It seems every forward looking, on trend restaurant now has sustainability at the core of its business with well publicised commitments about why, where and how it sources all its produce, meat and fish in its kitchen. But when it comes to the drinks list and, in particular, wines that are being shipped from all over the world, how important or relevant is sustainability to the restaurateurs, operators, F&B managers and sommeliers buying them? Do their customers care more about the traceability of the food they eat, than the wines they drink? Jascots Wine Merchants believes it is time that buying and sourcing wine should also be part of the on-trade’s sustainability agenda. In the first of a two part report, Richard Siddle looks back on a recent debate Jascots held with a number of its on-trade customers to see how it can help them put together more sustainable wine lists.
We spend a lot of time assessing how wines are made, but do we really care enough about how sustainable they are if they hit certain price points and fill gaps on a wine list? How the on-trade can have more sustainable wine lists made for a fascinating debate hosted by Jascots Wine Merchants.
It seems a long time ago when a young, ambitious, Prime Minister, David Cameron, took to the Artic with a pack of huskies to declare how committed his then Conservative government was to addressing climate change. Things for the planet have gone about as well as they have for Mr Cameron from his husky hugging days in 2006. OK, perhaps not that badly. But the focus on sustainability and doing what we can individually and collectively do is very much back on the agenda, even in this digital world, obsessed with selfies and “what’s in it for me” culture.
The planet can certainly do with all the help it can get if the climatologists are even half way right with their predictions. But whilst we can all do our bit to recycle and live our lives in a more environmental way, how easy is it to do that in business where there are so many factors outside of your control down the supply chain you are part of?
Well, national wine distributor, Jascots, is certainly looking to get on the front foot and do what it can to make sustainability a cornerstone of how it runs its business. Both from the wines and producers it looks to import, through to the restaurants, bars and pubs it then looks to work with.
After all it is one thing doing what you can to be sustainable, but that is soon negated if the businesses you are supplying and working with are doing the opposite.
Which was very much the reason behind a recent meeting and debate that Jascots held with a number of its leading restaurant and corporate customers to look at how they can all help each other when it comes to running sustainable businesses. Particularly in terms of the wines that on-trade operators are looking to have as part of their range.
Miles MacInnes, managing partner of Jascots, set the scene for the session. “We’re really excited to be launching this project. Sustainability has always been important to our business. But if you want to be truly committed, you have to do a lot of work and research to really understand the implications of your own supply chain. That’s why we have had our own carbon footprint measured for the last six years by the Carbon Trust with the intention of reducing our carbon per bottle of wine.”
Helping the hospitality industry think sustainability first, is what the Sustainable Restaurant Association is all about, says Ylva Johannesson, head of membership. It is currently working with over 300 food service providers, in different sectors across the on-trade, covering 8,000 sites, offering them advice on different ways of working that are good for their business and the environment.
“Our aim is to embed sustainability into the DNA of those businesses. So that having a sustainability strategy is not a nice to have but essential part of what they do,” she said. “We cover everything from food sourcing, social responsibility to environmental impact.”
Which then breaks down into 10 key areas which includes: sourcing better suppliers of meat and fish; global sourcing practices; looking after staff; integrating with the local community; managing single use plastic; and energy and water preservation.
Restaurants that sign up are given a sustainability score, from one to three stars, based on what they are doing (even a one star is “fantastic” stresses Ylva). “Just by becoming a member means you have started to work sustainably,” she adds.
What is particularly popular amongst members, she added, is its website and online platform that allows restaurants and bars to ask questions and share ideas on how they have tackled particular issues. It also encourages members to come forward with best practice ideas.
“We need people and businesses who excel in this area to be willing to share and inspire others,” she added.
More help with wine
MacInnes says Jascots has been a member of the SRA for a while and whilst recognises the efforts it is making across the sector, there is not currently any specific advice given to the restaurant trade about being sustainable with wine.
“We are not here with a sales pitch,” is how MacInnes introduced the session to the restaurant and bar operators present. “But if we are to make sustainable choices as a business we need to engage with you, our target market, and understand what is viable and really important to your businesses when it comes to sustainability. We need you to be involved if we are going to make a success of our own initiatives in this space.”
The ultimate aim, he said, would be for Jascots to produce relevant materials, advice and content that can help restaurant groups become more sustainable.
“What are the big sustainable decisions you have to make in your businesses around wine? We’re not going to give you a set list of instructions, but more a choice architecture to see what is viable to your business,” explained MacInnes.
