Wine brands are becoming more open about company values as consumers
and social media users demand transparency.
By Kathleen Willcox
Political polarization has been increasing faster in the United States than in other comparable developed democracies (such as Canada, the U.K., Germany and Australia), according to an analysis from Brown and Stanford universities. The study found that negative feelings about one’s opposing political party have increased by 4.8 points per decade, on average, for the last 40 years.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency galvanized both sides, and it has now become the norm for large corporate brands to take strong ideological stands. Many consumers, in turn, respond with enthusiastic support — or boycotts, depending on their perspective. One prominent example of this was the CEO of Goya Foods’ vocal support of Trump and the resulting call for boycott of Goya products. Other headline-making instances of corporate activism include Coca-Cola weighing in on voting rights in Georgia, Delta Airlines ending discounts to the National Rifle Association, McDonald’s social media support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Disney’s opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Wine brands are also becoming more openly political, especially as consumers and social media users demand transparency. The American Association of Wine Economists created a kerfuffle on #winetwitter in June 2020 after releasing data it said showed “in terms of $$, the U.S. industry overwhelmingly supports Trump. Almost no support for Biden. Most and smallest contributions for Sanders.” The tweet has been deleted, but the screenshots and disputes over the findings will live on in perpetuity.
What’s become increasingly clear in recent years is that consumers want to support brands run by people who share their values. The link between consumer values and brand purpose has grown quickly in the past decade, with 70 percent of respondents in a recent Ipsos Global Trends analysis saying they buy from brands that reflect their beliefs.
There are a number of routes brands across the globe are taking as they navigate the increasingly stormy seas of consumer engagement and approval, from the broadly philosophical to the overtly ideological.
Gorgona Gives Convicts a Second Chance
The Italian island of Gorgona has housed prisoners since 1869. Currently, about 100 inmates live at Casa Circondariale of Gorgona, serving the final part of long prison sentences for serious and, often, violent crimes.
They come to Gorgona to learn skills that will help smooth their transition from prison to life on the outside. The project began 10 years ago, when then-Prison Director Maria Grazia Giampiccolo approached Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of the Marchesi Frescobaldi, with the opportunity to help her launch an all-encompassing viticultural project that would give prisoners an entirely novel set of skills.
“Our family philosophy has always been giving back part of what you have achieved,” explains Frescobaldi, whose family has shaped the political, social and economic history of Tuscany since the Middle Ages, and whose roots in the wine industry date back more than 700 years. “The possibility of encouraging rehabilitation and supporting reintegration of these inmates into society made us feel that investing in the project was the right thing to do.”
The project is vast but, at the same time, quite simple. Inmates farm the vineyard and work in the winery, learning every step of the process from harvesting grapes to bottling wines. This is, given the high costs (around $150 per bottle, with around 750 cases produced per year), not a winning business proposition. The investment in education and infrastructure outstrips any financial gain. But that’s not really what it’s about, Frescobaldi says.
“We are happy to invest the money, this is more about a philosophy for us,” he says. “We are happy to see the inmates motivated by hope with skills that will enable them to begin a new life outside of crime. Many have come back and thanked us for the opportunity to change their lives.”
The recidivism rate is low — just 20 percent, compared to 80 percent in most other prisons. Consumers who already love Frescobaldi wine have embraced the project and, he adds, it has drawn in new wine lovers eager to support the cause.
Sandra’s Wine Life Serves as a Cultural Ambassador
Wine import companies are also finding ways to use their businesses as a platform for their paradigm.
“Europeans have been enjoying the beautiful country of Turkey for decades, but for Americans, it still seems like a very distant, and even dangerous place,” says Sandra Guibord, a model and actress-turned-wine entrepreneur at Sandra’s Wine Life. Whenever she discusses visiting Turkey with American friends, the first question they ask her is whether the country is safe.
“It breaks my heart, because Turkey is an incredible country, with so much history and culture to offer,” Guibord says. “I am bringing in two new wines from Turkey with the goal of not just introducing delicious wines, but to bring awareness about the people who make it and the culture that produced it.”
