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Green is not a Black & White issue

In the wine world "organic" is not quite the USP it used to be. Price and quality come first while "greenness" is a welcome add-on, says Penny Boothman

IS IT still enough to be clean and green? With rumours of a slowdown in sales, some producers are choosing not to focus their marketing activity on the organic nature of their product, and this already fragmented sector seems to be dividing further.

Is organic production still a unique selling point for wine? But just as the novelty of organic wine seems to be waning with consumers, more and more producers are turning to green practices, and the number of organic labels on the shelf is rising steadily.

"The number of wines on offer is expanding and, therefore, the range is getting broader and more comprehensive," says Kate Sweet, PR manager at Brown-Forman. 

"When Bonterra launched in the UK 10 years or so ago there were very few organically grown wines to choose from.

But there are organic wines at all price points now, including the vital £5.99 price point where there were few, if any, wines before"

Tough competition

Even wineries that did not  tart off as organic are now producing an organic offering as part of their line-up.  Bordeaux négociant Calvet, for example, has recently expanded its UK proposition with an organic wine.

"The last few years have witnessed an increased consumer awareness of organic produce and the demand is high," says Emma White, UK sales support manager at Guy Anderson wines.

"Calvet’s decision to launch an organic wine was a natural step for the UK market, in being able to offer the consumer an organic version of the hugely successful Calvet Reserve."

However, consumers have certain expectations of quality with all organic products and wine is no exception.

However, consumers have certain expectations of quality with all organic products and wine is no exception.

However, consumers have certain expectations of quality with all organic products and wine is no exception.

However, consumers have certain expectations of quality with all organic products and wine is no exception.

Supporting the organic proposition with a strong brand name such as Calvet adds value for the consumer.  Chilean brand Errazuriz also launched an organic range last year.

"Quality is perhaps not intrinsically better in organic wines compared to those produced via conventional methods, but they may be considered more ‘genuine’ in the sense that they have a greater respect for the terroir," explains Sarah Wicks, brand manager for Errazuriz, at Hatch Mansfield.

But the quality aspect is clearly paramount for the organic proposition.  "If organically grown wines do not compete with conventionally farmed wines on taste profile, then we don’t even get out of the starting blocks," says Sweet.

"Consumers have the right to expect organic wines to be at least as good as conventionally produced wines." 

Premiums under pressure

Price is also an emotive issue in the organic sector, since producers are frequently accused of unreasonably piling on the pounds – but the days of organics being available solely at premium price points are over.

The Louis Max Group sells two organic labels through Waitrose.  "Today, when the competition is so tough, never mind if it’s organic or not, the people want the quality," comments export director, Tatiana Rumeau.

"Organic does not mean expensive," she adds. Château Pech Latt red and Château de Caraguilhes rosé retail at £4.79 and £6.99 respectively.  "These days organic wine has to compete primarily on quality, which is the way it should be.

I’m still surprised there are not more organic wines in the multiples – it’s never going to be the cheapest wine but it can certainly compete at most price levels once you’re up to £4.99," says Neil Palmer, co-director of Vintage Roots Ltd.

However, organic wines also occupy a part of the market at the other end of the spectrum.  In fact, organic wines are now available at all price points, including super-premium "cult" wines, where price points are not watched so keenly.

"Many of us have been conditioned to accept that ‘organically grown’ means compromise," says John Williams, owner and winemaker at Frog’s Leap, who certified the first organic vineyards in the Napa Valley in the early 1980s.

"At Frog’s Leap we emphatically believe that this premise needs to be re-examined."   However, even these super-premium wines, and neighbours like Grgich Hills and Viader have cult status for their quality, and not necessarily for their biodynamic production.

It seems that, overall, the priority is for taste first, and price second, with environmental concerns coming in third. 

Bonus point

There’s no doubt that most of us when faced with two wines of equal quality and price would pick the organic wine over the conventionally farmed wine.

But quality and price are the primary concerns, and organic production doesn’t seem to have the pull that it used to.  "We have come to the conclusion that to sell a wine only on the basis that it is organically grown is a very limiting marketing strategy," says Sweet.

"Traditionally, the organic market is limited to a small number of die-hard, organic devotees. This is not necessarily a prime Bonterra audience.  We have followed the recent expansion and success of Green & Black’s chocolate with great interest.

Their marketing technique, of being primarily a premium chocolate brand which has the advantage of being organic, is one which we emulate.  Thus, Bonterra is a super-premium wine first and foremost, supported by its quality produce, organic credentials."  And this makes sense.

If you limit your audience to the hardcore greenies you alienate the vast majority of the winebuying pubic, and the same is true for trade sales.  "If the target is an organic retailer then clearly they are only interested because the product is organic – and we can just talk about the wine’s organic qualities.

If it is a general retailer we will always talk about the wines other qualities first, and the organic benefit is an added bonus.  After all, no one wants to buy an ‘organic’; they want to by a bottle of wine," says Jerry Lockspeiser, MD of Bottle Green.  And other agents agree. 

"We have not actively sought out organic wines to add to our portfolio as, in many instances, it is not commercially viable to produce a sustainable organic crop year on year," says Louise Hill, marketing manager for Stratford’s Wine Agencies which has recently introduced the organic Australian Battle of Bosworth label.

"The fact that they also happen to be organic is an added bonus which will bring in an additional consumer group."  Organics now seem to act more as a "cherry on the cake" to marketers, rather than the basis for a new strategy.

"We did a tasting with one of the big supermarket buyers and I asked if it made any difference that the wine was organic, and he said ‘No’.  If it happens to be organic, fine, but they don’t actually specifically look for anything organic.

It’s not a unique selling point," says Tim Abraham, commercial manager, Darlington Wines which distributes the organic Chilean La Fortuna brand.  "I’m not quite sure where organic wines go from here.

Someone needs to do a really big marketing push on the whole category," he adds.  If the organics sector is losing it’s way, it would be through no fault of its own.

There is actually no such thing as an "organic wine" in the UK marketplace, as it is not defined as such in EU law, which insists on the term "wine made from organically grown grapes".

This isn’t necessarily an easy distinction for consumers to make, and the complexity surrounding the subject isn’t helpful to the overall organic crusade.  It’s no longer enough to rely on food contamination scandals to scare consumers into your category.

If the organic wine market wants to recreate the boom-time of the late 1990s, it could be time to redefine the organic proposition and raise the profile of the category as a whole with some generic marketing activity. 

Group hug, anyone? 

Organic growth for spirits

As growth in organic wines has slowed, the market for organic spirits is growing considerably.  London & Scottish International Ltd, distillers of market-leading Juniper Green Organic Gin, reports a rise in sales of 24% over the last year and 47% over the last two years.

"We now export to 12 countries, including the USA," says Chris Parker, managing director. "We keep meeting people who are still at the ‘Wow’ stage, which is just discovering the products and thinking ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.’"

The domestic market, however, remains the company’s major focus.  "I think the UK is  probably the most delevoped [market] in terms of flexibility," says Parker.  "We are priced about 5% to 7.5% above the brand leaders, but consumers accept this small premium."

As well as being less pricesensitive, the spirits sector is considerably less fragmented than the wine world, and it seems that being organic is still a sufficient point of difference to attract consumers. 

According to Parker, "We are still very much niche, but competition awards, combined with  our sampling campaign, allow us to compete at a level with the big guys." 

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