Winter is downtime for most winemakers. That’s why many of the major winemaking conferences are scheduled January – March, at least in North America. Lots of presentations of information on the wine industry, the wine economy, and other wine-y topics (I mean that in a good way). For a data geek like me, it’s like a late Christmas present.
What stood out for me this year were two well-publicized surveys on sustainability in wine. As an enviro, I was excited to hear about them. Especially because I have my doubts about sustainable wine production. But despite some potentially interesting avenues to explore in the future, they turned out to be mostly rah-rahs. To summarize: Sustainability is great! No, really! In fact, to use a phrase we’ve heard a lot in the past year, it’s yuuuge!
Hyperbole aside, here’s the thing — these surveys were commissioned by…wait for it…entities that promote sustainability. California Sustainable Winegrowers Association (CSWA) and Sustainable Sonoma (an initiative of Sonoma County Winegrowers) hired Full Glass Research, Wine Opinions, and Wine Intelligence to conduct surveys on sustainability. CSWA’s survey focused on distributors and retailers, while Sustainable Sonoma’s also included end consumers. And the surveys weren’t identical, except that both commissioning organizations got the ringing endorsements they were no doubt hoping for.
So why am I skeptical? Back when I did environmental advocacy, my organization and others like it definitely commissioned polls and surveys on the environment from independent research firms. But we did them for internal purposes. They helped shape the message down the road. We shared the findings discretely with our colleagues, but they weren’t meant for public consumption. Simply put, we knew we wouldn’t be a credible source for information that came from surveys we helped develop or had a stake in. It would have been entirely self-serving.
Here’s an example. Picture this headline: “Public Believes President X Neglects the Environment, Activists’ Survey Finds.” Well, duh. Getting your “green badge” as an enviro pretty much requires you to believe that no president pays enough attention to the environment. How much faith would you put in that survey really representing the view of the public, even though the public was answering the questions? Not much for me, despite being a green-badge environmental activist. On the other hand, let’s say President X is running for re-election. Two large media outlets team up to do a survey of registered voters that includes a few questions on the environment and what those voters believe is the President’s attitude toward it. Assuming the results bore it out, they’d be perfectly justified in running stories saying that voters think that the environment isn’t anywhere on President X’s radar screen, despite campaigning on the issue.
To me, the difference is clear. The messenger is important.
To play devil’s advocate, I suppose these industry conferences were somewhat analogous to our sharing survey information with colleagues. However, we enviros didn’t issue press releases on them, nor did we present the data at conferences where press was invited. (In fact, some of the survey information we collected still hasn’t made it out for public consumption.) Clearly, CSWA, Sustainable Sonoma, and the firms that did the surveys wanted the results to go well beyond the people in the room.
Aside from the messenger, though, the big question is how this encomium to sustainability is news to anyone. Of course wine distributors and retailers will look favorably on sustainability. Why wouldn’t they? At a minimum it’s more information on how the wine was produced, whether the information gets used or not. Same thing for customers. But to me the real deal is how often they’ll choose sustainably-produced wines over other similar wines without prompting, or how much sustainability really factors into those purchases. While they kind of dance around it, neither survey gets to that issue, at least not in the materials I’ve seen. And because the surveys are all or mostly about sustainability, they can predispose the respondents to reply more positively than they would actually behave. That is, if they think that they should think sustainability is a good thing, that may color their other responses.
Obviously, I’m disappointed. I was hoping to get more insight because in my experience, sustainability isn’t really a big deal for my customers.
I had a long conversation about this with a friend who’s another wine retailer here in DC. I’d like to think that at least a portion of our customers are knowledgeable wine buyers – and the DC market is big for wine in general. We both sell a few wines that are certified sustainable, but we’ve barely had customers asking for them. My friend joked that he’s only had two customers ask, and both of them work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No word if they work on sustainability issues there, but they’re probably better informed about various agricultural methods than most people.
What we’ve both found is that customers ask for organic wines, sometimes for natural wines, wines without added sulfites, and occasionally biodynamic wines. Natural and no-sulfur added wines (and their permutations) have received a lot of press in the past few years, so people have heard about them. (Plus, some people still believe that sulfites cause any particular malady they get when they drink wine.) Biodynamics occasionally pops up in the press, too, and it’s usually portrayed as somewhat exotic. No doubt that’s part of the appeal. But organic food is fully-integrated into our lives now, so it’s not surprising that people are asking for organic wines more often than for the other categories.
Sustainability isn’t on my customers’ radar screens these days. You don’t see vendors at farmers’ markets touting sustainable farming methods, and most grocery stores don’t sell food labeled sustainable. At least not here in the DC area. I recently read that Giant Supermarket is developing sustainability labeling for produce and meat. If that catches on, perhaps my friend and I will have more than two customers asking for sustainable wine.
Finally after all this survey bashing, I’m going to do a partial 180. There are three points that the surveys start to examine that are far more important than overall perception: What people think of when they hear the word sustainability in regard to wine production, how they look for information on sustainable wines, and how much more they might be willing to pay for those wines. All of these have real implications for sustainability as an agricultural method for wine, and were overshadowed in the survey releases. I’ll start to look at them in my next post.