January 27, 2009
Unified Wine & Grape Symposium open for business

The wine industry descended on downtown Sacramento this morning for the opening of the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. Now in its 15th year, the event gathers winemakers, grape growers, marketing professionals, enologists and other related professions for the country's largest wine and grape conference. More than 11,000 attendees are expected over the duration of the event, which runs through Friday at the Sacramento Convention Center and downtown's Hyatt Regency hotel.

Navigating through economic hard times is an overriding theme of this year's event. The symposium opened with a general session titled "Why business is embracing sustainability," with a panel of speakers talking about the value of eco-friendly wine growing for both business and farming concerns. Ken McCorkle, executive vice president of agricultural industries for Wells Fargo Bank, started his presentation with a sobering array of graphs and charts that illustrated the challenging economic climate. McCorkle's overall message: wineries can save money and keep themselves competitive by going "sustainable" and reducing costs related to energy, water, chemicals and other factors.

Tom Selfridge, president of Hess Winery, illustrated some of these savings related to sustainability in his remarks. Selfridge noted that Hess Winery was saving more than $11,000 annually from reduced energy usage, and an additional $3,000 annually by recycling. The winery also saves $1 per case by using eco-friendly practices related to labels and bottling.

Getting the idea of "sustainability" to resonate in the marketplace is still a challenge, said Laurie Demeritt of the Hartman Group, a market research and consulting group based in Washington. Based on a recent survey, Demeritt noted that many consumers are still vague on the idea of sustainability, with some thinking the term refers to food that'll keep you extra full instead of eco-friendly. She recommended that wineries not use the term "sustainability" for consumer marketing, but such terms as "responsible" and "green" are embraced more easily by consumers. Recent research also shows varying levels of intensity from consumers regarding "sustainability," but wine buyers are also somewhat willing to pay a premium for eco-friendly wines.

Gene Kahn, global sustainability officer for General Mills, spoke on eco-friendly practices related to the packaged goods industry. Kahn argued that sustainability needs to be a mainstream concept and opportunity, not just for niche products.

"(Sustainability) is a process, not a product," said Kahn.

The rest of Tuesday's symposium is dedicated to smaller panel discussions on technical issues of grape growing and wine making (i.e. Fertility and weed management practices: costs and benefits). Wednesday's symposium opens with a "state of the industry" general session, and expect a lot more commentary on how the economic downturn is affecting the wine industry. A trade show at the Sacramento Convention Center will also open, with some 575 exhibitors showing off the latest technologies and products related to the wine and grape industry.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

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