How Important is Sustainable Alcohol?

Given the current concerns about health brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and growing interest in protecting the environment from climate change, sustainability has become a hot topic. Some suppliers may be quick to tout that products are sustainable, organic or biodynamically farmed, but is there real consumer interest and demand for these goods?

“There has definitely been more interest in sustainable products, especially after the gyphosate lawsuits that ruled in favor of the cancer victims, which brought quite a bit of attention to the use of chemical farming in agriculture,” says sommelier Erin Scala of Common House, a Virginia-based social club with locations in Charlottesville and Richmond. “There are many studies, too, about how some sustainable practices just make for better business — so even big industrial wineries are implementing some sustainable practices.”

For instance, Scala says, installing a bat house near the vineyard can reduce or eliminate the need to spray pesticides, and it’s cheaper. “There is still a lot that could be better, but it’s nice to see this shift in all facets of the wine business.” 

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The vast majority of items offered at Common House are sustainable at the bare minimum, Scala notes. “We don’t have a particular section for sustainable products, but we do indicate on the wine list which wines are sustainable, organic or biodynamic.” It changes every season, but during the past month bestsellers include Pietro Beconcini Chianti (certified organic), Del Maguey mezcal (sustainable) and Bermejos rosé (sustainable).

“It’s important to support sustainable producers who are providing solutions for a changing wine landscape.” — Sommelier Erin Scala of Virginia-based Common House.

At Sodie’s Wine & Spirits in Fort Smith, AR, customers are becoming more interested in sustainable products lately, says store manager Shaina Jones. “Customers are self-educating more and making themselves aware of how products are made,” she notes. “It is a driving force in their purchasing decision.”

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Sodie’s does not have a dedicated a section to specifically organic or sustainable products. “But we do identify these products with individual signage on the shelf,” Jones says. “Customers are able to find these types of products within those specific departments.”

“We can definitely see more of a sales trend for sustainable products, especially in wine and spirits,” she continues. “I expect this to continue to increase in the next year, as more of these products become available and consumers continue to self-educate and care about what they are consuming.”

Kevin Neitzel, owner of The Fridge Wholesale Liquor in Manhattan, KS, reports that not much has changed for his retailer/distributor business in terms of interest in sustainable products. “Our sales trends on sustainable products have remained the same over the last couple years,” he says. “It seems like the same group of customers are looking for these products when they come in.”

The Fridge doesn’t separate the organic or sustainable products, Neitzel adds, “but all are clearly marked in the respective sections.” Bonterra is the top-selling organic wine; “we also do well with Crop vodka.”

“Our wine buyer seeks to have a nice selection of sustainable organic wines in each set.” — Kevin Neitzel, owner of The Fridge Wholesale Liquor in Manhattan, KS.

Tim Wiggins, co-owner and beverage director at Yellowbelly, Retreat Gastropub and Lazy Tiger in St. Louis, finds that guests are at least aware that sustainable products and methods exist, “but they often don’t know which products or what methods are available or being practiced. When we explain to guests what we are doing with dehydration, alternative acids and recycled cordials, there is always interest and excitement.”

Most people interested in craft cocktails with unique ingredients also care about waste, “and they can easily get behind a more sustainable bar program, he adds.

Wiggins only carries natural wines that are sustainable and grown organically, so he does list them as natural. But he doesn’t put special notes or labels on products or menu items because he would rather have the conversation with the guest.

“Often times I think it can look a little “buzzwordy” to put labels on products on a menu, mainly because the definitions of these labels are fairly vague,” Wiggins says. “I think something has to taste and looks great first, then when you can add that it is made/grown/produced sustainable, it is an extra bonus.” 

Educational Efforts

Many on- and off-premise operators find that educating the team about what makes certain products sustainable, organic or biodynamic helps sales. This is especially true in the wine category.

Every team member at Common House takes “Wine 101” that explores the club’s wine philosophy, Scala says, “and we back that up with a weekly team newsletter about our wine focus of the week, which often has information about sustainability/organics/biodynamics. 