Guibord also works with wines from other emerging markets with long histories of making wine, including Hungary, Croatia and Greece.
“This is where wine was born thousands of years ago,” she explains. “And [these countries] are all also keeping ancient grape varieties alive, their prices are enticing and they all have economic challenges, which increased trade would help alleviate.”
In every case, she goes beyond “just” bringing in the wine and selling it stateside. For the recent U.S. launch of Turkey’s Doluca Wines, Guibord has been working with Turkey’s ministry of tourism and Turkish Airlines to discuss broader opportunities for raising cultural awareness. The first wine, Playa Rosé, is a blend of two ancient varieties, Kalecik Karasi and Calkarasi.
“We introduced it at Formula 1 parties in Miami, and the response was outstanding,” Guibord says. “People love that it’s run by a woman and that it’s one of the oldest vineyards in [Turkey]. It is a small thing — just one Turkish rosé — but if it can subtly change people’s perceptions of Turkey, and spark curiosity about the country and its culture, then my work is done.”
Republican Red Gives Voice to Conservative Oenophiles
Some producers are finding that enthusiasm for the ideology behind the project undermines their original goal.
“I have been in the wine industry for many years,” says Paul Johnson, founder of Carmel Valley, Calif.’s Republican Red. “I had the idea of launching Republican Red during the 2016 election cycle, but the timing didn’t feel right. I ended up launching it in 2020, and it immediately got a reaction — especially on social media and in California, where conservative people felt like there wasn’t necessarily a [welcoming] place for them in the wine culture.”
Johnson says he intended to launch the brand as a way to show pride for conservative values, and to “bring people together.” While he admits that plopping a bottle with a label that says “Republican Red” on the table is a “conversation starter,” he did not anticipate the levels of delight and vitriol it engendered.
“I was surprised by how nasty and personal some of the critiques were,” Johnson admits. “My goal was very different. I wanted it to be a cordial conversation starter, but it seemed to feed into the polarization I was trying to combat.”
He’s currently working on how to make subtle adjustments so that Republican Red simultaneously honors conservative values while also opening a dialog with people who may not necessarily define themselves as conservative.
“We need to put the bullshit aside and have a real conversation,” Johnson says.
Ayllu Honors Native Peoples and Culture
Less than 1 percent of all wines produced in Chile are made by native people.
Ayllu, a winemaking cooperative founded 10 years ago by the Lickanantay community, hopes to not only change that, but also to use its wine to share the story of its culture with the world.
The Lickananty community has a 12,000-year history of fermenting delicious things. Before Spanish explorers arrived in Chile, the indigenous community fermented native vegetables. As they discovered how to sustainably grow grapes at the heart of the Pacific Ring of Fire, next to the Salar de Atacama salt flat in the world’s driest desert, they found that the flavors and sense of terroir they could tease out of grapes grown there spoke volumes about the ingenuity, creativity and determination of the Lickananty people.
Allyu is a collaboration between 19 high-altitude vintners (and their 20 children) intent on rescuing their ancestral tradition of deriving nourishment and flavor from desert soils up to 10,500 feet above sea level.
“In the night time, the moon brings energy to the vineyards, and the sunshine brings resilience to withstand the harsh conditions here,” Wilfredo Cruz, CEO of Allyu, explains. “We are not certified biodynamic, but we farm completely naturally without chemicals, the way our land has been for generations. The moon and sun continue to guide us.”
Allyu’s output is still small, about 15,000 bottles per year. But the message that each bottle communicates to wine consumers across Chile — and the 2 million tourists who stream through the Lickanantay region annually — is larger than the sum of its parts.
“We are in the process of establishing export markets to the United States,” Cruz says. “That is the next step. We want more people to learn about our community and our culture, as expressed through our wine. We also see it as the best way to improve our quality of life while honoring our history.”
In an era of increased partisanship and ubiquitous opinion sharing on social media, conversations may not always be as civil as we’d like. But staying silent, it seems, may no longer be an option if brands want to be a part of the cultural conversation.
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox