But its marketing position is a mixed blessing. Whole Foods is a constant target for people who want it to be greener. The chain made the news this week by declaring that it will require all of its suppliers to label any food containing GMOs by 2018, but that came only after pressure from activists. Nobody is similarly pressuring Piggly Wiggly.
When it comes to wine, the question is, what exactly is sustainable? California's statewide standards are self-reported and so loose that they're essentially meaningless.
The situation is complicated by a USDA decision to require that "organic wine" not have any added sulfites, a vital component of winemaking and the source of much misunderstanding.* For most food products, shoppers can just buy organic and forget about it. For wine, they have to learn that "wine made from organically grown grapes" generally is good, while "organic wine" generally is not. That really complicates selling wine at Whole Foods.
* (Sulfites are naturally occurring in wine. Wine spoils without them. And you are not allergic to sulfites.)
I gotta say this for Whole Foods: For a grocery chain, it has an interesting wine selection. Most grocery chains carry nearly all crap: big-production international-style wines with clever names and nothing distinctive beyond the marketing approach. Whole Foods has some of those too, but you can drink better from there than from any of its competitors.
I wanted to know how Whole Foods decides what wines to carry, so I interviewed Joseph Kaulbach, supervisor of the wine and cheese division for Whole Foods' Northern California stores.
What do you see as your mission?
We try to offer a little bit of everything, to be a small wine shop in a grocery store. To have everything from Kendall-Jackson and Veuve Clicquot to small vineyards in California. We like supporting sustainable wine growers and we try to call those out with different signs.
But we don't limit our selections to just those wines.
We also try to give a food pairing on the signs. We are a grocery store.
How important is sustainability?
It plays into everything that we do. It's definitely a factor: not just a selling point, but in line with the philosophy of our company. Ultimately the main factor is quality and price for quality.
How do you parse the many definitions of sustainable?
To me, if a winery is making an effort to be sustainable that's a step in the right direction.
I know there are a few different agencies that look into certifying sustainability. I don't have a lot of information on that, but I definitely would support that. If we could get a seal of approval, that definitely would help.
It's just like there's no definition of all-natural.
With wine, we do allow added sulfites, but we don't carry sangrias that have added flavors.
With our larger promotions we find out more about the wineries to find out what their practices are.
Some of the larger wineries have wind power or they buy carbon offsets.
|Three Wishes from a cheap genie|
There are definitely customers who that is very important to. We do offer wines with no added sulfites.
That would be less than 20% of our customers. But for some people, no added sulfites is important.
Then there are foodies who are looking for something new and exciting and something they haven't tried before.
And a third set of customers are looking for value and quality. That's why we offer products like Three Wishes, that is $2.49 a bottle.
Have people bought Three Wishes who might have bought more expensive wines?
In some cases, but our concern was that some customers would be going to Trader Joe's. Trader Joe's was the first to do it but now most large chains have a $2 or $3 wine.
For a long time we didn't carry one because we didn't think that's what our customers were looking for.
More than cannibalizing sales, for us, that market already existed outside of Whole Foods. We may have gained some customers.
Our data doesn't suggest we downtraded customers. Some customers may have traded from $4 or $5 wines but they weren't buying $10 and over wines. We definitely did not see a loss of over $10 wines.
And we saw a growth in over $25 wines. That's been going on for over a year.
How is the Northern California customer base different from other parts of the country?
I think our customers are most similar to New York area customers. A lot of our customers travel internationally. They've experienced wines or cheeses from other countries. There's a lot of interest for smaller production items that typically would only be found overseas.
And the whole local thing. In Texas, most consumers would consider "local" to be anything from Texas. Here, most people consider "local" to be in the same county. From Napa and Sonoma, both wines would be local to them, but they like supporting uber-local, what's right in their backyard.
I can't think of anywhere in the country that has such a small definition of what "local" is.
What do you see as trends for the rest of 2013?
I'm not seeing any drastic changes right now.
Sauvignon Blanc is continuing to grow at a fast pace, especially domestic Sauvignon Blanc.
Surprisingly, French wines are continuing to decline in sales. But I don't see anything in double-digit growth or decline right now.