By Elin McCoy, Bloomberg
WHATEVER YOU’RE concerned about — oceans, rhinos, cardiovascular research, hunger, oysters, injured dogs, salmon, veganism, art projects, politics, climate action — there’s a wine out there for you. (And no, not just to forget your woes.)
So-called “activist wines,” those that inspire drinkers to vote with their dollars, have created a “new road map for fine wine,” says sommelier Peter Weltman of Borderless Wine. As with the broader rise of ethical consumerism, wines that do good, as well as taste good, aren’t just a passing fashion. They represent a serious shift in the industry that’s gone from niche to mainstream over the past few years.
“There are countless research studies that show people today want to buy ethically and sustainably produced products from companies that share their values,” says Rob Symington, whose family owns the Portugal-based wine company Symington Family Estates. As of July 22, the nearly 140-year-old wine company achieved B Corporation status, joining a global movement of companies committed to social, environmental, and ethical business practices that are a force for good.
In an e-mail, Symington ticked off a couple of those studies. Unilever announced in June that its purpose-led Sustainable Living Brands are growing 69% faster than the rest of its business. A 2015 Nielsen poll of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries reported that 66% were willing to pay more for sustainable goods.
And I’ve just come across a report published last month by UK-based market research firm Wine Intelligence that found young consumers are increasingly paying attention to the impact of their behavior on the environment and extending that sense of responsibility to wine drinking choices.
Add to all that a new group of winemakers who want to do more than make great wine; they want to change the world, one bottle at a time.
Some wineries donate a percentage of profits or proceeds from a special cuvée to worthy causes. From Emmy Award-winning musician Dave Matthews, Dreaming Tree wines has given more than $1.5 million to environmental organizations such as the Wilderness Society. Profits from its brand-new rosé will go to the International Rhino Foundation. Every bottle of Proud Pour’s Mendocino sauvignon blanc restores 100 wild oysters to local waters.
Symington points out that we can’t talk about ethical wine without addressing climate change and the goal of ending carbon emissions. Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino was first US winery to switch to green power 20 years ago, and in 2016 became the country’s first certified carbon neutral wine company.
Equally important is social responsibility and how wineries treat workers. Several decades ago, wine drinkers avoided South African wine because of that country’s apartheid policies. Now, many have joined the Fair Trade movement that promotes good working conditions and invests in development projects such as improving drinking water. Stellenbosch’s Thandi wines was the first fair trade-certified winery in the world.
At the annual wine think tank event Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines, organized by the Areni Institute, that I attended in July in Bordeaux, France, social sustainability was a hot topic. Laura Catena, whose family pioneered modern wine in Argentina, started the Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol. It encompasses training in many skills and language classes for workers and vineyard classes for local rural high schools to give students a way to remain in the area.
Is all this just a version of greenwashing? Check labels for certifications such as organic, Fair Trade, vegan, and membership in the new International Wineries for Climate Action. One way to track down wines with a conscience is to look for like-minded importers such as Weltman, who is starting to bring in wines from war-torn regions through his Borderless Wine Alliance to encourage activist wine buying. Dar Richi, a Lebanese wine made by a Syrian refugee, will debut this fall. “I realized that with our wine purchases we can help advance regional peace and political and social values,” he says, “and make a difference in the world.”
Mika Bulmash, an international development specialist who started Wines For the World in 2013 after working a harvest in South Africa built a portfolio of producers that meet strict criteria, including taking positive action about social responsibility and environmental sustainability.
What do these ethically minded wines taste like? A great cause doesn’t mean they’ll be good in the glass. But with these below — I’m happy to report — you don’t have to compromise on taste.
WINES WITH A CONSCIENCE: SEVEN GREAT BOTTLES TO BUY
• 2017 Indaba Chenin Blanc ($10) — Cape Classics importer Andre Shearer brings in South African wines and started the Indaba label as a way to fund education in the Cape Winelands. This exuberant, floral-scented white made by famed winemaker Bruwer Raats is one of the best wine values I know.
• 2015 Quinta do Ataide DOC Vinho Tinto Douro Red ($25) — Last year, the Symington family introduced this dry, pure red with a suave velvety texture, made from the traditional blend of grapes that go into port. The vineyard is organic, and the family estates have just obtained B Corp. certification.
• 2016 Bosman Family Vineyards Twyfeling Cinsaut ($25) — This thirst-quenching red imported by Wines For the World smells of fresh berries and spice, with flavors to match. Bosman received official fair trade certification in 2009, and workers own a 26% share in the vineyards and business. It’s one of South Africa’s largest wine land reform projects. Money from the wines goes into a trust that supports dozens of social and empowerment projects.
• 2018 Ehler’s Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($32) — French philanthropists built up this organic Napa estate over several decades. After they died, it became part of their Leducq Foundation, which funds cardiovascular research. This silky textured white has lush citrusy aromas and rich, juicy grapefruit and lemon flavors.
• 2015 Iron Horse Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($44) — This winery pioneered sparkling wine in the cool Green Valley area of Sonoma. For every bottle sold of this all-chardonnay cuvée, it donates $4 to National Geographic’s Pristine Seas initiative for marine protected areas and sustainable fishing practices.
• 2015 Maysara Immigrant Pinot Noir ($45) — Moe Momtazi, who fled from Iran and was given political asylum in the US, founded an engineering company and eventually established this biodynamic Oregon wine estate. One-third of the proceeds from this lively cherry- and herb-scented pinot noir go to refugee and immigrant programs.
• 2017 Gorgona Bianco Toscana ($130) — The Tuscan Frescobaldi family, which owns Ornellaia, has been training inmates on Italy’s prison on Gorgona Island since 2012 in vineyard and winemaking skills they can use when they return to society. They produce a red and a white from the grapes. This expensive but serious white blend of vermentino and ansonica is chalky and lemony, with very long, complex flavors.