Friday, July 31, 2015

Why Is Whole Foods So Lame About Organically Grown Wine?

Is it just me, or...? I never "get" why Whole Foods, the country's second largest retailer of organic food (Costco is in first place at the moment) with $3.6 billion in organic sales, is so lame about selling organically grown wines.

Marketing their values (really, our values) signs around the store tell us Whole Foods stands for...

Does this sign need to add..."Except when it comes to wine"?
A large barrel sign overhead said, "We seek out and promote organically grown foods." Another sign above nearby says, "We practice and advance environmental stewardship." Another banner says, "We care about our communities and our environment."

But look at the products in the wine area. I'd venture to say that more than 99% are not from organic vines. And aside from 2 major brands (Frey and Bonterra), and a few minor brands (Lucinda & Millie, and a few others) that are in one section (variously labeled at different stores Eco-Friendly or, at Novato, where I was last night, No Added Sulfite [which is not true for the wines that were there], there's no way to find the others. Not a little green label, not the word organic, nothing.

Doesn't that seem odd?

I talked to the wine dept. sales person at the Novato store last night (after attending a CCOF North Coast chapter meeting held in the dining area there; I don't generally shop there but patronize my local farmers markets) about a new product that was prominently displayed on an end Sangria. Unlike wines, which generally say "Made with Organic Grapes," it had a label saying "Made with Organic Fruit" - as this sangria has a lot of added organic fruit juices. (More on that later).

I asked him why the store isn't making organic more prominent. He gave me the old saw, that organic certification cost too much for the little guy. Unlike most wine dept. sales people who said that, he actually quoted me a number. "It costs $1,500," he said.

I told him I wrote about organically grown wines. It actually costs far less to be certified - about $7 an acre. He was unimpressed, even though I told him I had just written an article about this for a leading wine industry publication.

He told me that the Whole Foods direction was endorsing and moving toward sustainability. "We're saying you should 'know your grower'," he said.

"Know your grower? Aside from telling you how green they are and following the sustainability media training program messaging, what is your grower going to tell you?" I asked.

Meanwhile, Gallo, a certified sustainable winery by the Wine Institute's CSWA program, is out there  in Petaluma, at their Two Rock Vineyard (bordering Highway 101, the Washoe Creek Golf Course and neighboring homes), spraying one of the worst old school pesticides, an organophosphate called chlorpyrifos, all over the 400+ acre vineyard where Gina Gallo's favorite Chardonnay (Gallo Family Vineyards Chardonnay) comes from.

To see this spot on Google Maps, click here; to sit it on Every Vine, click here.

Chlorpyrifos is known to increase the risk of slow brain development and autism in children and, in adults, of getting lung cancer, Parkinson's Disease and other auto immune disorders. It is also highly toxic to bees.
Location of Gallo's Two Rock Vineyard in Petaluma in Google Maps tiltup
Government officials have moved closer to banning it over the years and, just this month, the EPA announced this month that's it banning it altogether due to its water contamination dangers.

Gallo applied Lorsban, one of the brand names for chlorpyrifos, on the Two Rock site at least 28 times, using more than 147 gallons of the toxic substance there.

Meanwhile, Gina Gallo's quoted in the press as saying how much she really likes the biodynamic eggs that come from her husband's 17 acre biodynamic vineyard on Olivet Lane in the Russian River Valley.

"You should be sure to get the growers' pesticide use reports," I suggested to the wine department sales person who was suggesting that sustainability was a positive. No response.

A quick look around the wine section revealed only the most minimal of organic choices - Frog's Leap (which is organic but doesn't label its wines, not even on the back of the label) and Grgich Hills Estate. I also found a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc from Medlock Ames. All were expensive.

Less expensive options ($14-22) were the Terra Savia Chardonnay and Meritage (Bordeaux blend), one Sauvignon Blanc from Mendocino from Elizabeth Spencer, a Pinot Noir from Jeriko (Mendocino),  and a red blend table wine from Horse and Plow.

It's sad to think that in the middle of wine country, where 8% of Napa's vineyards are certified organic and 25% of Mendocino's are, that Whole Foods can only stock less than one percent of its wines from organic vines. It must drive the organic growers, especially in Mendocino, crazy. Their grapes are going into Kendall Jackson wines and other big brands for a song because "no one values organic."

Meanwhile, out front, the organic sangria was proudly on display. A huge end cap that must have cost its distributors a tidy sum.

Eppa, a new brand from the Deutsch Family, is the latest product from the folks who brought you Yellow Tail (the #1 selling wine in America). It's got organically grown wine and organic fruit juices inside. Do they think organic won't sell? Doesn't look like it.

Or is the message here, organic will only sell when people think it's a fruit juice?

Why is Whole Foods so backwards about organically grown wines? They could make the market jump up a notch in a nanosecond - if they wanted to. They could have their own wine brand made totally from Mendocino's organic bulk wine. They could have several in house brands, if they wanted.

Whole Foods could even lobby the government to change the organic wine standards so the "no added sulfite" wines no longer confuse the category, which is the primary factor why the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in consuming and producing organically grown wine. (Globally, organically grown wine, both at the low and high ends, has grown from 2% to 5% of the market. The U.S. is the only wine producing region where there has been no increase; producers and marketers attribute this to the confusion about no added sulfites.)

In the U.S. organic food sales are climbing 11% a year. They were nearly $36 billion in 2014. In Europe, organically grown wine consumption has been steadily increasing at 11% a year.

Sticking strictly to the retail front and choosing simply from excellent, high quality, existing U.S. brands, Whole Foods could have a $10 and under organic section in the wine dept. and a $20 and up organic section - if they wanted. They could double shelve these wines both by varietal and in the organic section.

The question is, what's holding them back?


  1. BRAVO! Way to tell it like it is! Whole Foods does a lousy job of representing organic wines in their sets. Why is it that their attitude towards clean and organic food doesn't carry over to the Wine Department? There are plenty of organic wine choices out there - it's time for Whole Foods buyers to educate themselves and get on board! Thank you for calling out the supposed leading organic grocer on their blatant conventional wine selection.

  2. Woah. What an eye-opener. I'm late to read this but thanks for the valuable information. Not all consumers can "Know their growers" but they can get to "Know" their retailer and the motivations behind the wines offered to them.