Stamp a bottle of wine 'organic,' and its price plummets. How winemakers are responding to the eco- stigma.
In a world where green foods reign supreme, it seems only natural that green drinks should too.
The Organic Trade Association’s 2011 industry survey reported that U.S. sales of organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. The number of eco- labeling programs has exploded from a dozen worldwide in the 1990s to more than 415 today. But despite the organic market’s boom, one product remains an unpopular outlier: environmentally friendly wine.
Magali Delmas, a professor at UCLA's Institute for Environment and Sustainability, has been studying the effects of eco-labels on California wines since 1999. Delmas has found that when an eco-label—advertising “made from organic grapes,” “certified by California Certified Organic Farmers,” “USDA Organic” or “Demeter-certified”—is applied to these spirits, prices plummet. That’s because “organic” wines come with a stigma: that they suck.
Delmas and researcher Laura Grant published a study on “The Wine Industry Puzzle” [PDF] in Business & Society in 2010. Using a database that included 72 percent of California-produced wines, the authors found that overall, wines produced from vineyards that use organic processes are valued at 13 percent higher than their competitors. But stamping on an eco-label reduced the price by 7 percent below conventional wines and 20 percent below certified, non-labeled wines. Delmas continued studying the wine industry’s paradox at UCLA, where she ran an experiment with 830 participants from across the nation. The results of that study echoed those from the first: Consumers associate eco-labels on wine with low quality.
The market impact? “Only one-third of the wineries that are certified put the label on the bottle, which is strange, because certification is a costly process,” Delmas says. Stranger still, “these wines are higher quality than conventional wines. But we find that if there’s a label on it, it drives prices [down] below conventional wine. So while it’s better-quality wine according to the Wine Spectator, people don’t perceive it that way.”
The conundrum plaguing organic viticulture is rooted in consumer confusion. The majority of wine guzzlers simply don’t know what “organic” wine means—and with smaller, more specific labels adding extra noise, it’s easy to get lost among even the most basic terms, like “biodynamic” or “organically grown.” Winemakers have responded by hiding their bona fides. Campovida, a certified organic farm and vineyard located in the heart of Mendocino County, California, places its eco-labels on the back of the bottle. “People will buy wine according to what their taste is,” says Anna Beuselinck, Campovida’s co-founder and “life gardener.”
Napa Valley’s Frog’s Leap Winery has been farming its grapes organically for more than 20 years, but you wouldn’t know that from the bottle—it forgoes the eco-label entirely. “Because this commitment to sustainability rests at the core of our business philosophy, it just doesn’t feel authentic to label ourselves,” says Terry Joanis, Frog Leap’s marketing manager. “We want people to buy our wines because they are great, and finding out that we produce them in the most sustainable way is a bonus to the customer.”
Those who view the label negatively most likely associate “organic” with the USDA’s qualifications, which prohibit the use of added sulfites like sulfur dioxide in the production of the wine. All wines already contain a small level of sulfites that naturally form during fermentation. But because wine is a perishable good that is prized on age, nearly every winemaker around the globe adds more to their grape-pressed beverages as a crucial preservative. Added sulfites also help mask some of the product’s more unusual aromas.
USDA organic wine isn’t necessarily “bad,” but it does not have a long shelf life, and it’s a rare breed in wine shops. “Organic wines without sulfites evolve over time, and the wine is not as stable. It can turn into vinegar,” Delmas says. “People think about this type of evolving wine when they see ‘organic’—but it’s a small percentage of all ‘organic’ wines in general." The result is that there remains "a negative sentiment to older wines made with organically grown grapes," Delmas says. "It’s a slight difference, but it’s huge.”
When most U.S. winemakers call their wine “organic,” they’re actually referring to wines made with organic grapes—meaning that their vineyards follow crop certification requirements, and the grapes are grown without pesticides. According to Virginia Phillip, one of 174 master sommeliers worldwide, “for a lot of winemakers, ‘organic practices’ means taking out herbicides and pesticides with all sorts of different techniques." It also includes broader vineyard sustainability, "like solar panels, reverse osmosis, [and] compost in the soil.”
Take Demeter-certified biodynamic wines. These allow added sulfites, but come from vineyards that view the soil, plants, animals and humans as a “holistic living organism,” meaning that the entire farm must be self-sustained and closely attended by the farmer. The certification not only prohibits pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, and chemical fertilizer usage, but also focuses on biodiversity, water conservation, green manure, and composting. Biodynamic farmers also follow a strict set of processing standards that call for minimal intervention.
Many wine growers also trust the California Certified Organic Farmers label. CCOF is a highly regarded agency in the organic world, and has been part of the movement since 1973, certifying everything from livestock producers to organic growers. The CCOF label on wine means the grapes were grown according to USDA National Organic Program standards and that the drink was produced and bottled in a certified organic facility. Wines can contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites.
The public environmental benefits of such a certification system are apparent. But wine is a product where private concerns outweigh public ones. At the end of the day, consumers are looking for a wine that appeals to their individual palates, not the common good. Still, wine taste experts believe organic and biodynamic practices do make top-quality wines.
Master sommelier and winemaker Richard Betts is a self-professed fan of the organic stuff. He’s started three different wine brands, all of which used organic practices, and believes the best-tasting wine is organic. “Wine is the most intellectual of all alcoholic beverages—in every glass of wine, there’s an opportunity to smell and taste a people, place, cuisine, aspect, slope,” Betts says. “If there isn’t a healthy relationship between wine and place that it’s grown, none of it’s going to be reflected. Wines that are organic and biodynamic are going to have a living interface.”
To Betts, the negative stigma clouding “organic wine” is an outdated perception. In today’s industry, he believes that an eco-label’s presence can be spun into an effective marketing tool. Delmas agrees that the shift is a generational one, saying younger drinkers are more positive and receptive toward organic wines. But consumers need to be educated before they can care. “It’s almost like the whole industry of organic wine needs a rebranding,” says Campovida's Beuselinck. “It’s amazing how much time I spend educating people about sustainable, organic, biodynamic. But I like that part—taking them through the process of themselves, the earth, and understanding what they’re eating.”