The market for sustainable wine

By Chris Kaplonski, University of Cambridge, Anthropology
 
‘This can’t be healthy!’ ‘I don’t want to drink this!’  Thus the consumers.
 
‘I wanted to make healthy wine.’ Thus the winemaker.
 
We are all familiar with the story of the environmental campaigners standing up to the evil MegaCorp and their nefarious effect on the food supply. While I have no wish to detract from such movements, here I want to tell another story – the nefarious consumers and their invidious effects on the growth of sustainable wine-making. 
 
Austria proclaims itself Europe’s greenest wine-making industry, with 90% of vineyards under some form of sustainable cultivation – whether integrated pest management and intercropping, the more stringent organic rules, or even biodynamic farming. Some go even a step further, to what is called ‘natural’ wine which eschews most technological fixes available to winemakers, as well as farming organically or biodynamically. Yet the maker of the un/healthy wines, a producer of natural wines, exports about 90 percent of his wines, including to the world-famous restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen, since people in Austria won’t drink it. 
 
I would be, if not the first, then the second or third to admit that sustainable wine-making practices (including viticulture) are not on par with issues of food security of basic staples. Yet there are compelling reasons to pay attention to this niche product. On the one hand, if certain wine-making practices were to wither away, the world would (probably) not end. On the other hand, it is in certain wine-making practices, particularly the group known as ‘natural wine,’ that challenges to the standard stories of food and sustainability become evident. 
 
There may need to be a recalibration of tastes and expectations in terms of most sustainable foods, but it is a minor one. People may argue that an organic tomato tastes better than an industrially farmed one, but few would suggest it tastes completely different. Not so for wine. Sustainable wine does taste different, and at times radically so, from conventionally produced wine. Many biodynamic wines are held to be more ‘interesting’ to drink and have more complex aromas and tastes. That is not necessarily a large adjustment, unless you prefer plonk. Other wines, such as natural wines, are very different. Witness the opening quotes, and the image that accompanies this post. To drink the most sustainable forms of wine, more basic expectations may have to change. To date, most consumers seem unwilling to do this. 
 
For many winemakers in Austria and elsewhere, natural wine, and sustainable wines more generally, reflect a commitment to an ethos. This comes at a cost. Because natural wine deviates too far from what a ‘good wine’ should taste like, at least according to the bureaucrats and wine snobs, in Austria it can only be labelled ‘landwein’, a ‘lower’ category. (Similar limitations apply elsewhere.) This can affect sales if people are simply judging a book by its cover, or a wine by its label. The sacrifices for the cause don’t stop there. In Austria, some winemakers reject official sustainability (among other) certifications, even if it means losing subsidies, for any number of reasons.
 
Winemakers have already demonstrated a willingness to follow their beliefs, even at a tangible, if potential, economic cost. The big question is: will the consumers follow?