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Sustainability: Do We Care?
By Marguerite Thomas
Oct 1, 2013
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Pity the poor consumer!  Typically faced with a plethora of decisions that have to be made when figuring out which bottle of wine to purchase to take home for dinner, the first issue to resolve is color:  Red or white?  Okay, red.  Now, do I want Pinot or Cabernet, Malbec or Syrah?  Once that question is settled, do I go with a familiar producer or should I take a chance on an unknown label?  As for the price, am I going to draw the line at $15 or spring for that $40 bottle I’ve been eyeing?  And do I select the bottle that lists 14.5 alcohol content on the label or look for one with less alcoholic kick?

Whew, done.  But wait, suddenly there’s something else for us to consider:  Does the label indicate that the wine is sustainably produced?  While this question might have drawn snickers a few years ago from skeptical consumers who suspected that the very concept was a faddish footnote dreamed up by a winery’s marketing consultant, it is now a movement that appears to increasingly well established.  The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a non-profit organization created by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, recently reported that 70 percent of California’s wine grape acreage and case production now follows CSWA guidelines.  “The industry has bolstered its environmental and sustainability credentials in the public policy and marketplace arenas,” said Bobby Koch, president and CEO of the California Wine Institute.  “The scale of this accomplishment is remarkable, as California is the world’s fourth largest wine producer.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Long Island wine growers have established their own rapidly growing sustainable program.  Focusing on that region’s unique terroir, the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing education and certification program supports issues such as holistic vineyard management, soil conservation and fertility, protection of local waterways, as well as responsible stewardship for the local labor force.  Rich Olsen-Harbich, the winemaker at Bedell Cellars (one of the North Fork’s premier estates) says, “There are so many reasons why this is important for the entire community.  One of the reasons we formed our own local program is that we have unique environmental issues here.”

Sustainability is a movement that is clearly growing in importance, but do consumers really care about it one way or another?  It seems that, increasingly, we do.  The current CSWA bulletin quotes Master Sommelier Emily Wines, director of wines for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, as saying:  “Thirty percent of the wines we offer are sustainable, organic or biodynamic.  Customers care about sustainability,” she continued.  “They look to retailers and restaurateurs to do the research and make those wines available.”

Two recent studies sponsored by the Wine Institute indicate that sustainable attributes are indeed important considerations for key segments of wine consumers and the wine trade when making purchasing decisions.  Their research suggests that 34 percent of wine consumers across all segments consider environmental and sustainable attributes when purchasing wine.  And how do consumers identify these attributes?  Sixty-six percent said that they depend on information they get from bottle labels and/or from information provided by the retail store where they purchase the wine.  Fifty-two percent of these consumers reported that they consider environmental attributes when selecting wine.  In other words, if the label on that bottle of wine I’ve been contemplating has the words “Sustainably Grown” on it, into the shopping cart it goes.