If you had to select between two 92-point wines of the same variety, appellation and price, but one was made with sustainable winegrowing practices and the other was not, would you choose the sustainable wine? What if it cost $5 more?
Research has been mixed on whether consumers are willing to pay more for eco-labeled wines, and yet the number of wineries adopting sustainable practices continues to rise. But a new study by a team of researchers in Italy, Spain and California claims winery owners believe sustainability makes economic sense in the long term.
The study, by researchers at Spain’s Universitat de Barcelona, California’s Sonoma State University and Italy’s Università San Raffaele and Università degli Studi di Macerata, was presented this summer at the Academy of Wine Business Research Conference in Germany.
The authors note that more wineries are adopting sustainable, organic or biodynamic techniques in their vineyards. More than 1,800 grapegrowers and wineries have participated in the California Sustainable Winegrowing assessment, the first step toward receiving certification. Sonoma County Winegrowers has launched an effort to have every Sonoma winery certified sustainable by 2019. Multiple programs exist in other major wine nations.
Sustainability is generally defined as using business practices that are environmentally friendly, socially equitable in terms of treating employees and community fairly, and economically viable in the long term. In the wine industry, this means that sustainable-vineyard owners attempt to create healthy soil with compost and cover crops and by reducing the use of pesticides. They also try to avoid wasting water and energy in both vineyard and cellar. What’s required varies by certification program.
It’s not clear if consumers are interested in purchasing wines labeled sustainable—or organic or biodynamic. A 2012 study by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability showed that an eco-certification label had a mixed effect on consumers. “We found that respondents preferred eco-labeled wines over an otherwise identical counterpart, when the price was low and the wine was from a low-quality region,” wrote the authors. “However, these preferences were reversed if the wine was expensive and from a high-quality region.”
For the new study, the international team of researchers surveyed 260 winery owners in Italy, Spain and California about whether they have adopted sustainable approaches, whether they have continued such practices and whether they see business benefits. The wineries were not asked whether they were certified.
Results show that a comparable percentage of wineries in all three countries saw a clear business benefit in implementing sustainability strategies. Only 6 percent indicated they had tried to implement sustainable practices and abandoned the effort.
The benefits the wineries saw varied by country. For example, many of the Spanish wineries believed they profited by highlighting their sustainable efforts to consumers and improved their relationships with distributors. Being green or sustainable set them apart.
In Italy and California, however, winery owners found that adopting sustainable strategies actually allowed them to focus on cost reduction. They reported reducing waste and improving operational efficiencies. The authors noted at the conference that many surveyed wineries also believed that their wine tasted better, which was reason enough for them.
All of the wineries surveyed were small- or medium-size businesses, and many were family-owned, a fact linked to another common reason winery owners gave for going sustainable: They believe in preserving the environment—and their businesses—for future generations.
Spain’s Miguel Torres said he began focusing on sustainability because of the threat of climate change.
“We did it because we live in the vineyard and we want our environment to be healthy for our family,” said Peter Work, co-owner of Ampelos Cellars in California’s Sta. Rita Hills. Ampelos is the first vineyard in the U.S. to become triple-certified in sustainable, organic and biodynamic practices. “Though it costs more money to farm this way, the benefits pay off in higher quality of wine grapes.”Fintan du Fresne, winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards in California's Edna Valley, agreed. "At this point, the benefit to being certified sustainable is still less about selling more wine," he said. "It’s about looking critically at the winery’s environmental, social and economic impacts. Philosophically it’s the right thing to do."