Bridging the Whole Foods Gap
"Although modern consumers are far more concerned about the origins of their food than they once were, keenly eyeing the source of that organic spinach, their concern goes out the window when it comes to wine."
These words appear in a discussion about affordability in The New California Wine, the just-released book from San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné. It's what he calls the Whole Foods gap.
As he explains, "most consumers, even if they are the type to shop at that particular upscale grocery store and obsess about the origins of their food, simply couldn't care less about where their wine comes from or how it was farmed."
The numbers back this up.
Consider organic food sales. They're soaring. In 2012, according to government data, sales of organic food increased 7.4 percent over the previous year -- about double the growth rate for food overall. Since 1990, the amount of U.S. farmland dedicated to organic crops and livestock has increased fourfold.
Organic meat and produce often cost twice as much as their conventional counterparts. But Americans are beginning to take an interest in where their food comes from. So they're moving away from industrialized calories and toward production that eschews pesticides and values sustainability, even if it means paying more.
With wine, however, Americans still drink cheap, without giving much thought to sourcing or production. The average bottle of wine in the United States sells for just $6.22. Nine in ten bottles sold cost less than $12.
Look at Whole Foods. While shopping for free-range chicken, cage-free eggs, and artisanal cheese, consumers are presented with stacks of wine from Three Wishes. Retailing for $3, it's produced for Whole Foods by the Wine Group, the nation's second-largest wine company.
Or consider Trader Joe's. Just feet from where consumers pick up local fruit sits a wall of wine from Charles Shaw. Better known as "Two Buck Chuck," the wine is produced by Bronco, the nation's fifth-largest wine company.
Wines like these benefit from economies of scale, of course. But they also rely on a host of winemaking tricks.
That oaky aroma? It typically isn't from barrels, but rather from oak chips and sawdust dumped into the wine. The juiciness is often the result of acid additions. The weight and texture of inexpensive wine could be from concentrates engineered to fill gaps. It's better wine through chemistry.
The grapes for these wines are generally grown in California's vast Central Valley, where farmers rely on constant irrigation and regular use of chemicals to keep output high. With California experiencing one of its worst droughts in history, the sustainability of these methods is worth scrutiny.
This isn't to say that inexpensive wines are inevitably bad. There are certainly satisfactory options available for less than $10. But spending so little almost guarantees you'll be drinking industrial wine.
Bonné and I recently chatted about this dilemma.
"I don't think that we should be confronted with the option of either beautifully farmed but very expensive grapes on relatively expensive land, or somewhat chemically farmed grapes in industrial vineyards, as our only two options," he contended. "I think there has to be some middle ground in which you can farm grapes virtuously for a table wine."
He's right. And even in California, it's possible to find honest wine.
One label Bonné recommends is Broadside, a value-priced side project from two admired up-and-coming vintners. Another is Foxglove, a value-priced offering from the brothers behind Varner and Neely, two highly acclaimed labels. He also suggests Lioco Wines. Lioco's "Indica," a red blend based on old-vine Carignane, is a delightful wine that's reminiscent of both Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhone.
Bonné expects more value-priced offerings in the years ahead. "There is absolutely a mandate for newer winemakers in California to take their talent and apply it to less expensive wine," he insisted.
And he's optimistic about the future. "People who are willing to pay a premium for whatever it is -- say tomato sauce made by a small company rather than Ragu -- are going to need to extend those values into wine."
In time, they will.
David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Grape Collective.