"Authenticity" was a key word participants posted in their comments following a seminar in Vancouver, B.C., that addressed the challenges of marketing eco-friendly wines.
. -- Get real: That was one of the key messages an international panel of wine professionals and aficionados told the opening seminar of the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival yesterday afternoon.
The seminar, "Eco-friendly Wine: Over-hyped, Over-priced?" addressed the rising interest in sustainable viticulture and wine production, certification practices and consumer response. A lively interaction among panelists highlighted the need for the wine industry to go green, but diversity in how it's getting there.
Anthony Nicalo, principal of Farmstead Wines in Vancouver, which markets handmade, artisan wines primarily from Europe and Australia, said it ultimately doesn't matter what wineries do but how honest they are about what they're doing. Consumers will decide what's worth supporting. "Authenticity is key," he said.
Challenging what he termed "single-word reductionist solutions" to conventional viticultural and winemaking practices, Nicalo told the audience of producers, agents and trade media that a label is no guarantee of what actually goes on in a vineyard, because certification standards often differ between jurisdictions. What's organic in one state might not be compliant in another state.
"I think the wine industry has to be authentic, otherwise it is just greenwashing," Nicalo said, referring to the practice of positioning a practice as green, when in fact it isn't.
Owsley Brown III, president of the San Francisco-based Magnanimus Wine Group
, said his wineries have focused on cultivating authenticity, because it's the best way to build relationships with potential customers. "Honesty seems to be the best way to do that," he said.
A lack of honesty, or transparency, is fatal to businesses in a world where social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs play critical roles in the dissemination of information. "The social media that we have is allowing us to dig deeper," said Peter Williams, director of the Centre for Tourism Policy and Research
at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., who has a special interest in wine tourism.
Social media are changing the marketing landscape and making authenticity key, he said. A vineyard or winery that's not living up to its claims can be debunked within minutes. "One thing people in the wine industry have to realize is: Hypocrisy kills," added Bill Tieleman, a Vancouver, B.C. political columnist who also runs the consumer-oriented blog site winebarbarian.ca
. "It doesn't take much to poison the well."
To create the transparency consumers demand around vineyard practices, Farmstead Wines has an account on Twitter and posts videos of vineyard tours on its website. The short clips allow consumers to get to know the producers whose wines they're buying, and see for themselves what goes on in the vineyards they're supporting. Nicalo didn't see any reason why wineries and vineyards couldn't do something similar, given the ease with which a simple good-quality video can be made.
Nicalo's approach reflects the strategy advocatec by New Jersey wine retailer Gary Vaynerchuk, who has harnessed social media to develop his business. Speaking at a conference in New York this past January, Vaynerchuk said businesses need to be up-front about what they're doing and why they're doing it. Social media outlets provide the opportunity to spread the word, regardless of what the business is. Moreover, the nature of social media allows the word to pass along faster than ever before.
"You really need to hone in at what you rock at," he said. "You have the ability to prove it now, whatever that may be. … Give yourself the ability to get passed on."
Still, the fragmentation of the wine industry's sustainability initiatives makes it difficult for the industry as a whole to pass along a consistent, unified message. "What is the story we want to tell?" moderator Glenn Sigurdson asked the panel.
For panelist Tilman Hainle, winemaker and principal of Working Horse Winery in Peachland, B.C., the key message should be that the wine industry is taking care of the land its vineyards occupy.
"If we can tell that story with all the marketing tools we have at our disposal … I will be a very happy man," he said.