Musings of a Wine Maven


by Jerry Clark

Illustration by Mike Dater

From January 25-27 over 800 wine producers from around the globe had their bio-dynamically influenced wines on display in Montpellier. Learning of it several months ago I gave consideration to taking it in, as the subject appeals, and nothing of this scope has been put together over here. My eyes had been more fully opened to sustainability two years ago while attending a packaging conference on the subject for a consulting client. Listening to the various presenters it became clear that the interest had now gone well past tree huggers and deeper into the general population. I began to believe that product recyclability and improved food product wholesomeness were brothers in arms, and that a movement was afoot that would have significant consequences for the wine industry. Visiting numerous American wine shops in the intervening time brought me to NOT believe, and the decision to pass up Millésime Bio 2016.

Let’s just sum up all my visits in 2015 to previously unknown wine sellers trying to assess their interest in the organic/bio movement. I have yet to overhear anything remotely similar to this imagined customer recommendation for something to go with the squab soufflé:

“Ah, I have just the thing. This Vouvray got a silver medal at the 2014 Challenge Millésime Bio in France, and the vineyard just replaced their tractor with two Percheron horses.”

Yet as I stared out the window Saturday as a dozen inches of snow descended, I looked at my wife and suggested that by all rights I should be checking out a rental car at Marignane Airport outside Marseilles. Surely the American wine buyer needs to learn a great deal more about bio, and three days in Montpellier could greatly enlighten me. However, looking through my new issue of Wine Spectator (Jan. 31-Feb. 29, 2016) on Monday provided the coda to my remorse, for the moment at least. Early on, page 15 precisely, Assistant Tasting Coordinator Aaron Romano, under the title “What American Wine Drinkers Want,” provided a full page summary of the November 2015 survey released by the Sonoma State University Wine Business Institute.

A pie chart indicated that 67% of the sampling of 1,072 wine consumers want to spend under $15 a bottle, and that the two favorite grape varieties noted were Chardonnay for white and Merlot for red. MERLOT!! Impossible! OK, when “Sideways”came out, I saw it five straight Saturday nights, and in five different cities, as much for the Merlot moment as any other. That movie tanked that grape variety, and it has taken years for it to come back. So now I was determined to find out more about this survey before writing it off. Merlot, no way.


Graph 1: Favorite Varietals by percentage of Respondents. Source: 2015 Survey of American Wine Consumer Preferences

Thanks to the World Wide Web, I was able to find what I assume to be a fuller version of the study, entitled “2015 Survey of American Wine Consumer Preferences,” by Dr. Liz Thach, MW and Dr. Kathryn Chang. This report is loaded with thought provoking findings, surely of import for consumers and the industry. Leaving the Merlot point aside for calmer reflection–in our household, comments on grape variety preferences can be as intense as sports franchise discussions–I was most taken with Graph 4: Wine Purchase Decision Making by Percentage of Respondents. Wine Spectator only spoke of Price, which led the thirteen different influencers with 72%. Not surprisingly it was followed by Brand, with 67% of the sampling (more than one influencer could be listed by the polling group). At the very bottom was “Biodynamic Wines,” with a 3% response rate!


Graph 4: Wine Purchase Decision Making by percentage of Respondents. Source: 2015 Survey of American Wine Consumer Preferences.

I can hardly believe I almost gave up experiencing the first giant snowfall of 2016 to stand in front of dozens of winemakers in the south of France asking me how much more the American market will pay to serve table wines made the way the monks did 1,000 years ago.

A special thank you to Mike Dater for his wonderful illustrations.  Please visit Mike Dater’s website to see more of his work!


  1. If nobody else wants the Syrah, I’ll drink it 🙂

    The concept of biodynamique wine production feels watered down, certainly, when the consumer gets involved. The idea of labeling is a consumer thing, and with it comes a sense of obligation (better check the pack to ensure there’s no guilt in this purchase). In reality, biodynamique production techniques are bueatiful, natural process…most have been in place out of early necessity and have stayed present out of guiding principal rather than “because the consumer wants it”. Such an interesting topic, thanks for this post!

    • I am not sure of late what the consumer wants. You would think a reasonable amount of information on the labels (front and back). But when I see Fifty Shades of Gray brand of wine without any grape information I am beginning to wonder. Marketing is still king I guess.

  2. If no one else wants the Syrah, I’ll drink it!

    • Jill,
      I am totally with you on this. I guess one has to write off the higher Malbec selection number as good promotional effort out of Argentina.

  3. I am an American living in the south of France and I spent some time before my retirement working in the retail wine industry. I think the sampling might be better seen as 24% of Americans showing an interest as I don’t think the majority of wine drinkers see a discernible difference among organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines. Further, I would posit that if the American wine buying public doesn’t want it, it should. Don’t give up so quickly. If the Gajas get it, can we Americans be that far behind? Well, yes, maybe, but isn’t it something that needs to be changed? Next winter, go to Montpellier and then tell us what you learn.

    • Linda,
      You have the benefit of living in a world where a tradition of astute viticulture and winemaking practice goes back centuries. Added to that, in the thirties legislation came along that laid out grape variety and output guidelines that have guided the growth of the industry. This is all still relatively new to us over here, having to virtually start over again after prohibition. Some suggest that wine is in itself a natural product, so not to worry whats going on in the vineyard or winery. It’s all good. For the moment at least that perception is carrying the day.

  4. As an aware but everyday consumer I have to agree that most things I find desirable – from food to fashion- take a few months to years to gain the momentum and catapult to the top of the market. As wine buying decisions are a combination of factors – grape and price range perhaps the top, I will try an organic, sustainable, biodynamic over any brand and will pay a few dollars more ANY day. I agree with Linda that the market is still emerging.

    • Virginia,
      There is a question of fashionability with wines, yet it is more to do with trends in grape varieties than in what may be better health wise. Pinot Grigio is seemingly ordered as much as Chardonnay in restaurants and bars, and now I hear tell that sommeliers are touting Riesling over either of those. I don’t think the general wine drinking population here has any idea whether organic wines taste better, and surely the shops don’t want to weigh in on that. Yes, things will continue to emerge, and Linda being where she is will be in the vanguard.

  5. We have been choosing organic or sustainable wines for the bulk of our wine drinking years and we are in our mid 60’s. We were part of that group of Renaissance people read hippies in the 60’s and 70’s that saw the forest for the trees.

    I would name Bonterra and Frey as two note-able organic wine companies with offerings under or at $15 produced here in the U.S. Natura from Chile has some good reasonably priced reds as well. And there are any number of French wines that are not labeled organic but say something to the affect that they were produced either sustainably or without chemicals.

    Organic wines are important for several reasons. They’re good to drink of course and easy on the body but as important, they are helpful to the land and ecosystems that they are produced in. At this stage of the game on this planet, that’s no small thing.

  6. Linda,
    Good for you. Organic is better, and I believe knowledgable wine drinkers accept that. Yet the movers and shakers in the industry don’t seem to see any marketing value to it, thus in my opinion its development will continue to lag among American producers. Case in point. You note Bonterra, and they do play the organic card very strongly. However, their parent Brown & Forman, a $3+ billion revenue wine and spirits company own three other California vineyards that make no mention of bio, organic or sustainability on their web sites. Could it be that corporate has set this up deliberately, and if so then why only one of four properties are this progressive? The other three surely are making decent wine.

  7. Linda,
    Just a note to add. I had not noticed Fetzer makes significant points on what they are doing along sustainability/regeneration lines. But nothing on their site about organic or bio.

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