kick the box

You know when you’re in the produce aisle at your grocer and you spot a sign that says “artichokes = six bucks” and you whisper to yourself “Jesus Christ!” and then you see the “organic” tagline and then the price makes sense? Well, what if the non-organic artichokes were actually more expensive and less tasty (and good for you)??? Unreal, right? In an industry that did $26.7 billion in sales in 2010, there is a popular understanding that food of the dirt and only of the dirt is more expensive. The exception, apparently, is wine.

Organic wines sell for cheaper than their synthetic counterparts. Didn’t know that, did you? Me neither, so I’ll forgive you for running out on me to shop your local wine shop before this truth becomes widespread public knowledge.

Magali Delmas, a professor at UCLA’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, has been studying the effects of eco-labels on California wines since 1999. Delmas has found that when an eco-label—advertising “made from organic grapes,” “certified by California Certified Organic Farmers,” “USDA Organic” or “Demeter-certified”—is applied to these spirits, prices plummet. That’s because “organic” wines come with a stigma: that they suck.

Delmas and researcher Laura Grant published a study on “The Wine Industry Puzzle” [PDF] in Business & Society in 2010. Using a database that included 72 percent of California-produced wines, the authors found that overall, wines produced from vineyards that use organic processes are valued at 13 percent higher than their competitors. But stamping on an eco-label reduced the price by 7 percent below conventional wines and 20 percent below certified, non-labeled wines.

Delmas continued studying the wine industry’s paradox at UCLA, where she ran an experiment with 830 participants from across the nation. The results of that study echoed those from the first: Consumers associate eco-labels on wine with low quality.

Oh, how wrong we’ve been! But, before you swear off over-priced sulfite-added wine, remember, USDA organic wine does not have a long shelf life. While this may be an obvious downside for people with wine cellars, for people who buy to immediately consume, the pros (cheaper! yummier!) still out weigh the cons (must drink NOW!). All in all, a good reason to pass over the Franzia box next you’re trolling the shelves.

Delmas says younger drinkers are more positive and receptive toward organic wines (see my pro and con list, above). But consumers need to be educated before they can care. “It’s almost like the whole industry of organic wine needs a rebranding,” says Campovida’s Beuselinck. “It’s amazing how much time I spend educating people about sustainable, organic, biodynamic. But I like that part—taking them through the process of themselves, the earth, and understanding what they’re eating.”

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