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Does Organically Grown Wine Need a 'Lifestyle' Expert?

A green style author, designer and merchandiser takes on the category

Posted: Apr 22, 2014 11:00am ET

By Dana Nigro

Danny Seo believes that organically grown wines still have an image problem among a vast swath of Americans. He thinks he can help. If you don't know Danny, he's a boyishly personable former editor of Organic Style magazine who has positioned himself as an expert on living green stylishly and affordably with his Simply Green, Upcycling and Conscious Style Home books, "Do Just One Thing" syndicated newspaper tips, TV appearances on The Today Show and Dr. Oz and his own line of eco-chic housewares. Now he's adding wine to his portfolio.

Seo admits to knowing little about wine except what he likes. During a showcase last year for his upcoming new product lines, he either had the self-deprecating charm to act nervous about speaking to Wine Spectator or was a bit uncomfortable at having to field questions without his wine partner, Mike Votto of Connecticut-based Votto Vines Importing. "I'm not a winemaker. I'm not going to pretend I'm a Real Housewife," Seo quipped. "I don't want to pretend I'm out at the vineyard crushing grapes."

What he does, Seo said, is work with partners who are experts in the field, sourcing the products. The wines he likes, he claimed, usually turned out to be organically grown but were rarely labeled as such. When he asked why, people in the trade told him that "organic" wine still was stigmatized sometimes when it came to quality. At the same time, the popularity of organic products overall is on the rise. "Our generation is very interested in where a wine comes from and how it's made," said Votto, whose importing and private-label company has recently received requests from clients for eco-friendly wines.

That's where Seo's expertise comes in: Making the concept of sustainability stylish and accessible to everyone. "I'm catering to the 95 percent of Americans who live green 5 percent of the time, not the 5 percent who live green 95 percent of the time," he explained.

His Danny Seo Home line—think bamboo cooking utensils, recycled steel pans, nonstick pots and pans free of PTFE and PFOA (chemicals whose safety is under debate), driftwood lamps and baskets woven of sustainable water hyacinth—is sold at national chains like Marshalls, TJ Maxx and HomeGoods. Discount retailers, his publicist told me, didn't think their customers were interested in sustainability, but it turned out to be a matter of finding the right price point and making the products available where they were already shopping.

It's easy to criticize Seo's mass-market approach as facile (his tips range from insightful to "did you know aluminum foil is recyclable?" and suggesting you have ice cream in a cone, rather than a plastic cup—"eat some carbs to save the planet") and focused too much on consumerism. But Seo said, "What I've done in the green space is tell consumers what products to look for and what the benefits are." In too many cases, he feels, environmentalism was being "shoved down their throats" in an intimidating or costly manner.

So for his wines he came up with an easy-to-pronounce name and a simple label with a fun font that he feels subtly conveys eco-sensitivity and artistry. Danny Seo Philosophy Wines debut today—Earth Day, which happens to be Seo's birthday, as he likes to point out—with two Mendocino County wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Zinfandel, priced at $15 to $20. The wines are certified "made with organically grown grapes" and custom produced and bottled at one of the region's established eco-conscious wineries.

If the initial launch, with only 500 cases, goes well, the partners plan to increase volume and expand into an international line late this year, showcasing wines such as Chianti and Alsatian Riesling from certified organic vineyards.

The Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel are clean and straightforward, pleasantly fruity with fresh acidity, aimed at the wine-drinking mainstream. They should certainly banish any outdated memories of funky, unstable organic wines. The message is reinforced with the back-label text: "My philosophy is simple: great wine comes from organic vines. It's the way generations of masterful winemakers have made wine ..."

It's a worthy goal to make a wider audience familiar with the benefits of "made with organic grapes." But is that enough these days, when so many wineries are adopting sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices and trying to educate their customers?

Seo was familiar with the debate over corks versus screw caps—a sustainable resource versus one that prevents TCA taint and oxidation due to leaks—and opted for screw cap closures domestically, believing that minimizing potential waste was key. (No doubt craft ideas for upcycling screw caps are not far behind.)

But I was surprised when neither he nor Votto could immediately answer my questions about the rest of the packaging, which contributes substantially to a wine's environmental impact. I had expected these things would be part of the initial research—and sales message—for anyone serious about putting out a green product. Their supplying winery—which uses solar energy and has an extensive water reclamation and recycling program, among its green efforts—does use lightweight bottles, but the environmental label stock is only used on bigger bottling runs.

Granted, it's tough to crack the market with any new wine brand amid the thousands of labels already available, and keep prices reasonable. Maybe organically grown wines still add to the challenge in some arenas. If Seo and Votto Vines manage to establish their Philosophy, I hope to see them step up their green game and, with each new release, do at least one more thing.

Read more articles on wine and the environment.

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