Mid-Atlantic Wine Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors Pertaining to Sustainable Wine

Dr. Kathy Kelley and Jennifer Zelinskie

A quick search for “sustainable” on Winespectator.com and other consumer-oriented wine magazines and websites generates quite an extensive list of articles and news:  assessments about organic wine tastes compared to nonorganic wine; what biodynamic and sustainable means; and consumer awareness of sustainable grape and wine production issues.  At Penn State we have been focusing on whether wine consumers in the Mid-Atlantic region are aware of the “sustainable” wines concept and their thoughts and interests in these wines, packaging, and related.  This blog focuses on some of these issues and shares some of our survey participants’ “sustainable” attitudes and behaviors.

While organic viticulture may not be commercially viable for Mid-Atlantic producers, there are opportunities to market a vineyard/production’s devotion to sustainability or practices that are incorporated into the production for sustainable purposes.   Though you may not be considering organic grape or wine production, we still believe it is important that we present these data and trends so that you are as informed as possible.  

Mid-Atlantic Wine Consumers and Sustainable Wine

In a March 2016, we were able to conduct a second Internet survey with Mid-Atlantic wine consumers, all of whom drank and purchased wine at least once the previous year. Through this survey, we investigated issues related to sustainable grape and wine production and their purchasing behaviors regarding these wines.

According to 2015 Cone Communication Millennial Corporate Social Responsibility Study (http://bit.ly/2fjmVX0), 83% of U.S. survey participants responded that they would buy a “product with a social and/or environmental benefit.”  When segmented based on U.S. generation, 87% of millennials (age 18 to 34 years at the time of the survey) would buy the product.

Other data focused on reported behavior.  For example, “in the past 12 months” 56% of participants had bought a “product with a social and/or environmental benefit” and 37% “researched a company’s business practices or support of social and environmental issues.”  Again, when segmented by generation, 59% of millennials indicated that they had bought such a product and 40% researched a company.

For our research, we were interested in learning about our participants’ “sustainable” wine purchases, which could be considered a product that has a social and/or environmental benefit. When asked if they “specifically look for and buy wine that is marketed as being sustainable,” 27.1% of our participants responded “yes” to the question.  With continued interest in what appeals to wine drinkers based on demographic characteristics, we segmented data based on the generation our participants identified with (access the following URL to learn more about U.S. generations: http://bit.ly/2e7HFwX).

We found that other than “Baby Boomer” and “Greatest/Silent” generations, a quarter or more of participants in each generation responded that they did look for/buy sustainable wines (Figure 1).  While nearly a third of “Younger Millennials” and “Generation X” participants looked for/bought this wine (28.6 and 31.3%, respectively), a higher percentage, 39.7%, of Older Millennials responded that they sought out/purchased the wines.


“Sustainable” encompasses many different grape and wine production philosophies, methods, and strategies. A 2011 Internet survey conducted by Penn State researchers sought to determine whether specific types of “sustainable wines” would encourage more survey participants to purchase them compared to a “standard wine that [was] not produced with sustainable, organic, biodynamic, or similar grapes or processed using these methods.” Data from 910 Philadelphia and New York metropolitan area wine consumers was segmented based on wine purchasing frequency (e.g. purchased wine at least once a week) (Table 2).

Of the seven sustainable wine options included in the study, more participants who purchased wine “at least once a week” responded that compared to the “standard” wine they would purchase wine:

  1. made with “sustainably farmed” or “naturally farmed grapes” (47.9%);
  2. marketed as being sustainable (38.3%);
  3. Certified Carbon Free (27.8%);
  4. made with “biodynamic grapes” (19.2%); and
  5. “biodynamic wine” or “Demeter Certified wine” (19%) than participants who purchased wine less frequently (http://bit.ly/2fgIUOD).


In our March survey, we investigated consumer interest in select grape growing and wine production practices.

Over half of all participants were either “very interested” or “extremely interested” in all six practices presented. Pertaining to the individual practices, 35.5% of participants were “extremely interested” in “wildlife protection and/or native plant conservation practices,” which was a higher than the percentages for “very interested” to “not at all interested” (Table 2).

In the case of the other five practices, the percentages for “very interested,” and “moderately interested” in the case of “cover crops used in the vineyard to control weed,” were greater than the percentages for “extremely interested.” The percent of participants who were “not at all interested” was less than 6% for all grape growing and wine production practices.


Sustainable Packaging Components

A survey conducted in 2015 by Tetra Pak and the Global Footprint Network found that 86% of survey respondents “said that if they knew that use of renewable packaging contributed to reduced carbon emissions and helped slow climate change, it would impact their choice of packaging” (http://bit.ly/2dPBuMZ).  In addition, 69% of the participants indicated that they look for food and/or beverages sold in renewable packaging.

