Some of you may have heard of the ‘Master of Wine’ – the terrifyingly challenging qualification that marks the pinnacle of wine knowledge. With a reputed 8% pass rate and only a mere 275 or so ‘MW’s’ in the world, it’s an exclusive group. And as you’d expect, MW’s are expected to take a view on the important world of organic wine.
Last year, one of the questions in the eight-part examination asked ‘Can organic wine ever be anything more than a marketing concept?’ It’s a typical MW question. Apparently simple, but actually requiring a deep-rooted knowledge of both the world of organics, wine and marketing. The students need to address what’s meant here by ‘marketing concept’ and then address how this applies to organic wine. Or – more likely – ‘wine made from organic grapes’. As most students are expected to know, things like sulphur use and the lack of an approved standard for what constitutes ‘organic wine’ means that most ‘organic wines’ are more properly ‘wines made from organic grapes’.
MW examiners aren’t out to catch you. But you’ve to be careful not to indulge in diatribes. There is a reading of this question that implies that ‘marketing’ is a nefarious concept. You may agree with that view and you’d be in good company. Sir Alan Sugar – one of the UK’s most high-profile business figures and host of the UK version of ‘The Apprentice’ – refers to it as ‘the spending department’ arguing that marketers ‘hoodwink’ consumers. And if you took that view, you might think the question invited you to see ‘organic wine’ as merely another way of hoodwinking consumers into paying more for their wine. Another view is to look at marketing as marketers would; as a process at the heart of good business. A process that assesses what desires and needs consumers have, creates products that satisfy those desires, and then communicates the benefits of those products to consumers.
Yet organic wine fits neither of those definitions. People who produce organic wine (or grow organic grapes) do so out of a sincerely held belief that what they are doing is better than if they had produced the same grapes and wine conventionally. It’s an ethical choice, something underlined in all any interview with organic producers, or in the work of writers like Monty Waldin who’ve specialised in this area. And as such it’s nothing to do with the classic marketing process either. Organic growers do it for themselves – not because marketing research suggested that there was a group of consumers out there who demanded they go organic. So in this sense, being organic implies a ‘production orientation’ as opposed to a ‘marketing orientation’ – the classic distinction drawn up by Theodore Levitt in the 1960’s. As if to underline this, some producers – like Guerrieri-Rizzardi in northern Italy – don’t even announce their organic status. They do it because they believe it. Nothing more.
That said, it doesn’t mean that going organic can’t bring some distinctly marketing-style benefits. And the MW candidates will be expected to know that. For a start, there’s a growing recognition that ‘organic’ acts much as a brand would. In that one word, a whole world-view, a narrative and meaning is imparted on the product. Wine is a staggeringly confusing product choice. Buying ‘organic’ gives the consumer’s choice meaning and simplicity. That’s very attractive to producers. And because being organic universally means being part of a registered scheme, often there are more tangible benefits too. Registering bodies promote you and offer you routes to market. And sometimes there are even financial incentives. The European Union as well as more local bodies have offered subsidies to organic producers, Fairtrade schemes may offer organic ‘bonuses’ and sometimes there are schemes to offer loans and funds for specific investments as is Languedoc-Roussillon for specialist staff. And let’s not forget, there is also a significant group of people who share the values of organic producers. People whom research would suggest it was worth making organic wine for were you to go through the classic marketing process.
And that’s not lost on many conventional producers. Fetzer through Bonterra, Zuccardi with their Santa Julia Organic range, Kumala with their organic range, Penfolds Organic, Cono Sur organic are all non-organic producers (in the main) making an organic range. Surely, this then is a ‘marketing concept’? If it were an ethical one, then all their production would be organic, irrespective of the cost.
How you view these ranges depends on your perspective. Being organic is an ethical choice. And as with any ethical choice, one can take a fundamentalist approach. ‘Being “a bit organic” is like being “a bit pregnant”’ said an Argentine producer to me when we discussed the issue recently. For him, an organic range within a more conventional selection is an example of the nefarious end of ‘marketing’. It’s hoodwinking consumers. Mere snake oil. But there are others for whom the primacy of consumer choice is itself an ethical issue. And to them, the fact that producers and marketers have identified a demand among consumers, produced a product (wholly within the requirements of registration schemes) and brought it to market using all the brand building, distribution and investment resources that they would use for their conventional products is a very positive thing.
So can organic wine ‘ever be more than a marketing concept’? Yes, it usually is. Producers go organic because they believe in it as an ethical choice. That doesn’t mean that organic wine status won’t bring many ‘marketing’ benefits – intentionally or not. But that’s not why people do it. Mostly. But as a result, there are certainly those for whom their organic ranges fit much more into the classic marketing concept mould. So in those cases, yes, organic wine is a ‘marketing concept’. Is that a good thing? It depends on your view, but on balance I would suggest that the consumer and the wine market is much the richer for it.
And why do I care? Because I’m a Master of Wine student. And given the importance of organic wine in the world today, I suspect they’ll ask this sort of question again.
Read more of Joe’s writings at www.joefattorini.co.uk