Beer & Wine Wine

How the ‘Clean Wine’ Movement Inspired Marketing Changes

The term itself is nonsense, but some consumers want to see it. This is how some wine brands are capturing those customers.

clean wine illustration
Image:

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “clean wine” at some point over the past few years. What does it mean? Nothing, literally. It’s a marketing term employed by celebrity-backed wines and social-media-heavy companies to appeal to the Goop crowd, drinkers new to wine and uninformed about what it actually is. Because winemakers are not required to list a wine’s ingredients on its bottle, canny profiteers who sensed the zeitgeisty desire for things deemed “clean” or “pure” cast aspersions on the entire wine industry by claiming their wines are “authentic” or “clean,” with “zero added sugar” and made from grapes that “comply with strict standards regulated by the region’s governing agencies”—thereby implying that the rest don’t meet those standards.

And, to be fair, there are some wines that don’t measure up. Many mass-market wines have been heavily manipulated and contain additives that may include coloring or sweeteners. But the majority of winemakers who take pride in the wines they produce have no need nor desire to turn to such tactics. They’ve been making what marketers now deem “clean wines” all along. 

Initially, when winemakers and sommeliers saw the delighted reaction that the clean-wine movement inspired in a large portion of the wine-drinking public, the response was frustration and outrage. After all, these were the type of people who already knew that many winemakers—not just those certified as organic or biodynamic, but a plethora of others who simply employ good winemaking practices—had long been making the terroir-driven, minimal-intervention, chemical-free wines that these new wine companies claimed to be inventing.

“Wineries both small and large have been farming organically and biodynamically for years or even centuries, because they believe in the long-term sustainability of the planet,” says Vanessa Conlin, a Master of Wine and the head of wine at Wine Access. “They also use minimal, if any, intervention in the winery. The implication that the wines they produce are not ‘clean’ is a disservice to consumers.” She adds that many of these wineries are certified by Demeter, California Certified Organic Farms, and other bodies whose requirements are much more stringent than a generic, unregulated term like “clean.”

The so-called “clean wine” movement has likely changed wine marketing forever. It also appears to have added a sense of urgency in the push toward transparent and measurable climate and social activism within the industry. 

While it would be easy to, as so many have, dismiss clean wine as a scam employed by marketers seeking to grab a piece of the $52.5 billion wellness market funded by mass-market consumers thirsty for “wellness without deprivation,” some brands are seeing a real opportunity. Several are in the process of revamping their marketing outreach, and to a certain degree, even their farming and production methods, to better capture the still-surging clean-wine market. This is how it’s shaping how a few large wine brands talk to the public and what they do in the vineyard, cellar, and beyond. 

Surpassing Expectations and Sharing Information

Mendocino County, California’s Bonterra Organic Vineyards was launched by Fetzer Vineyards in 1987 and helped to pioneer large-scale organic, biodynamic, low-intervention winemaking. Today, Bonterra produces about 500,000 cases of wine annually, much of which retails for around $12 per bottle. Fetzer sells more than 2.6 million cases annually, from organically and biodynamically farmed vineyards around California.  

Watching the clean wine movement’s introduction to the market proved to be a humbling but ultimately inspiring movement for Fetzer and Bonterra. “It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for us,” says Rachel Newman, the vice president of marketing at Fetzer and Bonterra. “For the vast majority of consumers, the clean wine movement seemed new. We wanted to respond in a really thoughtful and measured way. We even asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to even play in this space?’ But ultimately, we realized that we had an opportunity to meet consumers where they are, invite them to understand how ‘clean’ our wine is, and in fact, how we go beyond clean when it comes to our farming and production practices.”

For Bonterra, that meant continuing what it has been doing for three decades, but also completely changing the way it shares information with the public about its efforts. “We believe that people care about what goes into their bodies, but also care about how those things are produced, and the impact they have on the environment,” says Newman. Indeed, a recent study from research company Forrester shows that recent news on the effects of climate change inspired 36% of U.S. adults to look for more ways to respond to the crisis, with 68% doing that by identifying eco-friendly brands.

