The Organics Narrative – A Hospitality Perspective

Organics, does it matter?”, that was the question put to attendees at last year’s Organic Winegrowers’ Conference. The short answer is, “It can, if you know how to craft a narrative around why it matters.

For this to be effective, let’s have a quick discussion on consumer behaviour and motivations in making purchasing decisions — or, to eschew sterile marketing parlance, “Why do we choose to drink what we do? What matters to us?”

A quick scan of existing writing on consumer motivation, both in wine and other food industries, reveals a pretty simple list of priorities. Most have the following in descending order of importance;
A) Price and availability
B) Flavour or deliciousness (i.e. quality)
C) Effects (on health and on the environment)
D) Philosophical appeal (ethics)

A quick analysis of these four points reveals why they are arranged in this order of priority. Price and availability are physical limitations; if a product is priced beyond budget, or impossible to obtain, it is simply not an option. Digging further reveals that the lowest-priced and most ubiquitous products can sometimes lose out to the halo of desirability attached to less common, or even slightly higher-priced items. However, that halo effect itself still exists within budgetary and availability constraints as the concepts of affordability and convenience are universal even if their thresholds differ from person to person. In other words, price yourself just below the budgetary limit of your target market, and be available without being everywhere.

Flavour, which is an innate quality parameter of wine, certainly is important. However, this is secondary to price/availability simply because drinkers, once they have decided on wine, will often compromise on taste rather than forgo consumption altogether if nothing in their price range suits their taste preferences. They may be disappointed by the selection, but will almost always still have a drink. It is less common to find drinkers who upon arriving at a restaurant or a wine store, refuse to drink outright because none of the available options meet their quality standards. Examples of this rarer type of drinker might opt to have a beer or a mixed drink instead, rather than a bad wine, but they are the minority.

Deliciousness should be a given.

This brings us to the discussion of effects on health, environment, and philosophical appeal. Where A) and B)  are necessities — prerequisites with innate properties — C) and D) are conscious choices based on awareness and the possession of specialist knowledge. This itself limits their effect, as many drinkers simply do not possess the knowledge or awareness to consider these things without external assistance. Additionally, they only manifest when drinkers are faced with ample choice fulfilling price and quality requirements.

It is also arguable that where the first two are effectively universals with quantifiable parameters, the latter pair are highly subjective and much harder to quantify. It is interesting to note that perception and reality are often not aligned when it comes to discussions and investigations into effects and et. Consumers will act on perceived effects and perceived assumptions about products and companies because they rarely have the time to investigate the truth behind the marketing.

The production nature of most organic wine results in default positives and negatives across these four areas; most noticeably, having a negative effect on price and availability while imparting a natural advantage in B), C) and D). Deliciousness should be a given. Organic wine growing produces higher quality grapes and consequently, better tasting wine. The benefits to health, the environment, and it’s philosophical appeal, however, need to be conveyed to the consumer before they can make decisions based on those predications. Without the knowledge to correct their perception of these wines, no benefit will be realised.

“Wait,” I hear you say, “but are there not many different kinds of consumers?” Different kinds of drinkers have different motivations, of course; everyday drinking, or special occasion drinking, etc. That is without question. Special occasion wines can be more expensive, harder to find, need to be more delicious, and perhaps possess some other qualities like prestige or desirability, or even historical significance (all aspects of philosophical appeal), but they still have to fulfil these criteria, just at a different threshold level.

But how do you translate this story into desire?

So, to take stock of where we are — price and availability are the primary limiting factors. Quality should be a foregone conclusion; if the wine does not reflect the high quality of organic wines, then it has squandered its advantage. Before you go any further, make sure the wines are good. If you’ve got that under control, then we get to the subjective effects and philosophy, the stuff that makes your narrative, the organic narrative. Within this lies a rich story, a compelling reason for folk to engage and fall in love with you. This is something you have which sets you apart from your neighbour, and from the conventionally farmed wines. But how do you translate this story into desire? The answer may surprise you with its simplicity. Keep it factual, honest and direct.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a short break and listen to a few experiences from people at the front-line. I asked the following questions to provide food for thought;

1) What is your personal story with organic wine — what does it mean to you?
2) Do customers care about organic wines, and why?
3) When you talk to customers about organics, what kind of engagement do you get?

James Hornblow, Charley Noble

1) Not hugely involved, but I love the concept of it, it’s a lot more hands on, lots of time and effort involved. I believe in it - I think it enhances the natural characteristics of vineyards and the wines show more personality, year on year, than conventionally farmed wines

2) Not too many people ask for organic wines specifically, but for my customers, I feel like it’s a given. I think there is the assumption that wines are going more organic because a lot of the food movement is headed that way. I actually think here people assume we will select organic products.

3) It comes into my conversations with customers a lot, the back story is great for us to engage with them — I believe organics is part of why the quality is so high for some of these wines. I think customers, from a background in produce and food, expect that organic wine will be higher quality too, for that reason. Interestingly, with organics, I get acknowledgement and then we move on, as they kinda know what it means and what it involves. But when I tell them a wine is BD or natural, then we get into a deeper conversation. There is increasing awareness in consumers about what is involved in organics but they’re still all learning more and are interested in learning more.

Iain Charlton, Whitebait

1) Every major wine list I’ve worked with has had an organic focus. In terms of expectations, I usually think they’re smaller producers, and more premium product. More care and attention is given to these wines in the production.

2) People do try to have an alignment with organic food, although they don’t go out of their way to choose organic wine at this stage, mainly because they don’t know that certain wines are, but when you tell them that a producer is organic, it piques their interest. Most consumers just don’t possess the specialist knowledge to know which producers are or are not organic, BD etc.

3) With organics, people tend to know what that entails, because of their experience with organic food. But when I tell them someone is BD, it really starts a discussion, they are interested to know more. In terms of expectations, I think because customers have often had organic wine and not realised that it was organic, they don’t have as clear an expectation or understanding of how organics affects quality, yet. That’s what we have to work on. Although organics clearly has health, lifestyle and environmental benefits, for consumers, it all comes down to quality at the end of the day. At a subconscious level, I think consumers definitely relate to the ethical benefits and sustainability of organic wine, but it’s not as clear for them as it is with organic food production.

Sylvaine Novel, Annam

1) On a personal level, they can bring more to the glass, more complexity, quality etc, esp. with BD. I find that they are more drinkable and more enjoyable, not in a tasting panel, but in a real world setting.

2) Consumers are already very accepting and understanding with organics in food and general life, but they have only started thinking about it with wine. Why is that?

3) Yes, but some consumers still just drink it, they don’t think a huge amount about wine. As long as they can afford it, they will start to do so, they already do it with food, but not as much yet with wine. Price is a factor, and convenience as well. Younger families don’t have as much money and time to devote to this, so we have to make it easier for them to engage.

Brandon Nash, Dhall & Nash Fine Wines

1) Here’s a story; I went to Moore Wilsons’ today to buy fish, as I walked past the aisle, Kombucha caught my eye and the organic one is the one I want. Why did I choose organics? Because it is healthier for me, specifically in reference to preservatives, additions etc.

2) In the context of doing in-store tastings, or talking to the consumers, I would always bring it up, I would always tell an organic story. In my experience, often it is not an area that consumers talk about at this stage, one in ten consumers will want to carry on that organic conversation. Actually, I would say that of all the benefits of organics, the consumer would feel that it was a healthier choice for them ahead of sustainability of the land.

3) They would say, “that’s great!” and then move on. What is it that they’re acknowledging when they say that? I know that they would assume it is a more premium priced product, because there is general acceptance that organics carries a premium. I think there is also the assumption now that organics means higher quality. Occasionally, you would have a customer having a bad experience with organic wine being of poor quality, although that has become very rare nowadays.

"Although organics clearly has health, lifestyle and environmental benefits, for consumers, it all comes down to quality at the end of the day."

There is another statement, one which I think sums it up quite well, from Ian Carnegie currently managing Whitebait Restaurant, but who has in his career been maitre’d at Matterhorn, Ancestral, and The White House. He summed it up as thus, “There is a growing interest in organic wine along with interest in organics in general. But as for expectations and reasons, it’s very personal, different people care about organics for different reasons. Take for example, the most recent person I recall asking about organic wines… she was interested in everything, asking questions about almost the entire menu.”

So this brings us back to the question at hand. How do you craft a marketing message for customers with differing expectations and different philosophical alignments? Do you appeal to the health aspect, or the environmental aspect? Do you focus on the ethics of small business, site specificity, or drink local eat local? My opinion is that the answer lies in making it relatable and relevant to the unconverted, yet honest and transparent to the knowledgeable. The easiest way to do this is to approach it without worrying about choosing a particular marketing message. You are the marketing message, your wines, your commitment to organics, your journey to this point in time and your reasons — this is something you already have and already know, it just needs to be put together into a coherent whole.

As Anna Flowerday has boldly stated in a Te Whare Ra tweet, “Authentic wines made with cow shit, not bull shit” veracity, trustworthiness and honesty are powerful, particularly today. We live in a media-rich world, which is both democratic and unedited — a double-edged sword. On the one hand, everyone has a voice, and increasingly, these voices are treated more equally than before. The rules of new media have narrowed the perceptual gap between expert and amateur. The general public of today are also bombarded with much more conflicting information than ever before, without the time or the savvy to know how to distinguish between different levels of quality of information. A quick look at the soaring debates surrounding many hot topics of today; the TPPA, fracking, GMO, vaccines, privacy, climate change; only show how confused the information landscape is today.

There is power in the collective. Harness it.

So how do you cut through all the bullshit? How do you make sure that you are heard above the din? One proven way is to do it one person at a time. We forget sometimes, in this highly connected world, where messages can potentially reach millions, and mass media glorifies its own incredible reach, that we are dealing with real people. When click, every view is a person. Remember this when you communicate online; talk to them like a human being when you taste at cellar door, or in-store, find out more about the people you are asking to represent your wines in a restaurant. These are your ambassadors, if they don’t believe in you, they won’t sell your story. After all, we are all just people trying to get through life, take the time to make real connections and you’ll see the value they bring. Technology is there to aid human interaction, not replace it.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to do it alone, either. There is power in the collective. Harness it. If there is one thing that the organic wine movement lacks at the moment, it is visibility and unity. I don’t mean that everyone has to tell the same story, or fall in line. Sometimes, all it takes is a reminder that we are not alone, as has been seen often throughout history, when people gather together, either in peace or in protest, it is empowering in the extreme not just for ourselves but for others on the outside. The organic wine community is not small, so why are we not visible?

Lastly, I’ll leave you with one more thought — continue to ask and learn. As this movement grows, so too will the enthusiast’s desire to know more, to ask more questions. A direct, simple message might be good enough to capture imaginations and get the attention of drinkers, but to hold them, there has to be depth and substance behind the initial message. When they ask the hard questions, we need to have answers, and these have to be honest and true. What we think might change in time as well, we should be open to that. Yearn for the truth, but avoid dogma. I think Oscar Wilde said it best, “the truth is rarely pure, and never simple”. Thank you for reading!