With farmers’ markets sprouting all over the country, the organic sections of supermarket chains expanding, and specialty stores proliferating, organically grown food is attracting more consumers as people become increasingly aware of how food is produced with so-called conventional methods. But institutions that recommend policy need to see the numbers. So the largest wine trade group, Wine Institute in San Francisco, representing more than 1000 California wineries out of perhaps 3,500 in the state, sponsored two studies that evaluated just how many wine drinkers were eco-conscious and how restaurants and wine stores were responding to their needs. Apparently many consumers care how their wines are produced. But while all organic produce is labeled, together with the certifying agency, wine labeling is less transparent or non existent.
According to Wine Institute studies, 34% of wine consumers consider environmental attributes when they purchase wine, and not only that, they drink more than those who don’t question how their wine is produced. Among major retail and restaurant chains as well as wine distributors, 37% said that sustainable attributes of a wine were frequently a factor in wine selection. Emily Wines, Director of Wines for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants told Wine Institute, “Customers care about sustainability, and they look to retailers and restaurateurs to do the research and make those wines available.”
But both consumers and trade want to see seals, logos, or information about sustainable growing practices on the wine bottle. They want to see the certifying agencies, too, such as Biodynamic, California Certified Organic, USDA Organic, or California Certified Sustainable Wine. All of these certifications are by no means equal, Biodynamic and California Certified Organic being the most advanced. But at least consumers would have access to definitions if the information was stated on the bottle.
If the information is not yet available, the most prevalent reasons are that producers are not entirely aware that consumers care. Worse, the term “organic” was a negative one in the past and synonymous with inferior wine before agriculture became a science instead of an art. Small wineries may also hesitate to join a certifying organization because of the expense even though their agricultural practice may qualify. Others may want the option to douse their crops with a toxin if they feel they need to combat a particular problem with more immediate tools. But as more consumers become interested in better labeling, producers will be encouraged to provide it.
Industry wide standards would be very helpful for consumers, and in California, like many wine producing countries, such standards are evolving. In California, Wine Institute created a Sustainable Winegrowing Program, a workbook thicker than the Oxford English dictionary, with information on greenhouse gas protocol, sustainable management of water, and sustainable farming, which winemakers say now reflects fairly standard practice, which will no doubt continue to improve.
In response to the European Union’s 2006 Sustainable Use Directive, the Italian government is paying farmers a benefit to farm organically. In France, the largest agricultural producer in the EU, the government is aiming for a 50% reduction in pesticide use between 2008 and 2018. “A new study on pesticide residue in wine has caused a furor in France,” according to a report in Wine Spectator, and will probably further inspire compliance. New Zealand’s target is to cultivate 50% of its agricultural production organically by 2020. In other words, clean agriculture is an international trend that will eventually be showing up on the labels of your wine bottles.