Restaurants that fail to offer a selection of “green” wines on their menus run the risk of being out of touch with a significant and growing group of today’s environmentally conscious customers.
Fortunately, it is easier than ever before to provide customers with wines that embrace environmentally sound procedures, including organic, sustainable and biodynamic production methods. Overall, green wines have much improved over the past few years in terms of quality and availability. Supply has become more reliable, and many more value selections exist.
According to the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey, U.S. sales of organic wine and wine made with organic grapes totaled $169 million in 2010, up 4.7 percent from 2009. Many winemakers are following the lead of New Zealand, where more than 80 percent of wineries adhere to audited sustainability standards.
And restaurant customers are taking note.
“People are educating themselves about what they are eating and drinking more and more, and in the past three years they’ve been asking more questions,” said Orla Murphy-LaScola, co-owner of American Seasons in Nantucket, Mass., where about half of the wine is green.
In New York fine-dining restaurant Gilt is also tapping into growing interest for wines with a conscience. The by-the-glass list sommelier Patrick Cappiello compiled for Gilt is about 50 percent organic, a fact he’ll note when making food-pairing suggestions.
“When I touch on the fact that they’re organic, guests always want to hear more,” he said. “I think it’s something people want. ... The proof is in their response,” he said.
Green wines outsell others on the by-the-glass list at Gilt.
Finding wines that suit your program is easier then ever. Most distributors have upgraded their websites to feature the green wines they carry, and many international organic and sustainable organizations share their members’ contact info. However, many are small-production wines, which makes managing a green list a bit more demanding, as the wines tend to go in and out of supply.
But American Seasons’ Murphy-LaScola noted that small-production wines tend not to fluctuate in price as much as better-known brands.
“We find that sticking with someone who farms organically, your price tends to stay the same regardless of how much production they have,” she said.
Still, there remains a lack of clarity about what exactly constitutes a green wine. While there are a number of national and international certification processes, many wineries that have long been organic won’t go through the expense and hassle to be approved, but they can usually be located by attentive sommeliers.
Resolving guests’ confusion about which wines qualify as green often falls to the restaurant operator.
“There’s a large group of customers who think this is important, who are very eco-conscious, but they don’t necessarily do the research themselves,” said Emily Wines, master sommelier and director of wines for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.
A green leaf icon appears next to Kimpton’s green wine choices so eco-conscious patrons can easily cut through the clutter, Wines said. At Kimpton’s 45 restaurants at least 30 percent of the wines are organic, biodynamic or grown sustainably. In addition, all of the chain’s hotel minibar wines are organic.
She added that that restaurant wine buyers, like consumers, need to be aware of “greenwashing.” In other words, just because a wine claims to be earth friendly doesn’t mean it is really green — nor does it mean it’s a good wine.
As important as it is to offer green wine to access this growing market, it should never be done at the expense of flavor. At their best, green wines can be earthier, displaying more of the true characteristics of terroir. But when they fall short, even the most well-meaning green wine program can turn customers off.
“It’s critical that the wine taste good,” Wines said. “The message just isn’t enough — the proof really is in the glass.”