"The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine."
People have paired food and wine throughout history: from bacchanalian feasts, where lavish tables were set out as Romans praised the god of wine, to August Escoffier, the 19th century chef known as the father of French cuisine, who developed new methods of cooking designed to enhance food and wine appreciation. But when it comes to organic food and organic wine, the symbiotic relationship hasn't been as evident, especially on the retail level.
Although the health benefits of wine have been studied recently, for years many believed alcohol had no place in natural foods stores. Further deterring natural products retailers are complex liquor laws, because even in the states that do allow grocery stores to sell spirits, beer or wine, the regulations can be cumbersome. But where the laws are more liberal, retailers should seize the opportunity.
Organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes—the two categories created by the National Organic Program—is a category poised for growth. With some committed effort from retailers to educate staff and position the products, plus a new labeling law that will clarify the category for consumers, organic food and wine could be a darling duo for everyone's bottom line.
Getting a license is the first hurdle. Even in states that allow wine sales in grocery stores, there are interesting rules, possible fines and prohibitive access. For example, some municipalities have liquor license quotas and only accept new applications when a previously established business closes down. Due diligence is a must here, so find the local authority that regulates licenses to determine the rules.
"For a long of time, a lot of natural foods retailers just didn't see it as worth the cost of expansion," says Paul Chartrand, owner of Chartrand Imports, a wine wholesaler based in Rockland, Maine. Whether it was the license or their comfort level with the category, "or some feeling that alcohol didn't fit in with natural foods. All those things played in to it, making [organic wines] a second cousin, not part of the movement in general."
Times have changed, however, and so have the characteristics of many natural foods shoppers. "Recently, more retailers have seen the synergy between organic and natural and gourmet. More and more the buyers are the same people," Chartrand says. Cheese, pasta, fresh herbs and wine go together. "In most of the rest of the world, it's hard to separate wine from all those things. It's happening here, as we get more sophisticated and more retailers want to appeal to the sophisticated market."
In the past, consumers didn't appreciate organic as an added-value attribute when it came to wine, says Lori Baker, director of sales and marketing for Auburn, Calif.-based Mountain Peoples' Distributors wine and beer division. That's because "there's a lot of wine snobbery," Baker says. "There's not cookie snobbery, and there's not produce snobbery.
"Wine is a whole different entity," she says. "It's a short-term luxury item, and people don't want to gamble as much." Customers who choose their own wine tend to go with a vineyard, varietal or region with which they are familiar. They don't want to make that $15 gamble, and organic is something most people haven't had before.
But the more it's around, the more consumers will learn about it. "Organic foods are easy to come by now, and I think that's what will happen with organic wine," Baker says.
Some customers are already searching the aisles for organic wines because these wines don't contain sulfites, Baker says. Conventional wines and those made from organically grown grapes typically add sulfites, which are allergens for a small percentage of consumers. Regardless, wine is a "sin product," and even organic vintners who don't use sulfites to balance their wines know the product needs to make people happy to garner repeat sales.
"If you're not giving someone a pleasurable experience they won't come back for another bottle," says Tony Norskog, owner of Orleans Hill Winery in Nevada City, Calif. "[Lack of] sulfites are sometimes what propels people to purchase my wine the first time. But it's the repeat sales that I live on. That's where the wine has to be good whether it has sulfites or not."
For retailers looking to avail themselves and their stores of the symbiotic relationship and sales opportunities organic wine offers, Chartrand stresses commitment to the category. "There still hasn't been a committed push by the retail segment to feature organic wine like they feature organic anything else."
Commitment starts with finding space in a crowded store to add a wine section or squeezing a dedicated organic area into an established wine department. Learning what's available and which wines to feature, as well as the signage to complement the offerings, are good next steps.
"The customers need to feel that these wines are featured items and fit in with the store's philosophy on organic foods," Chartrand says.
Most stores tap their regular mailings and distributor co-op advertising to let customers know the store carries organic wine. The stores that succeed, according to Chartrand, identify themselves in advertisements and marketing materials as a source for organic wine. He also suggests that newsletters and signs include educational information about the two types of labels, as well as some material on selected wines and the organic farms where the grapes were grown. "Starting to educate people is key," he says, but he also suggests "bringing some of the romance of wine into the store's mix and tying that to organic growing."
Wine decisions are as subjective a purchase choice as there is, and bringing in distributor representatives to lead tastings helps jump start a department. Having experts available makes consumers more comfortable with new products, but knowledgeable staff that can easily make recommendations or provide insight on an option is equally important. "Staff tastings are as important as consumers' tastings to get the department rolling," Baker says. "A lot of people don't know too much about wine."
The most successful stores she's seen have an experienced wine buyer. By finding someone with a wine-selling background, who can speak eloquently about the flavor characteristics and who has a personal passion for the sense-of-place aspect of wine production, typical wine consumers can be made to feel more comfortable and novices encouraged to be more experimental.
"It comes down to the buyer," Baker says. "If the wine buyer knows wine and believes that organic wines are quality products and offers it to customers, they will sell." An ideal buyer knows about the process and can talk up the category with confidence.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 24, 26
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 26
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 5/p. 26