Why sustainability labeling is hard to find

Entirely self-serving of me to post this, but here's an example of a wine made by a producer that's certified sustainable. Terra Vitis, the sustainability organization that verified production and farming methods, provided me with a letter to submit to TTB to get the sustainability wording on the label.

Entirely self-serving of me to post this, but here’s an example of a wine I import made by a producer that’s certified sustainable. Terra Vitis, the sustainability organization that verified production and farming methods, provided me with a letter to submit to TTB to get the sustainability wording on the label.  As long as customers read the back label, they’ll see that the wine is certified sustainable.  It was a lot of work for the producer to get the certification, though, so I understand why so few wines are labeled sustainable.

In the last post, I wrote about two surveys on sustainable winemaking and why their overall conclusions might have to be taken with a grain of salt.  But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some interesting things to learn.

What intrigued me most were the questions about identifying sustainable wines.  California Sustainable Winegrowers Association (CCSW) surveyed importers, wholesalers, and retailers in the wine trade.  It turned out that wine sellers would like to see sustainability information on the wine labels themselves.  56% of the survey respondents identified front and back label information as key to identifying sustainability attributes of a wine.  And in two other questions, it became even clearer that labeling is important.  80% said that having “clear and highly visible labeling” was the most effective way to promote sustainability.  And 48% said that not having the bottles clearly labeled was a major obstacle to sales of sustainably-produced wines.

That seems compelling.  It makes sense, too, since you can’t count on having shelf-talkers or on customers looking up a winery’s website when they’re making purchasing decisions.  The label is attached to the bottle (whether or not it’s in the right place on the store shelves), and most customers will at least glance at the back label before buying the wine.

The trouble is, putting the word “sustainable” on a wine label isn’t necessarily easy.  As I’ve mentioned before, TTB, the agency that regulates wine labeling, doesn’t have a definition for sustainability as it applies to wine.  Unlike organic, for which TTB uses USDA’s definition, there’s nothing to prevent any winery from using sustainability terms on the label, providing it can back up the claim that it implements those particular practices.  As TTB says on its labeling site, the agency “reserves the right to request clarification and documented verification of any graphics, seals, logos, definitions or language appearing on labels.”

Certification makes it easier.  If a winery is certified sustainable by CCSW or another organization, it can put “Certified Sustainable by XYZ” on the label and send a copy of the certification letter to TTB along with the request to approve the label.  I did this with wines I import from Domaine la Croix des Marchands, which is certified sustainable by a French organization called Terra Vitis.

But as I’ve mentioned before, getting certified sustainable by CCSW and other organizations is a complicated process.  According to CCSW’s survey, the vast majority of respondents think that sustainability is primarily an environmental designation.   85% of the respondents said that minimal use of low impact pesticides and fertilizers was “required” for sustainability.  But there are other non-farming components too — agriculture accounts for only one-third of the sustainability triad.  A winery might engage in many of the farming practices endorsed by CCSW but be unable or unwilling to meet the other requirements.  So how would it document that it uses sustainable farming practices so it could put that statement on the label?

In the old days, the state or county extension service probably could have helped with verification.  Or a university agricultural program.  These days it’s certainly possible to hire a consultant, too.  Winemakers could also band together and form their own organizations to verify the practices of their members.  Back when I started First Vine, I met a French producer who told me she was part of an association with eight other winemakers in the region.  All of them abided by an agreed-upon set of farming and winemaking practices.  And each of them made sure that the others were sticking to it with occasional visits and regular meetings.  At the time, sustainability certification for wine didn’t exist in France, but they definitely used what CCSW considers sustainable farming practices.  With some easy changes in wording to their set of principles, they could have provided the kind of verification that TTB would accept.

But all of this requires a lot of work.  Truth is, it’s much easier to avoid any mention of sustainability on the wine label and put it on the winery website instead.  Or produce shelf-talkers listing sustainable farming methods.  Presumably the wineries would have to be able to prove their claims from a general truth in advertising standpoint, but TTB looks at labels and (usually) not these other things.

I think it’s clear this is why we don’t see more sustainability labeling.  And if this is the best way of bringing sustainability to customers’ attentions (as claimed in the CCSW survey), then so much the worse for sales of sustainably-produced wines.  It’s another reason I’m not sure that CCSW’s rosy conclusions about sustainability are accurate.  In real life – outside of a survey — customers can’t prefer what they can’t find, after all.

I’m running a little behind with getting a recipe up — it’ll be the next post, though, I promise.



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2 Responses to Why sustainability labeling is hard to find

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Saumur & Sustainability

  2. Pingback: Liquor Industry News/Links 03-11-17 | Franklin Liquors

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