This summer, Prof Dr Simone Loose joined Richard Bampfield, MW and three other panellists at the 10th International Master of Wine Symposium in Wiesbaden, Germany to discuss the conflict between consumer demand for sustainability and for affordable wines. Here, Loose reports on the key findings from the discussion 

It is well documented that wine producers are paying increasing attention to the sustainability of their business and that consumers are ever more demanding of the sustainable credentials of products they are buying. But what about the link between the two, the retailer and the consumer? How are retailers balancing the potential conflict between conscience and price? And how are they working with the supply chain to ensure that their own sustainability goals can be met?

The Wine Retailer session featured panellists who discussed the future role of the wine retailer as an intermediary between the wine producer and the wine consumer. The session highlighted several examples of how wine retailers are already taking responsibility for communicating environmental attributes to consumers and successfully engaging with sustainable producers.

Green choice

Marcus Ihre, sustainability manager at Systembolaget in Sweden, presented the data-driven approach taken by the Swedish monopoly to define the level of demand for sustainably certified produce over consumers in the region, and assess the sustainability credentials of individual producers. Based on objective evidence from Systembolaget’s own research and third-party certifiers, qualifying wines are highlighted on the shelf as a ‘green choice’. These wines consistently sell more volume per listing, proving the success of the initiative, and an incentive for producers to meet the criteria to be listed as a ‘green choice’. According to Ihre, this data-driven approach has also encouraged sustainability certifiers to improve their audit criteria. The retailer’s commitment has therefore had a positive ripple effect throughout the industry.

 As a critical part of their sustainability strategy, the Nordic wine monopolies have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. Ihre said: “We are well on our way and will carefully measure and evaluate our progress.”

To achieve this goal, wine suppliers are encouraged to offer their products in packaging with a low carbon footprint. For example, glass bottles will only be allowed if they fall into the lightweight category and weigh no more than 420 grams per 75cl bottle.

Ingredient labelling

Doug Bell, senior principal of adult beverage innovation and product development for Whole Foods Market in the US highlighted how the pandemic had changed the mindset of his consumers. “They started to ask more about what it meant for ‘us’ (society) as well as ‘me’ (the consumer).”

According to Bell, ingredients have recently been a major concern for many products at Whole Foods, and their focus is now on monitoring and labelling ingredients in wine. He made it clear that the wine industry needs to change and respond with transparent ingredient labelling because consumers want to know what they are consuming. Whole Foods is also trialling alternative packaging and is confident that its more innovative consumers will embrace paper bottles, even at higher price points. 

This contradicts the findings of the ProWein Business Report, that I presented at the symposium. My findings indicate most retailers are still reluctant to offer consumers the choice of alternative wine packaging, even though they are convinced that consumers would accept it. The research indicates strong country differences, with Nordic European countries leading the way and Central European German-speaking countries lagging behind.

Judy Chan, president of Grace Vineyards in China, confirmed the challenge of convincing Chinese consumers new to wine to accept alternative packaging. “The perception of quality conveyed by heavy bottles is still very important in China,” she said. One reason for this is that wine in China is mainly consumed in social settings and as a gift.

Chinese wine producers are currently focusing on alternative energy production through solar and wind power, as well as water conservation, opposed to potentially devaluing their product in the eyes of the consumer, by reducing bottle weight.

In the closing discussion, the panel made it clear that it is a joint effort by wine producers and retailers to make it easy for consumers to buy sustainable wine. Only through close collaboration and communication along the entire supply chain, from wine producer to retailer to consumer, will the industry be able to achieve sustainability.