When it comes to selling organically and sustainably grown wine, few retailers have the clout that Whole Foods Market does. The natural- and organic-focused grocery chain sells wine at 245 locations in North America and the United Kingdom and carries about 25,000 wine SKUs at any time.
Doug Bell, Whole Foods' global wine and beer buyer, is the man driving the big decisions about the chain's selections. He buys wines to serve all the stores—though he works with 260 buyers in all, 12 regional ones who will take on smaller-production and local bottlings (such as Virginia wines for the mid-Atlantic) and a buyer in every store to serve the neighborhood's needs (eg., kosher wines for New York's Upper West Side).
Bell, an Atlanta native and University of Georgia grad, has been buying and selling wine and beer for about 30 years, starting out during college breaks at the Tower family chain of liquor stores. Later he became corporate wine and beer buyer for Harry's Farmers Market, staying on after the Atlanta company was purchased by Whole Foods. His tipping point, he says, was trying a 1970 Mouton in his 20s: "I realized this is more than fun, this could actually be a career."
Wine Spectator: Who is the Whole Foods wine consumer and what's your approach to finding the right mix of wines for them?
Doug Bell: Our customers are very inquisitive. They want to try new things. They're pretty sophisticated. Our customers want to know where the meat came from, where the eggs or lettuce come from. They're the same way with wine.
I'm looking for wines that are unique, that deliver value and have a sense of place—to me that's one of the most important things about a wine—but at the same time will sell in all of our stores. If I try something I like and I think customers will like it, I'll buy the entire production.
Our approach to buying gives us the view from 38,000 feet, from 10,000 feet and from 5 feet. In terms of selection, we've probably got what our competitor down the street has on the shelf, and at the same time we have wines you can't find anywhere else. We do our best to work with suppliers that share our company values and have long-term partnerships. We support the big guys, but we also support the little guys who are so small we sign the note they can take to the bank to loan them money to buy the grapes to make the wine for Whole Foods.
WS: How much do you consider environmental practices when purchasing wine?
DB: We overly skew in our eco-friendly category—organically grown, biodynamic, sustainably farmed—just to make the statement. As a company, we've been talking sustainability with winemakers for a decade now: What practices are you doing in vineyard? How do you treat your grapes? How do you handle the wine? How do you treat your workers? All of that is important to us. … Does it weigh heavily on my purchasing decisions? Yes. In a new store, for example, if we have 1,000 wines in there, I'd say 100 or more—10 percent—fit those categories.
WS: How important is certification on a label to you and your customers?
DB: Supplier and importers come to us and go, "We use windmills and solar panels and we recycle our water and cardboard." That's fine, that's great. You don't have to tell me, we have to tell the shopper. How are you going to relay that message to the customer? Put it on your label. … The ones that do that are the people we like to partner with.
You have many wineries—some famous ones in Napa and Bordeaux and Burgundy and the Rhône—that practice organically and biodynamically and they're chicken-shit to put it on the back of the label. Guys, you're sitting here showing me all this stuff you do. It's not inexpensive to be organic, the yields are usually lower; why don't you put that on your label? "We don't want to do it." You have an attribute there that the other 10 Sauvignon Blancs in a mile of you don't have; why don't you put it on your label? "Oh, it's just too expensive to get the certification." We've been working with wineries for many years to push this cause.
The country of New Zealand is about to be 100 percent certified sustainable in every vineyard. They've got it down—they got together as a group. Another country that's doing something is South Africa. There's a number on the top of the bottle neck. The industry can take that number and trace it back to the acre those grapes were grown in and the day they were picked. They follow the grapes from planting to harvest to the winery they went to, when it was bottled, when it was shipped; they track it to the port. That's certification.
WS: How aware of fair-trade wines are your customers?
DB: Fair trade is extremely important to us, in the categories of chocolate and coffee specifically and our Whole Body products as well. We are committed to fair trade; we have the Whole Trade certification program of our own. But the wine consumer hasn't wrapped their head around it yet; it's not an attribute at the forefront of their decision-making process at the point of purchase.
When we opened our first store in London on Kensington Street, I was there about a month. I remember walking in the Starbucks around the corner and you know how their logo is the same size everywhere you see it in their store? In letters three times as large was "Our beans are fair-trade certified" in every Starbucks I went into. The U.K. consumer gets it. The American consumer is behind. We carry maybe five or six brands right now, and they're not in every metro market.
WS: What trends in wine stand out for you right now?
DB: I see down the road a renewed interest in wines from South Africa. I think the industry has matured; the quality coming out of there is amazing right now. Some of the best wines I've tasted this year are from South Africa.
Alternative packaging is going to remain an innovator in our industry—wine in TetraPak, bag-in-box, wine in a pouch, wine on tap from a keg. It's fresh, from an ecological standpoint the carbon footprint is smaller, it's a win-win for consumers.
We have close to 85 stores with beer and/or wine bars across the U.S. and U.K., and about 30 have wine on tap. We see it as an opportunity to engage the customer. They'll try something they might not have ever tried. We use them as educational venues and to promote local products, which is one of our core values.
If you go to the Lamar flagship store in Austin, you can get a gallon of wine from a keg and take it home, like beer growlers. That's in maybe 20 stores. The alcohol industry in America is more regulated than pharmaceutical drugs. Some states don't allow growlers yet; that's the limiting factor.
WS: Cooking is one of your hobbies: What wines do you like to drink at home?
DB: I'm partial to Napa because I lived there a while. I'm kind of old school. I came of age in the '80s when California was king. I'm a big fan of Bordeaux, the Rhône. White Burgundy is in our fridge all the time. ... Tonight, I'm having a rack of lamb on the grill with a Rhône red from Vacqueyras.
WS: Do you have a favorite book on wine?
DB: I love What to Drink with What You Eat; I recommend it to everybody. Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France, the old one. I love the way he interplays the history. That was my bible getting into the wine business. I'm looking at the copy now; it's dog-eared and falling apart, but I still look through it. [James Laube's] California Wine book, I loved it. I have three copies here.
WS: What do you drink when you're not drinking wine?
DB: I'll drink beer every now and then. Maybe a bloody mary. That's about it; in my house, we drink wine.