Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sustainable wine: Women make it, people might pay more for it, and Sonoma County is trying to own it

Two significant research-based stories about sustainable wine dropped in the past week.

In the first, an Australian economist released a working paper stating that women in technical leadership roles -- i.e., winemaker or director of viticulture -- are more likely to make wine that is certified in some way as environmentally sustainable.

In the second, a survey by Sonoma County Winegrowers claimed that consumers will pay more for wines certified as sustainable, possibly $5 a bottle more.

There's a huge difference between the studies, though, in the definition of "sustainable."

Sonoma County is using the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance definition of "sustainable," which is toothless. Don't misunderstand: there are plenty of Sonoma County growers who are committed to protecting the environment. It's just that the CSWA's "sustainable" designation doesn't do that.

For the Australian study, let me quote author Jeremy Galbreath from the Curtin University of Technology in Perth:

"To measure environmental sustainability, I relied on ...  certain indicators of environmental sustainability. These include: 1) organic vineyards; 2) biodynamic vineyards; 3) organic vineyard certification; 4) biodynamic vineyard certification; and 5) organic wine products." 

See a problem there? This is a working paper. Hopefully in the final draft Dr. Galbreath can explain why "organic vineyards" appear alongside "organic vineyard certification," implying that the former are uncertified and thus meaningless. I suspect this is a writing error.

Either way, it strikes at the problem for "green wines:" what, if anything, is truly meaningful? Many consumers want nature-friendly products; it's an important market. But for wine, "organic" is a more problematic term than for food because of the sulfite issue. This has left people scrambling for alternatives.

According to the Sonoma County survey, "biodynamic" is dropping in popularity, which is a shame because it's the most rigorous: Demeter will lawyer-letter your ass for using it if you're not certified.

Geoff Kruth, president of the Guild of Sommeliers, said on a panel that interest in "natural" wines is waning among retailers and restaurants. This will cheer the many people who hate natural wines, especially those made under the unofficial definition of wines with no added sulfites. There has never been an official definition of "natural wine" and thus no official certfication, making it an even easier term to hijack than "sustainable." But maybe the day when that was worth considering has passed.

From a certified sustainable producer!
Sonoma County has thrown its weight behind "sustainable" in a big way. There's a push to get every vineyard in the county declared "sustainable" by 2019, and considering that all that's needed to do that is for the vineyard owner to file some paperwork, it might happen. (Still betting against it because farmers can be contrarians.)

Thus the Wine Intelligence survey commissioned by Sonoma County Winegrowers tells them what they want to hear: 68% of U.S. consumers say they will be more likely to buy a wine certified as sustainable. And of a much narrower group -- people who have heard of the Sonoma County sustainability push -- 40% say they will pay up to $5 more a bottle for a sustainable wine.

I would like to remind you of the office cafeteria polling conundrum. When asked, a great number of people will tell you they want healthy choices in the office cafeteria. When actually buying food, well, the results are often different. I'll be a lot more interested in these stats when there are some sales figures to back them up.

However, I have no doubt that the current generation of wine drinkers -- including millennials, Gen X and boomers -- is more interested in green issues than our predecessors.

Which brings me back to women. I'll be honest: Galbreath's paper made me wonder why anyone would hire a man to do anything. He cites research saying women are "particularly strong in areas such as new idea generation and innovation," "very good at seeing big picture issues, which aids them in developing high quality strategies," "more orientated to supporting and maintaining relationships than men," and "appear to tolerate unethical practices less than men." (Hard not to think of last year's election while reading this paper.)

Crucially, he says women "demonstrate a higher concern for the natural environment than men, while engaging more frequently than men in behaviour intended to benefit the environment."

I guess this means the best way for Sonoma County Winegrowers' sustainability program to have actual teeth is to put women in charge of it. Men: what are we good for?

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Pam Strayer said...

"biodynamic" is dropping in popularity? I didn't see that in the North Bay Business Times article. Do you have the survey itself?

Pam Strayer said...

Another survey - presented this week - at the Oregon Vineyard Supply grower event in Salem, Oregon, used Wine Opinions data from 2015 consumer surveys showing that 43% of consumers think "certified sustainable" means "organic grapes."