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Selling Organic: It’s Personal

Posted on  | June 26, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Grgich Hills, a Napa leader in green viticulture; in fact, its 366 acres of estate vines are certified organic and biodynamic.

Green living is on the rise. Alongside increased consumer awareness of local, sustainable and organic food, organic wine consumption is rising incrementally. As a market minority, but one with growing appeal, how should organic wine be presented to the consumer? As it turns out, the answer is highly personal.

No longer a fringe domain of hippies, organic is becoming more and more mainstream as consumers embrace products that reflect a growing concern for the environment and personal health—a collective concern that has become one badge of an upwardly mobile lifestyle.

Sales in the United States of organic food and beverages grew 7.7% in 2010 over the previous year, and certified organic cropland in the U.S. averaged 15% annual growth from 2002 to 2008. Despite this growth, organic food and beverages accounted for only 4% of total sales in this category in 2010. But organic shows no signs of slowing its climb. With an agreement signed February 15 that makes the U.S. and EU certified organic programs interchangeable, we should see an uptick in organic labeling and a greater presence for organic food and wine in the market.

Organic’s image has risen along with its market presence. Organic used to be “that brown, spotty pear,” says Meredith Giles, brand manager at Fetzer Vineyards, which owns Bonterra, the number one selling wine in the U.S. that is made with organic grapes. Back in 1987, when Bonterra first began farming organically, organic food and wine both had a terrible reputation. “We feel like it’s been almost a 180 since we started,” she says, referring to better growing and production techniques that have allowed a more mainstream embrace of organic food and wine.

Still, the organic wine market is split. On one hand are specialist importers and retailers and a growing group of dedicated customers. On the other hand are a tiny market segment and a vast population of would-be consumers who haven’t gotten the message. And looming in between is the creeping wariness of “greenwashing,” as in exaggerated claims of eco-friendliness.

With most wholesalers and retailers in the country selling primarily conventional product, the choice of how to sell organic wines often comes down to personal philosophy. Five key points stand out from conversations with tradespeople around the country.

Don’t Assume the Consumer Knows Organic.

“I’ve never stopped to think about organic wine, which is funny because I usually buy all organic stuff,” says a Scottsdale, AZ, shopper. Whether to educate the consumer about organic wine or sell to the majority that is unaware or unconvinced is a decision based on market and  personal buy-in.

“When people are on board, they’re on board,” says Bart Hopkins, wine buyer at 67 Wine in Manhattan, where organic and biodynamic wines are instantly identifiable by their green shelf labels. The shop has developed a following of customers who know they carry and identify organic wines, although these comprise only about 4% of the shop’s SKUs.

Jim Oliver of Glazer’s, a wholesaler selling into 14 states in the central South and Midwest, takes a very different approach. Oliver is senior vice president of the company’s fine wine program. In his experience, people understand organic lettuce, but when it comes to wine there is “a tremendous amount of confusion about what is organic.” Oliver believes the wines should be sold by quality alone, and Glazer’s doesn’t track organic sales as a separate category. “There’s more to the story than just that,” he says, pointing out how much conscientious farming is happening outside of organic labeling.

Sell Good Wine.

Hopkins and Oliver may take different stands on organic, but they agree on one thing: wine should be sold first as good.

Retailer Ed Paladino, co-owner of E&R Wines in Portland, OR, estimates that 10 to 15% of his wines are organic but says it’s only once a month that he gets a customer looking for it. The shop doesn’t label the organic wines, although its website, to be launched this summer, will. Instead, says Paladino, they hand-sell the wine based on the characteristics most important to the customer: “Is it good, will I like it, will it go with the food I’m having?” After that, organic is a bonus.

Meredith Giles at Bonterra turns this approach on its head. Bonterra’s message is that organic grapes make better wine, with “pure, more intense flavors.” In theory, Ed Paladino agrees. He sees “a greater purity in these wines, if they’re well made. They have more life; they’re really more exciting.” But he’ll sell them based on those features, not an organic label alone.

Cover All the Categories.

“Have a [selection] that covers the major offerings, the major varietals, at different price points,” suggests Mike Mulderig, VP of wine buying for Total Wine & More, which has 78 stores and counting, mostly in the Southeast and Southwest. Mulderig stresses that Total Wine isn’t a destination for organic, although they’re “enthusiastic” about it. He sees organic wines as a function of the major offerings that should be represented in any store.

Because of the large size of their stores, Total Wine rotates “green” stock through a 4- or 8-foot dedicated section titled “green friendly” in addition to shelving the wines in standard regional sections. (Mulderig doesn’t think this focus would work as well in smaller stores.) All sustainable, organic, biodynamic and sulfite-free wines are labeled according to the wording used on the bottle, no matter where they appear in the store. “Green-friendly” wines—350 to 400 SKUs in each store—made up 4 to 5% of the chain’s $600 million in wine sales in 2011.

Understand the Terminology.

Regardless of personal philosophy, wholesalers and retailers who understand the different shades of green will be better able to engage and educate the consumer, and create fluent conversations with growers and winemakers.

Meredith Giles stresses that “it’s important to be clear about what’s going into the product.” This especially applies to the sustainable category, which “is so broad and emcompassing that there aren’t many hard and fast rules.” Hopkins doesn’t identify sustainable wines in the store, and avoids labeling organic or biodynamic wines unless they’re certified. He prefers to be rigorously truthful, citing efforts by major corporations to relax organic standards.

Jim Oliver at Glazer’s may care little about the fine points of organic terminology, but he makes a point of visiting producers to find out firsthand how their wines are farmed and made. Jenny Lefcourt, co-owner of the natural-wine importer Jenny & François, points out that buyers are much more interested in these details today. “Ten years ago people didn’t know what it means for a wine to be made with indigenous yeast,” she says.

Get the Human Story.

“In a wine shop, everything is pretty anonymous,” Jenny Lefcourt says. It helps to tell stories. “Some of the best stores are interested in meeting winemakers and communicating what they are doing to their customers.” Forging an identity for the wine helps sell both conventional and organic, but as Bart Hopkins puts it, “It’s interesting when you hear the human side of why people [produce organic wine].” He remembers talking with Violet Grgich, of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, who said that before they converted to certified organic and biodynamic growing, she wouldn’t want to let the kids play in the vineyards after the grapes had been sprayed.

Whether it’s for the land, better health or better flavor, growers and winemakers—like consumers—each have their own reasons for choosing to go green. Finding common ground between stories is one of the most compelling ways to sell.


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