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Keen on green? The consumer isn’t, yet

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The Napa Vintners asked me to be part of a panel discussion called “I’m Green, You’re Green–So What…or Is It Too Easy Being Green?” They explained that the event was for “communications and PR professionals” at [mostly] Napa wineries, and that in addition to me (as the “respected wine writer”), the panel would include “a well respected retailer” and “a researcher.” In particular, the invitation to me explained, “We are interested in generating a discussion among panel members and vintners about the importance of employing green practices and marketing them to consumers, how it helps market a brand (or not) and what the future ‘green’ trends will be.”

My initial reaction was that it’s a little weird for them to invite me to speak on this topic, since anyone familiar with my views over the years knows that I’m not particularly keen on green. So there’s the irony. It’s sort of the same kind of irony as when I’m asked to speak on matters concerning social media, of which I have never claimed to be an expert (beyond the fact that I have this blog). In fact, in some respects, I’m a skeptic, or at least a debunker of inflated claims, and there are certainly plenty of people who know vastly more than I do about the structure and nature of social media. Yet I get the invitations anyway.

I like the fact that the organizers of the Napa green panel (which is on Thursday, April 29, at Spring Mountain Vineyard) included “So what…” in the title. It indicates that they, at least, don’t approach the whole green-sustainable-organic-biodynamic thing with the kind of breathless hero worship of a tea partier at a Sarah Palin rally. Leave it to PR professionals to be the first to understand that any cause celebre can be used for marketing purposes, no matter how lofty and noble it might inherently be (actually, the loftier, the better).

When I say I’m not keen on green, I don’t mean that I don’t support green practices, in the vineyard and in the winery. I do. How could I not? It would be like being against motherhood. What I mean is that, ever since this organic thing arose in the 1990s and gathered momentum heading into the 2000s, I saw it being equal parts passionate personal belief, on the one hand, and a marketing tool, on the other. I don’t think that’s cynicism. It’s cold, hard reality. When I wrote my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California, I included a chapter on Javier Tapia Meza, the winemaker at Ceago Vinegarden, precisely because I wanted to understand the mindset of people who were completely devoted to biodynamic. Javier and his boss, Jim Fetzer, approach farming with an almost religious tenacity, which I respect; but I still think that some vintners — not necessarily them, but others — believe that if green is good for the environment, it’s also good for business.

I actually don’t think it is. I don’t think very many people make buying decisions based on green. Maybe a small number of Whole Foods types does, but most people buy wine based on other factors: price, label, scores and recommendations, variety type, food compatability, etc. Last December, there was a Green Wine Summit, in Santa Rosa, and while many of the speakers touted the consumer value of green, to me the most salient fact (via Neilsen tracking) was that “’Green wine’ and related topics represents about .5% of all Wine buzz,” buzz being defined by tracking Twitter and other online portals. There’s lots of online discussion of “organic,” “natural wine” and so on, but it’s disconnected with actual buying decisions. In fact, Nielsen found, consumers care about sulfites not because they are or aren’t organic, but because they think sulfites give them headaches; low or no sulfites is the “purchase trigger,” not green in and of itself.

I realize this is a very complicated topic, and one in which emotions and core beliefs are intertwined with fact. But I stand by my own belief that, however true or effective green practices are, from a wine marketing point of view the “So what?” factor currently dominates.

  1. Totally agree with you on Green not automatically meaning Good or Good for Business.

    I’ve written quite a bit about the misconception about sulfites, by the way. What I tell people when they ask me if they might be allergic to sulfites is “No – you have a headache because you’re hungover!” :-)

  2. Great post – so all-encompassing and to the point! I agree especially when you say “…approach farming with an almost religious tenacity.” as I do that too. After all these years (of wasted youth, and wasted adulthood working in the wrong places) I’ve finally found what I want to do, ie contribute to leaving behind a cleaner, better planet for future generations, via producing excellent quality healthful wines.
    Is it good for business? I don’t know and I don’t care! I’m not out to create a multi-million dollar wine-business empire. As long as I can support my family (and future employees and stakeholders) that’s just fine :)
    The wine consumer market is huge and diverse (IMHO) and I’m pretty sure thare are niches there for everyone!

  3. Fabius, nice comment. Thanks.

  4. Hmm, have you ever sold wine Steve? I am out there every day, talking wine with trade buyers, consumers and winemakers all over California.
    Consumers and trade buyers alike are increasingly asking these exact questions about the organic/natural grape-growing and cellar practices of wineries. And yes, making buying decisons based on this information as well.
    Especially the restaurant sommeliers and specialty wine shop buyers. I started in the wine biz in 1996 and your views were right then, but not now.
    These practices are part of almost every conversation I have with wine buyers. It has become increasingly rare to find a buyer who does not care at all about responsible grape-growing or cellar practices, especially in California.
    Whatever your personal opinions about organic/natural wine making are, it is certainly not true that this wine sector is not growing leaps and bounds, and being pushed along by consumer and industry demand.