If the wine you are producing is “sustainable,” then it would make sense that the packaging is as well.  In past blog posts we have focused on different container sizes, which could factor into a consumer’s definition of sustainability (e.g. http://bit.ly/2eJO4ik; http://bit.ly/1FzZ8dA).  With great attention focused on wine containers, closures, and packaging components that may be more environmentally friendly or appeal to younger wine consumers, we investigated our participants’ level of interest in some of these alternative wine packaging types and components.

Percentage of participants who were “very interested” in the wine packaging types/components ranged between 28.2% for “closure is made from renewable polymers derived from sugarcane” to 38.6% for “glass bottles used are up to 27% lighter than ‘regular’ wine bottles.” While percentage of participants who were “extremely interested” in these types/components ranged between 17.5% for the “renewable polymer” closure to 28.3% for “wine container is recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable.”


A future blog post will focus on container and closure recycling and what might motivate a wine consumer to return bottles to a tasting room to both encourage them to “be green” and repeat sales.

Sustainable Winery Tour Opportunities for the Mid-Atlantic

You may be well aware of Sonoma County Winegrape Commission/Sonoma County Winegrowers commitment “to becoming the nation’s first 100% sustainable wine region…to be completed” by 2019 (http://bit.ly/1I0YlSy).  But, perhaps you are less informed about the existence of wine tour operators in the region that offer winery tour packages that cater to consumers specifically interested in visiting organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wineries. North of Los Angeles, Sustainable Vine Wine Tours in Santa Barbara also provides these wine consumers with an experience and incorporating details that fit the overall theme and purpose:

  • customers visit the wineries in “an all-electric, luxury Telsa Model X SUV powered by home solar system” (http://bit.ly/2ePODbl) and
  • lunch includes local and organically grown produce, grains, and poultry that “is naturally raised without growth hormones or antibiotics” (http://bit.ly/2fj10PT).

With the existence of sustainable and organic wineries located in the Mid-Atlantic region and efforts such as the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization, which lists over 15 certified vineyards and wineries, and couple in transition (http://bit.ly/2dLQ5O8), perhaps the time is right for industry members to focus more heavily on “sustainable” wine tours, and consider the type of transportation used and food that is served during theses experiences.  Perhaps more exclusive packages could be offered with green/sustainable/etc.:

  • lodging,
  • suggestions for local/sustainable/organic food markets, farmers’ markets, restaurants,
  • car rental facilities that rent hybrid vehicles,
  • other environmentally-friendly activities and events, and
  • options for ground transportation to bring them to the region as well as local transportation.

In addition to these components, the materials used to build the tasting room facility and/or other buildings may interest this segment of wine consumers.  As part of our initial investigation of this concept, we asked our survey participants’ awareness and interest in LEED certified buildings (a global green building certification program, http://www.gbci.org/certification) on the winery property or used in the wine making process.

Less than a third of our participants had heard of or were familiar with the concept of LEED buildings (Figure 3).  Of these participants, the presence of a LEED certified tasting room and/or other winery buildings 27.1% would be “somewhat influenced” and “very influential.”  Less than 17% of participants responded that these buildings would be “extremely influential” (16.4%), “slightly influential” (15.4%), or “not at all influential” (14%).


In Conclusion 

With the number of options available for a business to become/increase their sustainable efforts, the question is not whether to become sustainable but what “environmentally-friendly” aspects make the most sense for the business.  As many of our readers know, we encourage businesses to survey customers before making changes, no matter how insignificant they may seem, to learn how current and potential buyers will react.  Whether it is a change to the packaging/closure/labels, grape production and wine making practices, new building construction, etc. consider how your customers will (and if they will) value these changes and enhancements.  If you currently incorporate sustainable practices, no matter how small, remember to inform consumers about what you are doing to improve their (wine drinking) world.

Additional Research & Jen Zelinskie’s Thesis Advisory Team:

  • Jeffrey Hyde, Professor, Agricultural Economics, The Pennsylvania State University
  • Denise Gardner, Extension Enologist, Department of Food Science, The Pennsylvania State University
  • Brad Rickard, Assistant Professor, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University
  • Ramu Govindasamy, Professor, Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, Rutgers University
  • Karl Storchmann, Clinical Professor, Economics Department, New York University; Managing Editor, Journal of Wine Economics
  • Michela Centinari, Assistant Professor of Viticulture, Department of Plant Science, The Pennsylvania State University

The project “Developing Wine Marketing Strategies for the Mid-Atlantic Region” (GRANT 11091317) is being funded by a USDA Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program grant, whose goal is “to assist in exploring new market opportunities for U.S. food and agricultural products and to encourage research and innovation aimed at improving the efficiency and performance of the marketing system.”  For more information about the program, visit http://www.ams.usda.gov.



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