The ethical dilemma

The organic fields of Cowra, soon to be brimming with organic grapes.

The organic fields of Cowra, soon to be brimming with organic grapes.

As consumers and restaurateurs become more concerned with the ethics of food production, will this impact your wine list?

Business ethics, legal ethics, medical ethics… When life takes a serious turn we are often posed an ethical or moral question. We often have to decide what’s right and what is wrong. Were we transparent in a business dealing; did we disclose all we should have in a legal matter; is it OK to pay our doctor with someone else’s credit card? These are all ethical questions, but they also seem a little old-fashioned when compared to the new ethical pursuit. Environmental ethics. Food and wine production fall very much under this general heading, and the ethical nature of such products’ manufacture are increasingly the shiraz-fuelled dinner conversation of many of your customers. But does this signal a change in the way consumers are going to approach your wine list?

Very definitely yes. Wine and food ethics relates to some of the trendy and faddish aspects of contemporary wine and food talk. Carbon footprints, air miles, recyclability, sustainability, landfill, water use, petro-chemical sprays and applicants… It is hard to have an inner-city chai-latte nowadays with friends and not manage to touch on a couple of these buzz-phrases.

Wine’s pick-up on this marketing angle has been slower than food, however.

Indeed, President of the Cowra Region Vineyards Association, Jason O’Dea, who also helps run the vineyards at his family’s winery, Windowrie, thinks that in the 1990s a few experimental organic or bio-dynamic wine drinkers might have been put off some of the very few offerings. Quality wasn’t always the best. Yet things have changed. “Younger (wine industry) people have become involved, though, and as organic brands have grown, quality has also gone up. In the Cowra wine region now, about 50 per cent of our brands will soon be certified organic. So if anyone doubts the future of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wine, it’s coming big time, let me tell you…”

This more ‘ethical’ angle to agribusiness within the world of wine is certainly attracting more than consumers’ attention, however. Cowra wine makers have—together with other local administrative, municipal, and educative organisations—formed a Sustainable Wine Partnership. “Some of the seemingly little and unimportant things”, claims O’Dea, “can really help. From tree-planting to mulching to a big compost facility, Cowra winemakers have established a template for a lot of Australia’s wine regions regarding sustainable viticultural practices.

Yet O’Dea claims this isn’t necessarily consumer driven. “As I said, the younger wine makers are keen on this sustainable angle, and given that two of the top four wines at the last Cowra Wine Show were organically produced, maybe there’s something in it…” But there’s also a sensible economic angle for wine makers. As O’Dea adds: “From an input point of view, if I can run some sheep through the vineyard in the winter to eat up some unwanted weeds I don’t have to make a couple of herbicide spray runs. I’m saving money.”

“If anyone’s got any doubt about the future of sustainable, organic and bio-dynamic wine, well, it’s coming big time, let me tell you…” Jason O’Dea, President, Cowra Region Vineyards Association, Sydney

So whilst this organic and biodynamic wine movement might have its ethical points, it also impresses the accountants.

Accountants to one side, Rod Windrim from the Hunter Valley’s Krinklewood winery, a winery and vineyard thoroughly embracing organic and biodynamic principles, is drawn to the approach because of its “winning formula”.

“You are not conquering nature when you grow and make wine this way. You get an uplifting feeling from such wine—growing it and making it—even drinking it too.”

Yet Windrim’s number one aim is still wine quality. He thinks that if you’ve got that then people will form two bonds with your wine. There’s the quality bond and then there’s the ethical bond.

Windrim wants to keep it real. “Some people do get scared off by the bio-dio hippy stuff, for sure; and I’m not really turned on by that too much myself. The thing is, I never buy wine because it is biodynamic and organic, but if the wine’s good I do like to buy it before other more conventionally grown wines.”

Industry stats suggest that more and more winemakers are moving to organic and sustainable wine growing practices, and it is not a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ exercise. Consumer interest in the environmental ethics of food and wine is also growing rapidly. The third annual Edelman goodpurpose™ Consumer Study, a survey of 6,000 people in 10 countries, released in October 2009, concluded that: “People all over the world are now wearing, driving, eating, and living their new social purpose; (it is a) sustained engagement.”

The study found that 70 per cent of people would prefer to live in an eco-friendly house than merely a big house (30 per cent), 87 per cent of people feel they have an obligation to look after society and the environment, 83 per cent feel they can personally make a difference, and 83 per cent are willing to change consumption habits if it can help make the world a better place to live.

In short, the old conspicuous consumption has become the new conscious consumerism.

The beauty of wine in this complex equation is that whilst it can be a sustainable organic product doing good things for the environment, it can also be a luxury item. “Another bottle of the $65 organic chardonnay, madam? Certainly madam, I’ll bring it straight away…” If this seems an unlikely development on your wine list then you’d be wise to remember that winemakers used to spray herbicides, farmers used to take water from our river systems, and that we all used to have an incinerator in the backyard. And a plastic packaged chicken never had the word “Organic” on it.  All that’s changed. Wine will too.

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