When Jess Baum joined Bonterra just over a year ago as its director of regenerative development, the team declared a “climate emergency,” and she focused on making Bonterra the first nationally available Climate Neutral Certified Wine. According to Climate Neutral, Bonterra has completely offset its 9.823 tons of emissions by investing $74,631.22 in carbon credits. The team has actually gone beyond the offset by buying credits for 10.806 tons of emissions with third-party-certified reforestation projects in Myanmar, Brazil, and China. “For every bottle we produce, we offset 110%,” says Baum. 

To reduce the impact further, Newman says Bonterra has worked to change its packaging, launching a line of eco-friendly cans that are up 52.6% in volume year-over-year and the bag-in-box, and has become TRUE Zero Waste certified and works with growers to convert their vineyards. Since 2016, it has helped transition 18 farms to organic viticulture, avoiding the use of 2,293 pounds of pesticides, including 1,344 pounds of glyphosate (a.k.a. Round-Up, which has been linked to cancer in humans). “Our goal is not just be climate-neutral by 2030, but to be climate-positive,” says Newman. “We are also making everything we do completely transparent, but from what goes in the bottle, to the line from A to Z, grape to consumer.”

The real change is in the way Bonterra is telling consumers about what it does. Bonterra’s website takes a page from clean wine’s playbook, explaining its wines are made from organic grapes and low-sulfite, and are free from pesticides, artificial flavorings and colors, non-organic additions, and more. It also clearly lays out its supply chain, its commitment to organic/biodynamic and regenerative farming, and its commitment to fair and inclusive social and worker practices, among other important issues. 

But the reason the clean-wine movement got such traction is the incredible buzz and power a star like Diaz can wield for her Aveline brand: she scored interviews with her pal Gwyneth Paltrow for the influential Goop, plus interviews with a number of fashion and lifestyle magazines. Major morning shows are not beating a path to winemaker Jeff Cichocki’s door, so what’s a brand to do?

If the glossies won’t come to it, the brand will go to the glossies. “We are launching a serious initiative on social media to increase awareness, launching a digital marketing campaign, and buying ads in print media,” says Newman. And no, the irony of essentially lots of trees to explain how good you are for the environment isn’t lost on Bonterra. “We will be buying offsets for the ads, too.”

Emphasizing Environmental Stewardship 

Jackson Family Wines, meanwhile, is seizing the same opportunity, but taking a slightly different tack that aligns with its more global and disparate business model. 

Jackson was founded by Jess Jackson in 1982 as a single brand devoted to teasing out the terroir of Lake County, California. Since then, it has brought 40 wineries in California, Oregon, France, Italy, Australia, Chile, and South Africa under its umbrella, selling about 6 million cases annually. 

Julien Gervreau, the V.P. of sustainability at the brand, says Jackson continues to be “at the forefront of innovative solutions in viticultural and winemaking practices, with social responsibility and environmental stewardship as a top priority.”

In 2015, Jackson released a sustainability report that detailed its efforts and identified 10 key areas that left room for improvement in their vineyards, wineries, and business operations over five years. 

But this year, Jackson launched a significantly more rigorous, research driven initiative it calls Rooted for Good: Roadmap to 2030, in which the company has pledged to transparently enact stringent eco- and people-friendly initiatives with the goal of becoming climate-positive by 2050 and creating a traceable social impact through educational and hiring initiatives. Katie Jackson, the brand’s SVP of corporate social responsibility, gathered more than 100 company execs, winemakers, vineyard managers, soil scientists, and climate experts from UC Davis, Skidmore College, the Soil Health Institute, and more.

Its Roadmap will be third-party-audited by Lloyd’s Register and is based on targets in line with “limiting global temperatures rise to 1.5 Celsius,” says Jackson, adding that since 2015, the brand has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17.5%, the equivalent of taking 4,173 cars off the road every year. Jackson accomplished that through investment in renewable energy.

