The top wine buyer for Whole Foods Market on Thursday lauded the effort by Sonoma County growers to make the county’s grape crop 100 percent sustainable before the end of the decade, but cautioned it will be a difficult task to get a national standard that will embraced by wine consumers.
Doug Bell, Whole Foods Market’s global beverage buyer, told the Sonoma County Winegrowers at its annual meeting that he backs its efforts to create the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine growing region by 2019. To qualify, growers must be certified in numerous areas such as water and air quality, pest management, carbon emissions and even employment practices.
However, Bell noted that the county’s growers must drive the effort — and the conversation — so it will be reflected in the national marketplace, from the supermarket shelf to the local bistro’s wine list.
“If you guys depend on Whole Foods to solely tell your message, we’re going to fail. We can’t do it by ourself,” Bell said. “We will never move the needle until these environmentally and socially conscious practices are touted in the labeling and the messaging.”
That effort is complicated given that consumers face a wide array of wines labeled as sustainable, natural, organic and biodynamic, and even vegan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates standards for organic wine, while the other types are more loosely defined.
Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group representing more than 1,800 grape growers, is using standards developed under a partnership between the Wine Institute and California Association of Winegrape Growers.
“You got to get a definition,” Bell said in an interview. “Maybe Sonoma County is the beginning of this.”
Bell’s remarks are forceful given the major role Whole Foods has established its own sustainability standards in seafood, including providing different ratings. “We set the bar on seafood. It was not easy,” he said, noting it was a two-year process involving different stakeholders.
The company based in Austin, Texas, also has a five-step animal welfare standard for its meat products and a produce rating system. It touts endorsements from Greenpeace and the Environmental Protection Agency, which would be an anathema to some in the business community, but has produced a loyal, upscale customer base that generated $14 billion in overall sales in fiscal 2014.
Whole Foods has discussed having a similar ratings system for its wine selection, such as “good,” “better” and “best,” but so far has held off, he said. Those plans have encountered some difficulty, such as federal regulations that limit what wineries can put on a label.
Bell added he is interested to see how Sonoma County’s sustainability initiative will play out as it enters into the second year. So far, more than 43 percent (25,987 acres) of the county’s vineyard acreage has completed a sustainability assessment. One third of the acreage has been certified under an independent auditor.
Still, Whole Foods asks similar questions for its wine suppliers as the growers are undertaking in their assessments, Bell said.
“We always ask ‘what are you doing in (your) vineyards that is really good? How do you treat your grapes? How do you treat your winery workers in the vineyards?’” Bell said.
The company also supported the efforts of New Zealand, which launched a sustainability program for its wine industry in 2007. Today, about 90 percent of its wine are now certified.