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To court socially minded millennials, some wineries are investing in more than grapes

(The Washington Post)
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When Bill Sweat and Donna Morris founded Winderlea Vineyard and Winery in Dundee, Ore., in 2005, they wanted their small artisanal winery to reflect their personal values. That meant being as environmentally friendly as possible in their farming, socially responsible in their charity, and doing right by their employees. That meant farming biodynamically, supporting Salud — a charity that benefits Oregon vineyard workers — and handling the business themselves until 2010, when they felt able to hire their first employees with a salary and full benefits. Sweat and Morris have five employees, and almost apologetically confess they hire two high school students part-time to polish wine glasses in the tasting room. In 2015, they became a certified B Corporation, joining more than 3,000 companies worldwide in pledging to meet high standards of social and environmental performance to “balance profit and purpose,” as the organization says on its website.

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Public accountability also attracted Janie Brooks Heuck, managing director of Brooks winery, in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills region. In addition to being certified as biodynamic by the Demeter organization, Brooks is also a B Corporation and a member of 1 Percent for the Planet, a network of businesses and individuals supporting environmental causes.

For Ramon Escobar, a U.S. diplomat, importing wines and spirits from Bolivia is a way to promote economic development in agricultural areas of the impoverished country. He describes his D.C.-based Chufly Imports as an “impact company” that can help “break Bolivia’s centuries-old poverty trap by introducing the world to its centuries-old winemaking tradition.” Not to mention singani, Bolivia’s uniquely delicious brandy distilled from moscatel grapes. Escobar cites a study that found 10 families can be lifted out of poverty for every 25 acres of vineyard planted in Bolivia. The company’s wines and singani are available nationally on

The altruism these three companies express is not driven by profits, but it could have a positive effect on their bottom lines. In its annual report on the state of the U.S. wine industry, released this month, Silicon Valley Bank noted generational shifts among U.S. consumers. Baby boomers (ages 56 to 74) fueled the wine boom of the 1980s and beyond, but are nearing full retirement, buying less and content to drink down their collections of cult cabernets. They will be surpassed this year by Generation X (ages 40 to 55) as the largest purchasers of wine, the report projects. But the wine industry is really salivating over the larger millennial cohort (ages 24 to 39), which up to now has been more interested in craft beer, spirits and hard seltzer.

Millennials are beginning to spend more on wine, but they aren’t interested in all the geeky aspects that excited boomers, such as grape blends, pH levels or point scores from critics. “The aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the ensuing protests [shows] that young consumers expect more from brands they adopt and support,” the report states.

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These younger consumers “want to know that those who have wealth are contributing to a better world in some way.” It’s not just environmental or health issues, but also “social justice, equity and diversity concerns are driving these consumers to place unprecedented pressure on companies to adopt these issues into their brand platforms,” the SVB report says. That includes wine.

B Corp certification is good for three years and is renewed only if a company improves its score, so Heuck created a team at Brooks to look at things the winery can do. Each employee gets 20 paid volunteer hours a year, and the winery adopted a living wage pay scale. “We’ve had all our suppliers sign a code of conduct — our growers, our glass company, label company and cork supplier,” Heuck says. B Corps are a great network as well. Last summer, Heuck launched a community-supported agriculture network with a Willamette Valley produce farmer who lost his market when Portland’s restaurants closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. She also started a monthly series of virtual online tastings called Beyond Brooks, partnering with producers of olive oil, cheese, kombucha and other artisanal products.

As part of Winderlea’s B Corp certification, Sweat and Morris signed a pledge to make the winery carbon-neutral by 2030. “Our biggest carbon footprint is shipping wine to customers,” Sweat explains. “We are not going to stop shipping.” But they did reduce the weight of their bottles from 830 grams to 520 grams. They are also buying carbon offsets, investing in another B Corporation that works on carbon sequestration in agriculture.

There may not be a ledger line item showing the effect of these efforts on a company’s profitability, but these entrepreneurs believe there is an impact.

“I do think consumers are buying with a different lens,” Morris says. “It’s not only the product you’re making. I think they feel good buying from companies they feel good about.”

As Escobar says of his efforts to create a U.S. market that can help Bolivia’s grape growers escape poverty, “Who wouldn’t want to do good by drinking good juice?”

From our Wine archives:

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