Eco-Friendly Wine: It’s Not Easy Being Green

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You’ve heard of the French Paradox? You can call this the Napa Valley Paradox.

Organic tends to cost more than its conventional counterparts. It’s true for produce and dairy, meats and cleaning products. But when ‘organic’ appears on a wine label, it actually commands a lower price.

Researchers at UCLA studied 13,426 wines from 1,495 California wineries. Using the ratings from the Wine Spectator, they examined the relationship between price and quality for more than 30 varietals and 25 appellations, and vintages ranging from 1998 to 2005. To no one’s surprise, the wines made from organic grapes tended to rate higher on the quality scale than their conventionally-produced counterparts, reflecting the time and attention that growers lavish on organically certified vines. The pricing results, however, were stunning.
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Organic certification had no impact on pricing for inexpensive wines. More costly wines—those organically grown wines that were selling for more than $25— commanded a price premium of 13% over comparable, conventional bottles UNLESS the bottle carried an eco-label. Wines that were labeled as organically grown not only lost the pricing advantage— they were actually selling for 7% less than their conventionally-produced counterparts.

Organic grapes bring a lot to the table.
Wine making is a dirty business of diesel-burning farm equipment, carbon dioxide fumes from fermentation, and heavy glass bottles that get shipped by air, land and sea. Conventional grape-growing can also involve pesticides, insecticides, and petrochemical fertilizers. More and more growers are adhering to organic and sustainable practices, but two-thirds of them are choosing not to bottle their wines with identifying labels.

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the stigmatizing effect of eco-labeling.
Some think that the reputation of the first organic wines from the 1970′s is lingering in the minds of consumers. Many of these early efforts were just not very good, often made by fledgling winemakers who were focused more on the environmental mission than on viticulture.

Then there’s the issue of sulfites. Without the addition of these chemical preservatives, most wine is unstable, turning to vinegar before it can fully mature. Add them, and the wine can not be labeled ‘organic,’ although the grapes can still be identified as ‘organically grown.’

The lack of clear and uniform labeling is another challenge. In addition to preservative-free ‘organic’ wines and wines made from ‘organically grown’ grapes, there are ‘biodynamic’ wines (a kind of spiritual-philosophical precursor to organic growing), the toothless ‘natural’ label, and a seal developed by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which embraces a variety of growing practices.
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A missed opportunity.
It seems clear that the benefits of sustainable wine making are not adequately conveyed to consumers—so much so that most adherents choose to refrain from drawing attention to the practices on their labels. Perhaps vintners need to communicate the most compelling benefit: a better-tasting product.

Greenopia rates the sustainability practices of U.S. wineries. The ratings are based on transportation, growing practices, transportation, building logistics, and packaging. This year, for the first time, two wineries took the top rating of four leaves.

Read the complete UCLA study: Eco-Labeling Strategies and Price-Premium: The Wine Industry Puzzle.

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