Wineries are tapping into eco-friendly trends
Because wine follows trends like other entertainment products, it's no surprise that savvy growers, as well as marketers, are picking up on eco-friendly practices to appeal to consumers. Among those leading the way: Badger Mountain vineyard in Washington state and Benziger in Sonoma, Calif.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Badger Mountain 2008 Vintners Estate Chardonnay; $10
Badger Mountain uses grapes that are organically grown, with minimal sulfites added. This a fresh, forward, deliciously fruity chardonnay, loaded with apple, pear and peach fruit. A great springtime sipper. (Noble Wines distributes)
A FEW YEARS ago, I was invited to deliver the keynote address to the annual meeting of Washington wine-grape growers. This is a group of more than 300 vineyard owners who oversee the roughly 35,000 acres of wine grapes in Washington state. More than a few of them also make and market wine.
Although they obviously have an agricultural perspective, I set out to convince them that they were in the entertainment business, too. Even those who simply grow and sell grapes, without having to make or market the wines, are bound to the fortunes of the wines that result from their efforts. If a vineyard consistently produces grapes that end up in highly rated, award-winning wines, the prices and demand for those grapes will rise. If it goes the other way, well, that contract may not be renewed.
The point is that wine is a fashion-driven business. Like other trendy, optional pleasures, wine is mostly viewed as entertainment. It must compete with everything else that's vying for consumers' entertainment dollar. Do you buy a $20 bottle of wine, or go to the movies with your spouse? Pick up that new wine book for your Kindle or download the Guitar God app for your iPhone?
Inevitably, changes in consumer buying habits affect wine styles and trends, and we are in the midst of some major sea-changes at the moment.
Younger consumers in particular are looking for products that pay attention to their environmental impact. At the vineyard/winery level, this applies to everything that pertains to the care and stewardship of the land. It starts with sustainable farming, which minimizes the use of chemicals and often leads to organic farming, which in turn evolves into biodynamic. In this state, Bill and Greg Powers were pioneers in sustainable grape growing, and their Badger Mountain vineyard was the first to be certified organic. The Vinea project in Walla Walla is one that encourages sustainable vineyard practices countywide. Grower/producers such as Pacific Rim and Cayuse have gone completely biodynamic, and I think Hedges is close to being certified as well.
These earth-friendly efforts don't stop in the vineyard. Let's leave aside, for the moment, the thorny question of what is or isn't an organic wine. Organically farmed grapes are more important. After that, wineries are looking to reinvent every step of the winemaking and packaging process. At Benziger in Sonoma County, Calif., the vehicles run on biofuels, all wastewater is cleaned and recycled, there is an insectary to promote habitat for pest-controlling insects, and bird perches for raptors, owls and bluebirds to keep the rodents in check. As part of the biodynamic approach, sheep graze the vineyards, providing compost and keeping the cover crops down. The Benziger Web site (www.benziger.com) does a fine job of explaining all this in laymen's terms.
Wine packaging is the newest eco-frontier. Heavy glass bottles are out; lighter glass or nonglass alternatives such as bag-in-box and cartons are in. I'm also seeing a subtle shift away from overuse of new oak barrels. They drive up wine prices, mask terroir and are increasingly difficult to resell. More and more consumers want stainless-steel-fermented whites and a higher percentage of neutral oak in their reds, and wineries are paying attention.
Recent Nielsen statistics indicate that wine sales are growing, though still dead above $20. The most trendy package sizes are the 3-liter (four-bottle) casks, the airplane-sized quarter bottles and cardboard cartons. Imports are flagging while sales of inexpensive California and Washington wines are moving up. As far as varietals are concerned, consumers are drinking a lot more riesling, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. Also doing well are cabernet sauvignon, malbec and moscato.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.