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‘Sustainable’ Sonoma wine could fetch $7-a-bottle more, survey says

U.S. wine consumers are willing to pay more for wine - up to several dollars more per bottle - produced using “sustainable” practices, according to new research presented at a Sonoma County grapegrower seminar in Santa Rosa.

Three years into a big push by Sonoma County Winegrowers to have all vineyards in the county deemed sustainable by 2019, the trade group revealed new consumer survey results strongly suggesting there could be more black than red in the return-on-investment calculation. Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, called the local effort, industry response and consumer acceptance part of a “sustainability revolution.”

“Five years ago, this would not have been on anyone’s radar,” she said to an audience of a couple hundred at the group’s annual Dollars & Sense Seminar and membership meeting Jan. 12. “We’ve created something here.”

Sixty-three percent of consumers who buy $15-plus bottles of wine and drink it more than twice monthly and who know about Sonoma County wines and the Sonoma County Sustainable certification would pay a premium of more than $5 a bottle for that assurance, according to results of the survey, conducted by Wine Intelligence. The average potential premium was $7.28, thanks to the 33 percent willing to pay more than $10 more.

Of Sonoma County-informed “regular” wine consumers, 40 percent of respondents would pay at least a $5 premium.

The United Kingdom-based research firm in December surveyed online and by email a sample of 2,010 regular U.S. wine drinkers, 804 of which were frequent consumers of fine wine.

ARE THEY BUYING ‘SUSTAINABLE’?

But do consumers actually buy certified-sustainable wines? The new survey and others suggests they do.

Sixty-eight percent of core-consumer respondents in the Wine Intelligence survey stated that they would be more likely to buy wine certified as sustainable. Fifty-six percent purchased bottles labeled with such certification at least in the past month, and 27 percent did so in the past week, according to the survey.

So far, 85 percent of the county’s vineyards, or 1,223 sites, have been assessed under the Sonoma County Sustainable program, and 60 percent had undergone a third-party audit. The program expanded to wineries, and 43 are now certified.

Other certification programs are California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Lodi Rules, SIPS Sustainable and Demeter’s Biodynamic. The Wine Intelligence survey found that the California program ranked highest in consumer concern, followed closely behind by Sonoma County Sustainable. Biodynamic ranked last.

TRADE SKEPTICISM

Interest among consumers and trade buyers such as restaurants and retailers in wines certified as Biodynamic or labeled as “natural” is waning, said Geoff Kruth, president of the Guild of Sommeliers, based in Petaluma. He was part of a seminar panel on sustainability.

“Sometimes, it was an excuse to sell those wines,” Kruth said about “natural wine.” He said such terms have been latched onto by wine-focused media, then seen as less exciting when the next green product adjective enters the spotlight. Because of that, Kruth said he was initially skeptical of “sustainable” wine, because it wasn’t under the rigors of “organic” certification.

PREMIUM FOR GRAPES

Corey Beck, president of Francis Ford Coppola Winery and a panelist, said 60 percent of the 2016 grapes the winery purchased from about 200 growers were Sonoma County Sustainable-certified. The plan is to reach 80 percent this year and all grapes in 2019.

Coppola, Jackson Family Wines and Bogle Vineyards are among vintners paying premiums for sustainable-certified grapes. About $950,000 in such premiums were paid in 2016, Kruse said.

The wine business has to embrace sustainability, because consumers increasingly expect it, Kruse said. “You’re going to be seeing this more than more: sustainability is being connected to quality when it comes to the grapes, when it comes to the wine.”

Jeff Quackenbush (quackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers construction, commercial real estate and wine.

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