degenerate) into meaningless hype.” Granoff was quite critical, but he also offered several clear recommendations about what the wine industry ought to do:

• Adopt consistent standards for sustainability.

• Refer to wines as organically grown whenever possible, because people understand this term.

• Certify more vineyards as Biodynamic.

• Make available to sales people and customers simple explanatory flyers about the terminology.

Discussed throughout the summit were numerous sets of environmental guidelines and stamps of approval developed by grower and winery associations. (For more information, read Cliff Ohmart’s detailed column about vineyard certification procedures.) As positive as these are in most ways, stamping these credentials on labels apparently contributes to consumers’ confusion.

The industry observers made a convincing case. It appears that it’s good for a grower to promote grapes as sustainable to a winery buyer, but it’s not effective for the winery to promote these terms to the public. The message to the wine industry is to keep it simple when addressing the public: Make it organic if at all possible, and keep educating everyone down the line.

One cautiously optimistic sign in the Wine Opinions research came when the survey-takers asked serious wine drinkers what they knew about various terms and brands. Most couldn’t accurately define “sustainable,” but a majority did recognize that Bonterra Vineyards—probably the largest-selling green wine brand—makes wine from organically grown grapes. It seemed to prove that wine drinkers eventually will get the message. The question is whether the wine industry can take as much time as Bonterra—two decades—to communicate the message, or whether a more concerted, more unified approach should be developed now.

Wines & Vines
will be covering this issue in more depth during the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this especially informative issue, and wish you a happy New Year and prosperous new decade.

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