April 23, 2008

5 Min Read
To Your Health

Drink to your retail well-being with organic wines and beers

When it comes to selling organic wines and beers, the question naturals and organics retailers should be asking themselves is not ?Why?? but ?Why not??

Just as organic foods are touted as a way to keep chemicals off consumers? plates, organic wines and beers are a way to keep those chemicals out of their glasses.

Doesn?t it make good business sense that retailers already providing organic products to differentiate themselves from mass-market competitors should extend their diverse product offerings to include organic wine and beer? After all, don?t well-educated and well-heeled organics and naturals food consumers fall easily into the beer- and wine-buying demographic?

Barney Feinblum certainly thinks so. Eighteen months ago, the natural foods industry veteran, whose 25-year career has included stints as president and chief executive officer of Horizon Organic Dairy, and CEO and president of Celestial Seasonings, and who now serves as a director for Seventh Generation and London-based Fresh and Wild, launched Boulder, Colo.-based Organic Vintners. The company imports from seven countries 50 red, white, ros?, vegan and sparkling organic wines, which range in price from $8 to $50.

Feinblum says the market is ripe for organic wines. ?I, like most people, had this perception that organic wines taste bad,? he says. ?But I?ve been amazed at the quality of products that are now available. Organic is nice, but it?s not a sufficient condition on its own, whether you?re selling wine, beer or food. It has to taste great, and that?s what?s changed in the organic wine industry over the past few years?the quality has gotten so much better.?

Veronique Raskin tells a similar story. She has been promoting organic wines for the past 20 years. As president of The Organic Wine Co. in San Francisco and co-founder of Organic Grapes Into Wine Alliance, Raskin spends as much of her time promoting organic viticulture as she does marketing the more than 40 organic wines her company imports from France, Italy, Portugal and New Zealand. The wines retail from $10 to $100 per bottle.

?The idea of a good organic wine has not entered the mainstream consciousness,? says Raskin. ?When we show up at a retail store, the first thing I hear is, ?I have yet to taste one that I can drink.? So they are very happily surprised.?

Misperceptions about taste are not limited to wine. Ted Vivatson, founder of the Eel River Brewing Co. in Fortuna, Calif., the first certified organic brewery in the United States, has been making organic beer since 1999. ?When we first started talking about our organic beer, people felt that they may have to give something up to go organic,? Vivatson recalls. ?That?s because a lot of people don?t focus on having an outstanding product. They think just because it?s organic, people will buy it. Well, maybe they?ll buy it the first time because it?s organic, but the second time because it?s damn good beer.?

Tofu Beer?
At Otter Creek Brewing in Vermont, President Morgan Wolaver says people wondered at first if his organic beer was made from fermented tofu. But he?s had no problem getting naturals and organics food retailers to stock his beer. With organic beverages and food enjoying a 20 percent growth rate each year, he says retailers catering to discriminating customers know that offering a good-tasting beer that happens to be organic is not a difficult sell.

Feinblum, Raskin, Vivatson and Wolaver agree their products can serve as a point of differentiation for natural and organic retailers. ?If you sell Gallo, someone is going to be cheaper down the street,? says Feinblum. ?But with organic wine and spirits, it?s one of those areas where natural retailers can become the expert.?

But is it as easy as ?stock it and they will come?? Not exactly, says Joe Abeyta, general manager of The Real Food Co. in San Francisco. The natural foods retail chain has been selling organic wine and beer for decades, alongside conventional spirits, and experience has taught Abeyta that retailers need to be selective about what they stock. ?If you just blindly put anything on your shelves, you?ll fill your shelves with mediocre products,? he says. ?Purchasing wine is unlike any other product we carry. The price, availability and quality are constantly changing. Just as with the conventional wine industry, there are plenty of mediocre organic wines out there, and you might be underwhelmed with your success if you?re not selective.?

Abeyta relies on reviews to help him with his purchasing choices. He also tastes the offerings himself, particularly from the many smaller organic wineries and breweries that lack the marketing resources to get their products reviewed. By becoming knowledgeable about organic spirits, Abeyta and his staff are able to offer point-of-sale recommendations to appreciative customers.

Strict Labeling
While true organic beer carries a label from a third party certifier, organic wine can be particularly confusing because of the different labeling classifications set by The National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To be labeled organic, the wine must be made from at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients, namely grapes, and cannot have any added sulfur-containing preservatives, known as sulfites. Only a few U.S. wines today meet these strict criteria, including Frey Vineyards, LaRocca Vineyards and Winery and offerings from the Organic Wine Works, which are produced by Hallcrest Vineyards.

Most so-called organic wines, including those imported by Feinblum and Raskin, are actually wines made with organically grown grapes but that contain a small amount of added sulfites the winemakers feel are necessary to stabilize and preserve the wine. A growing list of U.S. wineries fall into this ?made with organically grown grapes? category, notably Bonterra and its former parent, Fetzer Vineyards; Coturri Winery & Vineyard; Frog?s Leap Winery & Vineyard; and Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery & Vineyard.

Natural and organic retailers who take the time to seek out award-winning organic beers and wines and offer customers a selection of great-tasting, reasonably priced choices should do well, Abeyta says. ?Many customers are looking for a good wine or good beer first, and if it?s organic, they?re thrilled.?

Connie Guglielmo is a freelance writer, editor and novelist in Los Altos, Calif.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 24, 26, 30

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