'Greenwashing' or a healthy attitude?
The golden state's winemakers reveal the pros and cons of going green. Christine Boggis reports
Sustainability is the hot topic in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has made environmental issues one of his key priorities, and wineries up and down the state are finding more and more innovative ways of protecting the environment for future generations.
Organic and biodynamic grape growing don't seem to be as popular as they are in Europe - but countless other methods, from preventing water pollution to solar-powered wineries and from cover crops to electric vehicles are proliferating.
Fetzer pioneered environmentally friendly winemaking, and among other initiatives has cut its waste going into landfill by 96% since 1990 at the same time as doubling its production; it buys only renewable energy; and uses 35% recycled glass in its bottles, which are to be made lighter next year.
It has also led calls for an overall sustainability accreditation for the state, which would simplify the plethora of existing programmes, such as Napa Green and Fish Friendly Farming - and which the California Wine Institute is now drawing up. Its UK director, John McLaren, says: "The marketing of Californian wine can benefit from its dedication to sustainability, but to be able to use that as a marketing tool you need measurements.
" Sustainability is a road that you take that doesn't have a destination, it's just a continual improvement, but I think that maybe there will be a grading or something like that, and we would encourage other regions to do the same thing."
So what exactly does sustainability mean?
Andy Mitchell, director of vineyard operations at Hahn Estates, explains: "Sustainability has three parts they call the three Es: environmental, economic and socially equitable. There are more things to be considered when you are farming sustainably as opposed to strictly organically."
But some have criticised this holistic approach as "sustainability-lite", and blamed major players for not doing enough to protect the environment.
But Wine Institute chairman Margaret Duckhorn says: "Sustainability is do-able. If everybody can become sustainable we will improve the environment and improve the quality of our fruit. A lot of us probably are organic, but it is a three-year certification and if your neighbour isn't organic that can affect your status. We feel that it is probably more do-able to be sustainable."
So is sustainability something that consumers understand?
Brown-Forman marketing manager Claire Westlake says: "An increasing number of consumers are looking for earth-friendly brands, be they sustainable, organic, Fairtrade or another accreditation. As this trend becomes more mainstream the brands with established credentials should fare better than those brands joining the trend late, who could be seen by consumers as greenwashing."
But Majestic buyer Camilla Bordewich says: "I think the consumer at the moment is probably slightly overwhelmed with the different forms of accreditation. It is becoming a woolly tangle for customers just trying to make a straightforward choice about what they want to drink with dinner, who are suddenly hit with all these ethics."
Top US wine brands
1 Blossom Hill +7%
2 Gallo +2%
3 Echo Falls +25%
4 Turner Road -32%
5 Rivercrest -22%
6 Paul Masson -29%
7 Fetzer -45%
8 Beringer +67%
9 Stowells +10%
10 Hawkstone new entry
Source: Nielsen off-trade value sales year to Oct 4 2008
The buyers' views
James Griswood Tesco
How is Californian wine doing for you?
"It is quite a difficult category to buy for. Getting diversity of range at the right sort of quality to value that the UK consumer expects is very difficult compared to most other countries. We have got a slight discrepancy between very strong brands and then the premium price points. I am going out there in a couple of weeks to hunt around for something new ."
Do consumers understand its regions?
"No. Consumers don't understand whether Pinot Gris is a grape, a brand or a region. To expect them to know where Sonoma or Paso Robles are would be pushing it even further. There is a small percentage of the wine -consuming public who are enthusiastic, read around and become more interested in learning about the subject, but for the general population I would say, no."
How is Californian wine doing for you?
"The sector is performing very well at Asda. As an example, year -on -year growth figures for the Californian category have been 50% over the past month. This has been driven through promotional activity, such as our three-for-£10 offer. A lot of the growth we're seeing is coming out of the white wine category and rosé. There is a customer demand for trustworthy brands in the wine category and Californian wine is approximately 80% branded. We are enjoying particular success with Blossom Hill. We do very well with Asda's own-label Californian red and white."
What is the key to selling its wines?
"Brands are important to customers buying Californian wine. Our three-for-£10 offer has proved successful ."
How is California doing for you?
"It's going well. We have had some recent parcels that have been successful. In the mid-range we have the same problem that has been going on for years and years - it is difficult to range California for the middle level. Recently, we have been buying from very sound producers, estate wines such as Saintsbury, Hess and Sonoma-Cutrer - quality wines but at reasonable prices. The £10-£20 range is quite successful ."
What is the key to selling its wines?
"Our approach is to play to its strengths and not try to make it compete with other regions like Chile or Australia - it is not going to make such big-selling commercial wines at those middle prices. We concentrate on doing wines from individual AVAs and try and find the varieties that are best suited to those areas. Our customers are always looking for a sense of geography and integrity , and it's important for us to stick with that in California."
The independent's approach
Kensington-based independent wine merchant Roberson has a roughly 30-strong Californian wine range as part of a European-focused, high-end offering, with prices ranging from around £10 to £100. Assistant manager Mark Andrew says: "There are a lot of American ex-patriates in Kensington, a lot of investment bankers, but with the banking crisis who knows what will happen. We have always had quite steady demand for Californian wines and we have a selection of wines that people who know Californian wines can instantly recognise as being good quality.
