As we approach one of the most contentious elections in recent memory, the politics of wine brands is taking on newly heightened importance. Now more than ever, it seems, consumers and trade buyers are viewing the actions of companies with increased scrutiny. Some report that they can no longer buy bottles without considering a brand’s politics.
One group of consumers that’s increasingly likely to do so are millennials. According to a research report from PR firm Weber Shandwick, “Half of Millennials (51 percent) say they would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with.” In an industry where an owner or CEO’s name often appears on the product’s label, this is an especially important consideration. Of course, millennials are not the only age group to vote with their dollars, but the cohort’s influence is on the rise. Millennial spending in the U.S. will grow to $1.4 trillion in 2020, representing 30 percent of total retail sales, according to Accenture, an Ireland-based Fortune Global 500 professional services company.
The growing spending power of millennials combined with our politically charged reality could make some wine brands rethink their political practices. Those companies (and brand leaders) that do continue to make campaign contributions risk alienating their customer base and losing sales.
Why Wine Politics Matters
Wine Twitter was ignited two weeks ago after the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) shared lists of the wine industry’s “Top 20” contributors to President Trump, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. The AAWE stated that, according to its interpretation of the data, the wine industry “overwhelmingly” supports President Trump. (The methods used to arrive at this conclusion have since drawn criticism.)
Amidst a backdrop of high unemployment, a struggling economy, and civil tensions across the nation, the Trump post alone sparked a days-long debate. Some commenters defended the listed wine industry members, citing their rights to make campaign contributions. Others jumped in to fight for the industry, saying that a list of 20 winery owners, distributor CEOs, and a magazine publisher did not represent the entire wine community. Many said they would no longer buy wines from brands whose owners or employees donated to Trump.
As the debate raged on, industry professionals took action. “When that list came out, I was quite happy to see that in my shop, with 1,100 different placements, just three bottles had to go,” says Erin Palmer, owner of Oregon retailer The Wine Cellar.
Describing herself as a “total liberal,” Palmer says wine stores themselves are not the place for political debates. But retailers can practice politics when stocking their shelves, she says, adding, “I believe that every dollar you spend is a vote, so we try to represent our values with what’s on the shelf.”
Palmer isn’t the only retailer who plans to change their inventory because of the AAWE post. Darren Guillaume, owner of Hayward, Calif., wine store Doc’s Wine, says he understands why a brand might contribute for political influence. But Guillaume will not excuse anyone who’s donated to Trump because of the ongoing tariffs issue. “This is affecting my business,” he says. “I will not support any wine distributor or producer that supports Trump.”
How the Trade and Consumers Can Make Informed Decisions
Like retailers, sommeliers also hold significant influence over consumer purchasing. With that role comes a “responsibility,” says Master Sommelier June Rodil, partner at Houston-based restaurant group Goodnight Hospitality. “Rather than just saying ‘this juice is good,’ we’ve got to start asking more questions before we really stand up for a brand,” she says.
Rodil admits that this is no easy undertaking and says it can take years to build relationships with a brand. Many buyers may only come in contact with distributor representatives or sales managers, rather than the company’s leaders. In this scenario, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of a brand’s politics or values, Rodil says.
So how then can wine professionals make informed judgments?
A good first port of call is social media. In recent weeks, numerous brands have used platforms like Instagram to share statements about their values and to cite the actions they’re taking to create a more equitable society.
But these messages alone cannot always be taken at face value. Early last week, Oregon winery Domaine Serene shared an Instagram post supporting BIPOC communities and pledging to fight “systemic injustice.” The post appeared just days after Domaine Serene owner Grace Halsted featured in the AAWE list, showing a $50,000 donation toward President Trump’s election. Many Instagram users commented that there was a disparity between the statement and Halsted’s contribution, given President Trump’s well-documented history of racial bias.
Dozens of commenters lambasted the winery over Halsted’s donations, with one user writing: “Your contribution to Trump shows us what your values are. White words on a black background won’t change that.” Multiple users took to the comment section to make their own pledge: to cancel their membership to Domaine Serene’s wine club.
Another way consumers and trade can monitor brands’ values is to follow in the AAWE’s footsteps. The Federal Election Commission database is open to the public; anyone can use it to check if a winery owner has made political contributions to a candidate whose views and actions they deem problematic. But even this method is not entirely without flaws.
Russell Klenet is a Florida-based federal and state lobbyist who’s worked with the Distilled Spirits Council and the Wine Institute. Klenent warns against viewing all donations as being politically motivated and explains the point using a common scenario: A winery owner is approached by a distributor with significant influence over whether or not their products will get shelf space. The distributor says they’re hosting a fundraiser for a politician and asks the winery for their support. The winery can either turn them down, and risk losing shelf space, or write a check for a few thousand dollars. What should they do?
“You write the check,” Klenet says. “Honestly, that’s just business.” Then again, he adds, when a donation is made for $50,000 or above, “That’s no longer supporting someone’s business — that’s a whole different dynamic.”
But even donations of this magnitude may require further scrutiny. The third-highest contributor on the list of Trump contributors was Roger K. Bower, who donated a total $55,400 in 2016, per the AAWE data. At the time of the donation, Bower was the owner of California winery Westerly Wines. But in 2018, he sold that winery to Michael Speakman, who says he is “politically neutral.”
Still, Westerly has received online backlash because of the AAWE post. “People don’t care about Roger Bower,” Speakman says. “They see Westerly Wine [on the AAWE list] and they say ‘I’m not going to buy their wines anymore.’”
Why It’s No Longer “Business as Usual”
Regardless of whether Speakman was aware of Bower’s donations to Trump when he purchased Westerly Wines, he could not have foreseen the coming backlash. But there are lessons to be learned from his tale. Going forward, people buying businesses may wish to investigate the politics and donations of their sellers, prior to putting ink to paper.
Other business owners may think twice about continuing donations of any kind — even if it’s a “business” transaction toward a fundraiser. As soon as the donation is made, it becomes public knowledge. Any such transaction could see the winery land on a list similar to the AAWE’s top contributors to Trump, especially when five individuals on that list donated less than $3,500 each.
Those companies (and brand leaders) that do wish to continue making donations may wish to consider whether the political candidate they’re supporting contradicts their public-facing values. If that proves to be the case, they could receive significant pushback on social media — à la Domaine Serene — and a possible negative sales impact. In fact, California’s Cakebread Cellars found itself in a near-carbon copy situation, with Instagram users responding with criticism and calls to boycott.
All these scenarios present cautionary tales for wine brands and prove that trade buyers and consumers are watching. But both, in turn, must be careful to ensure that businesses don’t become victims of unwarranted criticism or “cancel culture.” In this highly politicized era, more due diligence is required on everyone’s part.
Published: June 15, 2020