Whole Foods wine buyer urges Sonoma growers to push sustainability

Whole Foods Market's wine buyer on Thursday lauded efforts to make Sonoma County’s grape crop 100% sustainable before the end of the decade, but cautioned that a national standard will be difficult.|

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.

His words are influential, given Whole Foods is a major seller of wine and has opened up wine bars in some of its upscale stores and also started a wine-by-mail club. Bell noted that Sonoma County wines represent 10 percent of its case sales in the United States and the United Kingdom, about 350,000 cases of wine annually. In fact, its No. 1 seller during November and December was a $15 bottle of pinot noir from Francis Ford Coppola’s Geyserville winery. California represents about 50 percent of the company’s case sales, with Napa County around 10 to 15 percent.

“The brand Sonoma County is not only a national brand, but I think you have a national treasure here,” Bell said.

Efforts to grow the sustainability program will give Sonoma wines an advantage in a increasingly competitive marketplace where vintners are not only competing against different wine regions, but also facing producers selling craft beer and hard cider. Bell noted that millennials are very receptive to sustainable marketing as they have embraced a “foodie” culture much more than previous generations and treat celebrity chefs as demigods, and will pay more for such products.

“Our shoppers care about where our food comes from. What’s in it. How was it raised? Who raised it? How are workers treated and its impact on the planet?” Bell said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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