"The key to selling Californian wine is to concentrate on quality. You need to improve the reputation and perception of wines in the eyes of the consumer and to make sure the wines you source don't negate all that hard work. If somebody spends £15 on a bottle of wine that tastes like a £5 bottle they probably won't come back. Forget competing on price - if that makes it a bit more expensive, just make sure it is a bloody good bottle of wine."
Monterey: a cool region on the up
Monterey is the salad bowl of America. The home of John Steinbeck and setting for his classic novel Cannery Row, the county is said to be the artichoke and garlic capital of the world - and is increasingly making a name for itself as a wine region too.
Vines were first planted in the seventies and there are now more than 16,000ha of grapes, but traditionally most of them went into cross-California blends. Today, more and more producers are making wines under Monterey's generic appellation and the many smaller AVAs in the county.
Monterey runs along a valley with a wide mouth facing the ocean at its north end. That means there can only be a 4°C temperature swing from north to south in summer.
Northern Monterey is America's biggest Chardonnay producer, and last year Pinot Noir overtook Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in planting terms.
Hahn Estates pioneered the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, in hills near the coast, which president Bill Leigon describes as "one of the great Burgundian appellations of the world". The winery recently launched the Hahn SLH range.
Further south the region has hundreds of different microclimates. Arroyo Seco is in a corner that takes it out of the marine winds coming down the valley and can produce good Cabernet Sauvignons.
Gianni Abate, of Salinas-based Morgan, says: "Everybody is getting better. Twenty years ago nobody would have stuck wine from Monterey in a $1,000 barrel and now we are doing it. A lot of the vineyards are young and as they establish themselves the appellation is going to shine more."
John McLaren, of the California Wine Institute, says: "In my experience Monterey is very well known as a name - not necessarily as wine country, but the average punter will recognise the name Monterey more than they will recognise the name Sonoma for all the right cultural and touristy references. They might know about the jazz festival, the writers or the Beach Boys."
Tesco buyer James Griswood adds: "I have seen some wines out there that showed very well stylistically, they can be a bit more restrained and have cooler -climate fruit flavours, which is great for the UK consumer ."
As president of Hahn Estates, Bill Le ig on has a finger in most of the winery's pies, but is particularly involved in marketing and design. He came up with the 1920s-style label for the estate's flagship brand Cycles Gladiator, which features a nude woman floating behind a bicycle, and was inspired by a Paris bicycle ad from the era.
In 2000 he founded the Wimbledon Wine Company, a national sales and marketing company that represents Hahn brands Hahn Estates, Smith & Hook and Cycles Gladiator.
Le gion has been working with the UK since Hahn made such a success of its Rex Gladiator brand internationally that Constellation bought it - but he admits it can be challenging.
"For us the biggest challenge would be the giant grocery chains, which we are basically not in. They want huge listing allowances and refuse to sell wine at the price it should be sold at - and there is no reason they should be selling it that low. We do much better in the Wine Society and independent off-licences, and now more and more in on-premise."
He has high hopes for Cycles Gladiator in the UK: "We believe strongly that we produce as fine a price quality relationship as any country in the world. I will blind taste any time, any place, any date against anybody, because I have no doubt that we will do well."
Chris Howell is the winemaker for boutique producer Cain Vineyard & Winery, which makes a handful of top-end Cabernet Sauvignon blends in the tiny American Viticultural Area of Spring Mountain, high in the hills on the western side of the Napa Valley.
Howell came to Napa in the 1980s and says it is the only place in the US that has committed to grapes and wines in the way places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rheingau and the Mosel have.
When I mention to Howell that most of the US winemakers I have met are far less keen to talk to me about their soils than their European counterparts, he admits that soils - especially given they are so diverse in California - have largely taken a back seat compared to experiments with siting, trellising and canopy management in US viticulture.
Now he has come to love maps and topography: "I think dirt is a lot more important than I realised," he says.
Cain's flagship wine is Cain Five, a Cabernet-based wine Howell prefers not to call a Bordeaux blend - "because we're not".
"If you take fine wine seriously you can't afford to ignore Napa," he says. "Napa Valley is a microcosm of all of California, and here we have the larger -volume projects, which are as interesting for their scale as anything else .
" In Napa you see nothing but grapes. There is a lot of money here, but with the money comes a lot more commitment . It used to be all show and today it is commitment and I think that is justified by the potential.
"Today we grow wines in the valley that are as interesting as anywhere in the world - as interesting as any of the familiar appellations of the Old World."
The Governator may not be a winemaker, but he has had a serious impact on California's marketing.
When he came into office, he noticed the state's tourist board was seriously underfunded - and overnight brought in a measure which meant that everybody who hires a car pays $1 towards the tourist board, which made millions.
The California Wine Institute then approached the tourist board, and highlighted the UK, along with Japan, as one of its main target markets.
A $6 million campaign in the UK has mostly gone on TV ads - which invite tourists to visit wineries as one of California's leading attractions.
The team-up has also prompted the UK wing of the Wine Institute to focus more on lifestyle, and on promoting the provenance of Californian wine as something that makes a statement about them as consumers.
As for Arnie, when it comes to the next elections, the wine trade will be hoping he'll be back.