Unlike Bonterra, Jackson isn’t directly speaking the clean-wine lingo and responding with a checklist of items that aren’t—and will never be—in their bottles. 

But it is, like Bonterra, aggressively promoting its Roadmap initiative through a social-media push, digital marketing and media, and consumer-education campaign spearheaded by journalist and communicator Elaine Chukan Brown, who is leading a free webinar series on its initiative. 

“The wine industry is in a unique position to motivate people to care about key issues,” says Brown. “People believe in the unique romance of wine. Done well, wine marketing literally changes how people think. That is what the clean-wine movement has done. Whether we as an industry agree with or not, we have to admit it has changed the minds of consumers about what matters in wine.” Compounding that interest is the concern over climate change and social issues, she adds. 

The focus, instead of on what’s not in the wine, is on what can be done in vineyards, production facilities, and across supply chains to reverse the effects of climate change seen in the wildfires that ravage wine country every year. 

“Our mission is to galvanize the wine industry around the importance of reducing our carbon footprint,” says Jackson, discussing the Roadmap and explaining Jackson’s 2019 co-founding of the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) with Familia Torres in Spain. “The impact is already being felt, with IWCA becoming the first representative of the wine and agricultural industry to be accepted as a member of the United Nations Race to Zero Campaign.”

To meet its goals, Jackson is installing a wind turbine at its Monterey winery, increasing the recycled-glass content of its bottles to 50%, reducing the weight of bottle molds, and investing in zero-emission vineyard and transportation vehicles.

Calls for Improved Labeling

As a geologist by training and the son of a prominent New Zealand wine writer, the importance of true sustainability was embedded in Fin Du Fresne’s winegrowing and -making philosophy from the very beginning.

At the Sustainability in Practice-certified Chamisal Vineyards in San Luis Obisbo, California, Du Fresne farms organically and biodynamically and has reduced Chamisal’s reliance on groundwater by 50% over the past decade through soil management, irrigation management, recycled wastewater, and the utilization of drought-tolerant rootstocks. Chamisal recently joined IWCA (spearheaded by Jackson) and is in the midst of completing its first carbon audit. Chamisal aims to be carbon-negative within a decade. 

All of this, Du Fresne would be doing without the clean-wine movement. But he sees the disruption caused by the movement, above all else, as an opportunity. “I don’t put anything in my wine that I’m not afraid to talk about,” he says. “I am a proponent of listing ingredients on wine labels. We may start providing a QR code ourselves soon.” If more transparency on ingredients creates an opportunity to bring more people to the table, “bring on ingredient labeling,” he says. 

Opportunities for the Industry

Many wine-industry pros agree that if the clean-wine movement has alerted the industry to the importance of clear and transparent communication about what’s inside the bottle, and in the process can inspire more consumer interest in what goes into making wine, it will be a net win for both producers and consumers. 

“Clean wine is trendy with people who care about what they drink,” says Holly Berrigan, a natural-wine importer and the founder of MYSA Natural Wine. But she agrees that the attention provides an opportunity to push for greater transparency and responsibility within the wine industry as a whole. “I’m honestly happy that brands are drawing attention to the fact that wine is something we should be focusing on and vetting for consumption,” she says. “The clean-wine movement is focused completely on what's in the glass and how it affects you personally, not anything leading up to that point.”

If larger brands capitalize on the energy from that interest, and push consumers beyond it, many argue the impact could be far-reaching. “Wine, more than any other food, drink, or agricultural product, has the power to tell a story and to motivate people to get behind various issues,” says Brown. “The clean-wine movement is a great example of that; consumers are responding because the marketing team behind clean wine got people to care about what is in the wine itself.

“So, what would happen if we got really smart marketers to motivate people to care about safe housing, safe working conditions, and safe climate conditions?” Brown continues. “That is what I want to see the industry focus on. Let’s use our storytelling ability and our marketing power to motivate people to keep enjoying wine and to buy wine that is going to help make needed change in this decade that is so crucial for climate and people.”