When it comes to sustainable wine today, the question is not whether wine can be produced in environmentally and socially conscientious ways and remain profitable. The 40 percent of California’s vineyards, along with hundreds in the Pacific Northwest, now certified by one of several available programs prove the viability and growth of sustainability.
Rather, the remaining questions center on whether consumers understand it and how much they want it. How does the wine industry convert more than 20 years of work on sustainable viticulture and wine production into marketing that resonates with more consumers?
To answer those questions — and set the stage for more collaboration among regional sustainability efforts — the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and partner groups in Oregon, Washington and New York embarked on a grant-funded project in 2019 to survey consumers and wine traders about sustainability.
“We felt it would be helpful to have the whole country on the same page when it comes to talking about sustainability,” said Allison Jordan, director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which is a collaborative effort between the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers. “It’s really important to have a common definition and common principles.”
Who defines sustainable?
The advantage of the sustainability concept lies in its inherent adaptivity. Unlike the organic program’s rigid standards for inputs, sustainability programs tout best practices for water use or pest control, which can look quite different from California to New York to Eastern Washington. But that flexibility also creates marketing challenges, as many consumers like the idea of sustainability but aren’t sure exactly what it means.
Proponents have largely settled on the message of a three-legged stool, comprising environmental health, social equity and economic viability, said Brighid O’Keane, outreach director for LIVE, a sustainable wine certification for the Pacific Northwest and partner in the CSWA-led outreach and education effort.
O’Keane spoke at the Washington State Grape Society annual meeting in November, along with Stephanie Bolton, director of the Lodi Rules program, which is the original sustainable wine grape growing program in the U.S., and Kevin Scribner, outreach director for Salmon-Safe, a certification program that works across many crops to reduce runoff and protect habitat.
Washington Winegrowers Association also offers a sustainability program known as Vinewise that does not yet include a third-party certification option like the programs mentioned above.
The programs all differ slightly, but the foundations are very similar, Jordan said. That’s why her organization certifies wines made with grapes grown in vineyards certified by any of the regional California programs. Now, they aim to better promote the sustainability efforts already underway.
“You have to realize how young sustainability is compared to organic,” Jordan said. “It wasn’t until 2010 that we had the certification option and began to communicate directly to the consumer. At first, people were shy about talking about it, but now winery websites have whole sections about their sustainable practices.”
In 2017, CSWA debuted a logo for wine labels. Salmon-Safe, LIVE, Lodi Rules and other programs also have logos, but today it’s still rare to find them on wine labels, even when vineyards and wineries are certified.
That limited visibility on wine labels belies the significant investment in sustainable practices and certification standards, but Jordan said it’s taken years to bring the industry to the point, today, where it’s poised to better market sustainable wine.
“We have to figure out what the trade values, what consumers know and want,” said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of Washington Winegrowers. “We can’t sell wine the way we did 15 years ago. How it’s made, where it’s made, and by whom it’s made matters.”
Consumer, trade findings
Now, the grant-funded research shows that consumers respond favorably to certified sustainability logos. That’s one of the exciting new findings so far, Jordan said.
According to results from the project’s first survey of wine consumers in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Sweden, younger consumers show the strongest preference for sustainably produced wine and are the most willing to pay more for it. On average, those surveyed said they would pay $3 more a bottle for sustainable wine.
That question didn’t take into account the issue of certification.
But when offered a selection of wine labels with different information, such as environmentally friendly or organic or sustainably produced, and the California Sustainable Wine Alliance certification logo, consumers said they were most likely to buy the wine with the logo.
Next, the grant funded a survey of wine trade professionals, asking them what they think of sustainability and how better to market these efforts. Those findings will be shared with the industry at the U.S. Sustainable Winegrowing Summit East, to be held in New York in May. It follows the first summit, held in June in Sonoma, California.
Bringing regional sustainability programs together to discuss marketing and strategies and share experiences should benefit all involved, but the idea is not to work toward one national sustainable wine standard, Jordan said.
“From my own perspective, there’s so much value in having growers and vintners sitting around tables and debating the standards,” she said. “There’s real ownership (in regional programs) and that’s part of the value.” •
—by Kate Prengaman
Washington weighs sustainable next steps
The findings from these surveys and the summit conversations should help Washington Winegrowers decide the next steps for its own sustainability efforts. Currently, the Vinewise and Winerywise programs are educational in nature, said executive director Vicky Scharlau.
“By next summer, Washington state is going to figure out where it wants to go on sustainability,” Scharlau said. “Whatever we do next, Washington is in a really good position to launch it with credibility and intention.”
Eastern Washington wine grape growers have a favorable climate for many sustainable practices, and many find that “they are already farming this way,” when they join Vinewise, Scharlau said. Growers know they don’t need to pay for a third-party certification to be sustainable.
“Vinewise and Winerywise, these tools allow us to tell the story we’ve always been telling, but better,” Scharlau said.
It’s an industry-driven effort and if the industry believes in adding a certification step to the educational program, they will.
“The industry has to want it,” she said, “because it’s going to allow us to tell better stories and because it’s a legitimate business investment because winemakers want to use it in their marketing.”