The Fridge has information in its wine-training program that covers what makes these wines sustainable, organic and biodynamic, Neitzel says. Our wine buyer seeks to have a nice selection of sustainable organic wines in each set. There hasn’t been much focus outside the wine department.”

Sodie’s educates its sales staff about what makes certain products sustainable or organic. “We recognize that a lot of consumers are valuing these characteristics in what they drink, so it is important to show the consumer that we think it is important as well, Jones says.

“We greatly value products that are certified by a reputable organization,” adds Melissa Blevins, Sodie’s wine manager. “This is something we make sure to educate our staff about as well as our customers.”

As far as sustainable and/or organic products go, “our top-selling segment is definitely Stellar Organics wines,” Blevins says. “We are also building a substantial selection of sustainable and organic vodkas, which is our top selling in the spirits category.”

Spirits are a little different than wine because a sustainable and organic spirit isn’t usually going to taste as different as a natural wine does, says Wiggins. “We sell a ton of agave spirits, and we use the La Gritona Reposado Tequila in a few cocktails and so we move through it quickly. It is an absolutely beautiful tequila that is female owned and operated, and one of our favorite spirits on the back bar.” 

But he notes that most guests won’t sip La Gritona and be like, “mmm yeah, that’s organically and sustainable farmed tequila. People have to be willing to pay a little more for something even if it doesn’t ‘taste natural’ but because they believe in the better process.” 

“We talk about sustainability because we care, and that is where it has to start.” — Tim Wiggins, co-owner and beverage director at Yellowbelly, Retreat Gastropub and Lazy Tiger in St. Louis, MI.

A Biodiversity-centric Wine List

Can the way restaurants format their wine lists encourage greater sustainability? Scala thinks so.

Common House organizes the wine lists by style instead of grape. “We are transparent about the grape varieties, but the white wines are always listed as crisp to rich, and the red wines are lightest to boldest,” she says.

Why is this sustainable?

“When you focus your wine list around a few grape varieties, similar to the way you see most grocery stores set up—chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir—you are encouraging monoculture with your buying power by encouraging wine producers to focus in and plant just the top-selling grape varieties,” Scala says.

This decreases biodiversity and encourages monoculture, which in turn leads to chemical farming and a host of other problems. Most wine sales tend to happen in supermarkets, she notes, “and I am devastated when I walk in and see just five or six grape varieties represented. When you order a grape variety outside of the world-renowned international grape varieties, you encourage biodiversity in the wine world.”

Committing to a Sustainable Future

Should more restaurants and retailers be exploring sustainable options in wine and other beverage alcohol products?

Frankly, they can’t afford not to, says Common House’s Scala. “As climate change creates supply issues over the next century, it’s so important to support sustainable producers who are not adding to the problem, but instead, providing solutions for a changing wine landscape.”

In order to have a thriving agricultural wine future to hand off to the next generation, she adds, “there has to be an even greater embrace of sustainable wine practices. And the focus needs to be on social sustainability as well as agricultural sustainability.”

Wiggins says he has “a staff of super diverse people that have farming and cooking backgrounds, so they are very hyped on these practices. We talk about sustainability because we care, and in my opinion that is where it has to start.”

Usually it means the products are more expensive and harder to find, he admits, “so it is easier and more convenient to not care. Guests are not yet ready to pay more for a cocktail with sustainable ingredients like they will pay more for a [pétillant naturel wine], but I hope to see that attitude change.” 

Sales of sustainable products have likely trended steadily up at his restaurants, Wiggins says, “but only because we have cut out as many things as possible that don’t follow the practices we prefer. For wine, hip people are looking for a natural wine bar because it is trendy and sounds cool, but for cocktails and spirits, people don’t really look for natural or sustainable cocktails yet.”

They should, he notes, “but they don’t yet, because not enough places are doing it or talking about it. 

Feature photo by David García Sandoval on Unsplash.

Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers magazine, our on-premise sister publication. Read her recent piece, The 2020 Beer Growth Brands Awards: The Best of the Industry.

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