Why wine industry needs to take a new approach to ‘sustainability,’ e-commerce
From the way grapes are grown, the way wine is sold, to how it is packaged, experts gathered Tuesday at North Bay Business Journal’s 22nd annual Wine Industry Conference as an in-person event at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel in Santa Rosa.
The event included a conversation with a leader of the regenerative agriculture movement, and a recap on efforts by wineries to reach more customers via e-commerce and then a panel discussion on the selling of wine, including boxed wines.
Here are some conference highlights:
A farm with better fruit and lower costs
“I say, ‘We inherit the land from our parents, but we borrow it for our children,’” Ridgely Evers, founder of DaVero Farms & Winery in Healdsburg. told attendees as his environmental motivation for his form of farming.
“Since we started biodynamic farming, we’ve had no infestation of anything. The fruit tastes better, and the costs are lower,” he said.
Evers further emphasized the practice as a long-term plan that requires growers to “embrace uncertainty.” He claims most contemporary agricultural methods are not designed for “the benefit of the soil.”
Instead, Evers commends a trust-your-gut, trust nature approach. After all, this type of farming isn’t actually new. Some methods, like composting on the land, are acknowledged as ancient science practiced for many years.
Evers defined his method of farming in north Sonoma County’s ideal temperate climate as a holistic approach of viewing “the farm as a living organism,” where he grows and tends to vineyards for 18 different varietals, fruit, citrus, lavender, produce and olive trees imported from Tuscany in 1990.
A decade later in his small vineyard, he stuck to the Italian theme in planting wine grapes to harvest Sangiovese, a medium-bodied wine billed as an ideal food complement. About the same time, he was introduced to another Italian varietal, Sagrantino, at a New York bar by the chef and olive oil customer.
He’s been hooked ever since.
His goal is harvesting a million cases this year. He attributes much of his success in the bounty and quality of his harvests to biodynamic agriculture.
With all the heated discussions about the environment and modern farming aside, just don’t ask Evers about “sustainable” farming, he stressed. The common term used to describe eco-friendly ways of harvesting our food implies that staying on the same course will suffice.
“There’s no definition of sustainable,” he said.
Instead, Evers uses biodynamics that heals and treats the land with “regenerative” techniques designed to reduce water consumption on his farm by 75% compared to 2018’s measure, which is critical in a region staring down a third year of drought.
More than anything, he recommends regenerative farming methods as an important means of sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil to trap the greenhouse gases that pollute the air.
“I’ve spent a third of my life putting carbon in the ground,” he said. “I think we have a larger purpose in life besides the business we’re in.”
Motivated online wine buyers meet ‘clunky’ websites
The wine business has been a big beneficiary of the surge in e-commerce sales during the pandemic, far more than beer and spirits.
But that’s happened despite vintners’ and retailers’ being terrible at selling wine online, according to conference keynote speaker Bourcard Neslin, a beverage analyst for Rabo AgriFinance.
“Consumers are willing to overcome some really awful shopping experiences,” Neslin said. “They soldier through high shipping costs, unreliable vintage information, clunky and difficult-to-navigate and definitely outdated websites to get them to get what they want.”
Wine shoppers overcome this e-commerce “friction” without giving up on the purchase because they are motivated, Neslin said.
And that has been on display in wine’s dominant share of online beverage alcohol sales, he said. U.S. wine e-commerce jumped to $3 billion last year from $1 billion in 2018. And wine’s share of online sales of adult beverages for off-premises consumption was 10.9% last year, compared with 3.1% for spirits and 1.5% for beer.
A structural change has come to wine e-commerce with the pandemic. Brick-and-mortar retailers greatly expanded their reach into e-commerce for pickup and local delivery, helped by state and local laws that relaxed some ability to do so with adult beverages, even if temporarily, Neslin said.
Grocery sales online during the pandemic doubled, but beverage alcohol sales online tripled in that time.
And in the pandemic with tasting room traffic cut off by public-health orders and reticent travelers, vintners turned to email, videoconferencing and other virtual tools to re-establish contact with customers that visited them to rebuild and strengthen relationships.