December 1, 2009
About 40 miles south of the heart of Sonoma County’s wine country, Lauren Fisch stops at a local San Francisco wine shop to pick up her favorite vintage, which just so happens to be certified biodynamic. “I don’t buy wine just because it says biodynamic,” Fisch says. “I buy wine because I like it, and recently I’ve been turned onto some new wines while eating out at my favorite organic restaurants.”
Like Fisch, a growing number of consumers are finding they don’t have to sacrifice quality to satisfy their taste for sustainability. Biodynamic and organic wines are maturing, and in more ways than one: Today, your customers don’t have to visit a boutique wine shop to find biodynamic wine; it’s not uncommon to see a healthy selection of organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines at discount liquor stores, local grocers or large natural products stores. Retailers have set up dedicated displays or created special sections to drive customer awareness and sales.
Sustainable wine gets uncorked
As more grape growers turn to sustainable farming methods, the availability and knowledge of organic and biodynamic wine likely will grow. Although national figures on sustainable wine farming aren’t yet collected, and definitions of “sustainable” vary, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance reports that a whopping 60 percent of the state’s wine grape acreage is considered sustainable. However, experts caution that retailers need to keep the momentum going. “Right now, I think we are on the edge of something really big with organic wine,” says Edward Field of Natural Merchants, a Grants Pass, Ore.-based importer and distributor of organic wines. “We currently work with several large retailers who are selling large quantities of organic wine to their customers. I think overall education right now is extremely important in helping the industry grow.”
Damian Casten, cofounder of Candid Wines, a natural wine distributor in Chicago with a focus on organic and biodynamic producers, knows all too well the labors of educating potential consumers. “Four years ago when I started Candid Wines, I would mention organic wines and doors would close,” Casten says. “I then tried to use the metaphor of an executive chef walking out of his kitchen and buying tomatoes from the farmer next door, but that didn’t resonate either.”
Now with the current green movement, savvy consumers want to know where and how what they eat and drink is grown. As a result, Candid Wines has grown from two people to five and is receiving cold calls from retailers wanting to “green” their wine lists. “I think it’s a growing trend,” Casten says. “It’s a niche right now, but I think the more it is addressed and the more retailers integrate the products into their sales process, customers will become more educated and sales will increase.”
Retailers lead the way
As consumer interest builds, they will likely look to retailers for guidance. Retailers and distributors will need to be knowledgeable about certifications, which can vary from country to country, and labels, which can look different from brand to brand. Because the regulation and certification process is complex, some winemakers forgo official certification and instead highlight credentials directly on the bottle.
“The best wines in the world have always been grown organic and biodynamic,” says Jeff Cox, wine guy for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. Many European growers tend to think certifications are nice, albeit unnecessary. They are likely to say, “‘If you can’t shake my hand and take my word for it, then go buy someone else’s wine,’” Cox says.
To help educate yourself and your customers, ask distributors to do in-store tastings for store employees and customers. Distributors can also give retailers advice on how to answer consumers’ common questions. “I would tell a retailer who’s interested in these wines to find a distributor who’s really into offering organic wine and not just dipping their toes into the water,” Field says. “Don’t go for the distributor who’s making [organic, biodynamic or sustainable wine] their flavor of the month. The main thing is to explore and try new things, and when you find something your customers like, stick to it.”
Tim Shisler is a writer and wine drinker from Boulder, Colo. During his college years, Shisler went to Sonoma State but rarely drank wine until a trip to Dry Creek Valley, which changed everything.
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