Creating the Market for Organic Wine: Sulfites, Certification, and Green Values

by Geoffrey Jones and Emily Grandjean

Overview — Certified organic wine remains a tiny percentage of the global wine market. This paper provides a case study of failed new category creation, analyzing the challenges for the organic wine market over time, including overcoming an initial reputation for quality, wines being labeled with multiple names (“organic,” “biodynamic,” “natural”), and competing certification schemes.

Author Abstract

This working paper examines the history of organic wine, which provides a case study of failed category creation. The modern organic wine industry emerged during the 1970s in the United States and Western Europe, but it struggled to gain traction compared to other organic food and drink products, including organic tea. Early experiments performed by less-savvy winemakers created a negative reputation for organic wine, which proved a challenge to overcome. Early organic winemakers were often derided for their efforts, as conventional winemakers felt threatened by their claims to be more “natural” or healthy than conventional wines. Making matters more difficult, organic winemaking required a sophisticated understanding of complex environmental and chemical processes in the vineyard and winery, yet organic wines typically did not command a premium in the marketplace despite often higher costs of production. The development of organic wine in countries with different winemaking traditions also resulted in little common agreement regarding the definition of “organic” wine. After heated debate regarding the use of sulfites, differing organic wine standards emerged. In the United States organic certification schemes excluded the use of sulfites, while in Europe some use was permitted. For winemakers, distributors and retailers, navigating the complex layers of regulations regarding organic wine proved highly time intensive. Many winemakers chose to forego organic certification so as to avoid the perceived financial and time costs. Organic wine finally attained niche popularity in the 2010s, mainly in northwest Europe and in cosmopolitan global cities elsewhere. Yet organic wine remained a tiny percentage of the world wine market. There remained huge differences between countries in per capita consumption of organic wine. The overall market for organic wine remained far larger in Sweden, a country with 9 million inhabitants, than in the United States, with 326 million.

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