Sustainable Wine with Sandra Taylor

Author and consultant Sandra Taylor on sustainable wine

The business side of wine is not usually that interesting to consumers. But talking to consultant and author Sandra Taylor, whose latest book is The Business of Sustainable Wine, was a complete blast. We drifted a bit off target, dissed producers who put girly labels on wines to try to sell them to women, talked about climate change in France and Europe, talked about the Wine MBA from the Bordeaux School of Management in France (yeah, it’s for real, and Taylor holds one).

“The industry is doing a really lousy job marketing to women,” Taylor said, adding that women buy more wine than men. Then (very cleverly getting us back on track) she pointed out that women tend to be more sustainably-minded. “They want to know it’s a sustainable wine.”

She spent 22 years working as an executive for Kodak and Starbucks, then became a consultant, specializing in helping wine brands be more sustainable, which means using agricultural practices that are kinder to the planet, conserving resources such as water, behaving in a socially responsible way to their workers.

What is sustainable wine?

Taylor did point out that organic wine, biodynamic wine and natural wine all fall under the heading of sustainable wine. Growing grapes organically or using biodynamic traditions, as well as making natural wine (or wine that happens naturally without the addition of commercial yeast or other cultures) are all practices that are considered sustainable. But sustainable practices can include spraying some non-organic pesticides or other chemicals to protect a grape crop, for example. And there is also the social justice aspect of treating your workers well which is part of sustainability. You can grow perfectly organic grapes, but would not be considered sustainable if you treat your workers badly.

Part of the trend, Taylor says, is that climate change is having a negative effect on a lot of wine growing regions. But a lot of it is that the demand for sustainable wine is growing. Some of it, she explained, happened because the retailers were getting worried.

“Basically, retailers don’t want to be embarrassed,” she said. “They’ve had enough bad experiences.”

But also, the growers and producers, themselves, are seeing the benefits of the practices.

“They are convinced that it’s the right thing to do,” Taylor said. “The energy and the waters costs are lower. My costs can go down. It’s better for the health of my workers.”

Consumers want it

The trick is finding a way to let consumers know that this is a good thing when they see “sustainable” on a label. Taylor says that a lot of millennials are already asking for it, whereas some very high-end wines are made sustainably and don’t have it on the label.

She thinks it’s a bigger draw now than it might be in the future when it becomes more common. South Africa, New Zealand, Italy and even France are starting to be more sustainable. Wineries in California and Oregon are getting more involved, and in the Paso Robles area, the industry has made a major effort to get their wineries and vineyards practicing sustainability.

“They’ve done a really good job,” Taylor said about Paso Robles. “Their goal is to get as many wineries as they can under the tent.”

A lot of this is really insider stuff, but the bottom line is, the industry is going to respond to demand. And if consumers demand sustainable wine, that is, buy it, ask for it and tell their friends about it, then winemakers and growers are going to adopt sustainable practices.

“It’s the consumer who has the most power,” Taylor said.

Alice Feiring Explains Natural Wine

Alice Feiring chats with winemaker
Alice Feiring chats with winemaker

When Anne chatted with wine critic Alice Feiring last fall, the conversation kind of went all over the place – as it is wont to do when wine people get talking about their favorite subject. Feiring, who had just launched her newsletter, The Feiring Line, has been writing about wine since 1990. She said it was something she fell into, as she had been writing about a host of other topics as a freelance journalist.

“I fell into this area of wine technology,” she said, adding that she already had a passion for wine. “It was just inescapable.”

Feiring believes that the role of the wine critic is to help, not judge.

“I think the role of the wine critic is to be somebody you really like in a wine store,” she said.

And, as we have often noted, it doesn’t hurt to find a critic who shares your personal sympathies. Feiring, for her part, has become a strong advocate for Natural or Naked Wine. It’s a small, but growing, trend in the winemaking world, where winemakers are attempting to make wine by doing less and less to it, including even adding yeast to get the fermentations started.

Side note – it is also an area of minor disagreement between us. Anne leans toward the less is more approach, Michael favors more intervention.

Feiring said that she simply prefers the flavors of natural wine, describing wines that have been made with added acid and occasional bits of sulfur (like, part per million bits) as having a heavier, fruitier taste that just doesn’t appeal to her.

“What I find about natural wines is that they are more accessible,” she said. “And they’re not that expensive.”

In fact, she added that there is absolutely no correlation between cost and quality, although some natural wines will cost a bit more because it is a riskier way to make wine – one of the reasons winemakers add those parts per million of sulfur is to kill bugs that can ruin an entire year’s worth of grapes or wine.

But risks aside, native ferments (letting the grapes ferment on their own without adding yeast) and wines made with less and less chemical intervention are getting more popular and more common, which mean Feiring has a lot  more tasting to do. Something which will disappoint her mightily. Uh, not.