    Cheers, Amy

  5. Amy, thanks for your comment. It remains to be seen if the views of the somms and specialty wine buyers will filter down to the general public.

  6. Morton Leslie says:

    There’s an old fashioned grower/winery that I know quite well. There isn’t a pesticide or herbicide they don’t use. They disc their hillside vineyard, spray any remaining plantlife other than the vines with Roundup, and scorch the vine row with pre-emergent. They disregard the erosion and other implications of these practices and they promote themselves as “green” and practicing “sustainable agriculture.” Its all over their website and in their literature. I asked them what was sustainable about their practices? They pointed to some solar panels on their winery roof.

    The point? Every winery is green. Every winery practices sustainable agriculture. Any minor example is accompanied by a press release. That wine that goes into their massive bottle (that weighs more than the wine) is also saving the world. Don’t you know? Well just ask them. And then listen to the noise that follows.

    Hasn’t this “green” story become a little tiresome?

  7. Steve, I’m glad you wrote on this. I think the Greenwashing of consumers has gotten out of hand. Unfortunately, most consumers are clueless about agricultural production and think than “green is better (or gooder)” when in fact it not always is.

  8. Steve, you’re a bit too dismissive of the sulfite issue. The reason that the majority of consumers shy away from “green wines” is that most domestic wine that’s labeled “Organic” is fairly unstable stuff due to the fact that they can’t use sulfites. This has led to negative consumer experiences with affordable, organic domestic wine.

    In Europe, you can add sulfites and still get Ecocert certification. This is what’s holding back so many organic-certified labels in this country. If American consumers were able to taste through so many “green” wines, customer satisfaction, and sales, would increase.

    Amy, one needs only to read a couple of Steve’s posts to realize that not only has he never sold wine, but he also doesn’t speak to many professionals who buy or sell wine either.

  9. Richard, your points may be valid, but it’s not true that I don’t speak to professionals who buy and sell wine. I do that all the time. It’s my job to talk to people throughout the industry: on the production side, on the sales and marketing side, on the P.R. side, as well as consumers themselves. And it’s my perception that “green” — however admirable it may be — is not one of the major factors driving wine sales.

  10. You make really good points Steve, and I am generally in agreement. That said, I work at a sustainable winery and I have definitely noticed that for many consumers, it’s kind of the halo effect: they might not buy or like a wine just because it’s green, but often when they are already enjoying the wines and ready to buy, hearing that they are supporting a green business creates more goodwill and they are happy to be part of it, even if you can argue that it’s an indirect influence. That to me is worth something, both in terms of personal passion and good business marketing. I definitely appreciate your frank perspective on this…I’d rather hear the truth and know where things truly stand than to be floating in a green bubble!

  11. i do not like it sam-i-am, i do not like green wine and ham. ha!

    seriously — when companies don’t do something authentically, like when they just climb aboard a bandwagon, they typically can’t communicate what they’re doing authentically for very long which means they can’t maintain the philosophy backing it, and so it becomes this anticlimactic thing attributing to the so-what factor. not to mention, like it was pointed out above, how businesses bend the definition to get a piece of the action, degrading its actual meaning and in a way ruining it for others. don’t get me wrong, ANYTHING done for the environment is a great thing, even if it’s only solar panels. just don’t try to paint a bigger picture than what it is, please.

    the bigger thing out in the biz world, is the idea of giving back. whether that is in the form of going all eco or whatever (like patagonia, who has been giving back for ages). but again, that needs to be a heart-driven action, not a marketing or public relations stunt, IMHO.

    a winery up this way sharing the love, and one i believe to be true and authentic in their actions is King Estate (of which i have absolutely NO affiliation). i came across their campaign at The Good Grape (http://goodgrape.com/index.php/articles/comments/this_month_in_wine_advertising_pt_ii_king_estate/); I didn’t agree with the creative, but found it great what they were up to.

  12. Steve- from my experience on the winery level you are right on the money. Consumers generally don’t care too much about the greenness of a wine. For winery visitors 1 in 1000 might ask a question about “green” production practices. Almost always that person is a vegan concerned about animal products used in production.

    Its a whole different story on the wholesale side, even the mammoth SWS has reps asking what kind of green stuff we’re doing. To them its a sales tool for getting in the doors of specialty shops and “farm to table” restaurants.

  13. Jim Caudill says:

    Ted’s experience tracks with my own, with a twist: consumers do care, but most make the assumption that wine is among the greenest of all things green to begin with, and there’s nobody anxious to change that perception.

    Right after “what wines do we have that got 90 points” is the “do we have anything that shows we’re sustainable?” request from the field.

  14. Steve, All great points. Living on both coasts (not at the same time – haven’t figured that out yet), there is a huge difference in “green” thinking from West to East (this should come as a shock to nobody). Californians on the whole seem to like to espouse green; very few people (and of course, there are exceptions) on the East coast seem to care.

    And while I may sound like a cynic, I think a lot of people who espouse green, simply talk about it – as Morton Leslie says above – maybe it’s not green but if they talk it up, it sure sounds green (I’m paraphrasing, so please forgive me if I misinterpreted). Obviously, there are some very conscientious folks who truly believe in green in their lives and in their wines; there are wineries who are truly dedicated to green and organic (Coturri in Sonoma comes to mind) and practice what they preach. And my understanding is that they have a great following.

    However, to finally address your point, I believe it actually hurts a wine to call itself green – because the general perception is that green wines aren’t that good – whether true or not – perception, especially in advertising – is reality. And I can speak to this with some slight background as I deal on an almost daily basis with wine retailers and consumers – only one of a hundred even talk about “green wine.” And, as Jim mentions, consumers assume wine is “pretty green” anyway (and most wine probably is as compared to other products)…

    Richard.

  15. Steve,
    I think many of us that make wine and grow grapes are practicing “green” methods because they improve the quality of our wines.
    Michael

  16. Because I am too preoccupied moralizing about sex, I try to avoid moralizing about my wine. Concerning sex, lets face it, I am, and you are too, simply going to go to hell, and I like that. Does that honesty get any respect from you? But when I try to convince myself that Biodynamics is true and good for the environment, I just feel pseudo spirituality. And I wonder, are we seeking sanctity and purity at the expense of being honest with ourselves? Astrology and Homeopathy? I know Biodynamic farmers (well known names) who put additives in their wines that I do not put in my wines. My vineyard consultant tells me at least one of his famous customers sprays inorganic pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, right after spraying Biodynamic preparations. Another important vineyard spent thousands of dollars paying one of the big time Biodynamic consultants to use his marketable talents to return a vortex which had slipped off of his vineyard, back to its original position over the vineyard. Where is your vortex at 10 pm tonight? I do not know how you feel, but as an atheist, I find myself praying for Jesus to return as soon as possible. I know, you do not need to remind me that the sex will stop when he arrives, or at least I will have to stop doing it “that way”, but the marketing of wine with a claim of purity bothers me. Better yet, it stinks to high heaven. I appreciate Andrew Reynolds at Brock University’s Oenology and Viticulture Institute in Ontario who says people change practices because of fashion, because their neighbors are doing something they were told will work. He sees a lot of belief systems in viticulture and enology that are just as strong as those in world religions. I think he should have said wrong instead of strong.
    Well, everyone tells me to hush up, so i better go hide.

  17. Steve, your January 14th col re WI and sustainability could be the reason you were asked to appear (besides your personality!).
    So, my questions re consumers:
    Does green = sustainable?
    Does a logo = “I will buy” ?

    See this FDA 2008 study: http://bit.ly/FDA_consumer
    “Food packages sometimes have symbols or icons on the front of the package that describe the product as being a healthier option and meeting certain nutrient requirements. Have you seen products with this type of healthy symbol or icon? (n=2,575)
    YES ………………………………72%
    NO ……………………………. ..23%
    DK/NS ………………..……5%
    RF ……………………..……0%
    C13. When it is available, how often do you use healthy symbols or icons when deciding to buy a food? Would you say often, sometimes, rarely or never? (n=1,714)
    OFTEN …………………………..22%
    SOMETIMES ………………….45%
    RARELY …………………………..19%
    NEVER …………………………..13%
    DK/NS …………………..….*
    RF …………………….……..*”

    I know one survey does not mimic another but I have been curious whether logos make a difference in wine purchase. Are there wine or alcohol-specific surveys re sustainable, green, logos?
    (I think there have been surveys of one sort or another on public buying in some measure on liking “gold medal” on the label, WMC? Nielsen?)
    And… how many logos can you fit on the label or bottle? (Resnick says “Logos are permitted as long as they are not misleading and supporting documentation is submitted.”)

  18. Kathy: I think Wine Institute is looking into a logo for their sustainability certification. When they announced it at their press conference a few months ago, I asked if there might be any trouble with TTB (Feds) if they put such a symbol on a label, since TTB is so tight assed about what they allow. Nobody knew how to answer my question.

  19. Jim Caudill says:

    Logos are already in use by SIP, Oregon Live, Lodi Rules…the decision by CSWA isn’t based on TTB, since there are obvioulsy precedents already in use. To see such labels visit http://www.sipthegoodlife.org or the websites for the other orgs.

    Not sure about a survey per se, but anecdotally, feedback comes in all the time. And don’t forget Fetzer’s bottle seal that says “Earth Friendly Wine” There is obviously a lot of latitude.

  20. Jim, I’ve yet to see evidence that “green” drives sales to the extent that critical reviews, price and recommendations do.

  21. Jim Caudill says:

    No question, not in dispute. But way beyond just Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Rainbow et al, nearly every buyer asks about it, almost as if there’s a checklist: scores, got ‘em’ evidence of sustainable practices, got ‘em; most of all, these days, what’s the deal?

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