It then hopes to provide a bespoke training course to help restaurant and bar groups introduce sustainable practices around wine in their companies. But first it needs to know what restaurants, bars, hotels and its wider customer base think.
To help achieve that the panel was split into a number of smaller groups of four to five people to discuss different areas. First up was the question of what sustainability actually means to each of us?
The session brought a wide number of responses. From the more obvious concerns around recycling, sourcing, welfare and profitability, through to more social factors like community, people, education and the role of individuals in restaurants to help influence customers about the choices they are making. All within a framework of taking steps that are sustainable but also still profitable for the restaurants concerned.
There was also a feeling of confusion, felt the panel, about what we actually mean by ‘sustainability’ and there was a danger of too much ‘green washing’ going on in the sector, where businesses are making claims to be sustainable when in fact they are not.
“Companies may have good intentions, but they are not backed up by their actions,” is how one restaurateur put it.
Similarly there was a sense that customers were also getting confused and overwhelmed by so much noise around sustainability. Be it the claims made about restaurant menus, through to the way that operator source and work with their suppliers. But how much of that is proven or wishful thinking?
“Sometimes too much information is not good as it becomes like white noise,” said Johannesson. “Like labelling. It can be very confusing. What’s the difference, for example, between Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance?”
George Cardwell from the National Theatre agreed: “There is definitely confusion out there over what different operators are offering and doing and the messaging they are using. When we look at this it’s challenging to understand what the top priorities should be.”
Rosie Raynor-Law of the SRA, said it was “important for a business to really understand what they mean when they use certain sustainability terms” and that phrases like biodiversity and soil erosion and mono cultures get bandied around without any real explanation of what they mean.
But she also urged restaurants and operators to not sit back but to set out to do something. “You can’t do everything. It’s better to do one thing really well rather than 10 things badly.”
But what is wine’s role? Where does wine sit within a restaurant’s sustainability programme. Often a restaurant will take steps in the kitchen in terms of its sourcing, local produce, seasonality, driven by a philosophy from a chef and their team. Which rarely then gets taken onto the restaurant floor and the wines they are serving to go with that sustainably sourced food and produce.
The panel agreed it was strange that restaurants could tell any customer the food miles for every dish in its restaurant, and that all produce is sourced source within 20 miles, but it does not do anything specifically for wine.
What can wine do better?
Again the panel split into groups to look at what steps are being taken for wine and what could be done in the future.
Ryan Mozley at Nutbourne Restaurants, that sources a lot of their produce and meat directly from their own farms, said: “We do get a lot of customers asking for biodyamic wines, but if we asked them what they meant by biodynamic I am not sure they could tell us. People like to latch on to trends and new ideas. We are ruining a lot of vegan lives when we tell them the wine they want to order is not vegan. But people find wine very overwhelming as a subject. It is so confusing in any case.”
Miles Platt at Jascots said from a marketing point of view natural and biodynamic wines have done a great job in creating an image for wine that people can connect with.
Jessica Klopcic, of Ozone Coffee, agreed: ”I think organic and biodynamics have become trendy and people come in and say they want a wine like that because they have heard so much about them. But we have to go further and explain what biodynamic and organic wines actually are. Otherwise it just becomes a trend.”
Iwona Dlugoszewska, in-house sommelier at a leading legal firm, said it was confusing as a sommelier to keep up with all the rules and regulations in different wine countries and regions and their own organic schemes and certification programmes. “Then you have those wineries, like a family producer we work with from Veneto, that are biodynamic but don’t want the certification. So it’s not always that easy to know what you are buying. It’s, though, always good to know where your wine comes from. It’s why we always try and go and visit and get to know the producers we are working with. To get a personal relationship with them so you can see for yourself how they go about making their wine. That’s part of our education.”
Mozley said getting the right certification for wines they want to list can be difficult. “It’s not as cut and dry as people think. Also when you really look into it organic wine is not always as good for the planet as you would expect.”
Platt said it knows of a number of producers who are “unwilling to go organic as it might actually mean using, say, their tractor more than they want to”.
Time to go vegan?
The debate turned to veganism and whether it was a passing fad or a real movement the on-trade needs to take seriously. Like ensuring wines are vegan-friendly.
Dlugoszewska felt it depended on what type of restaurant you are running. “Most of my customers are classic wine drinkers and no-one really asks me about the wine and how it is made. That said they are interested when I do talk and explain the story. But it depends on your clients. It’s not necessarily important in my business.”
Mozley said customers’ attitudes towards wine can vary between the different restaurants in the Nutbourne group. “Customers, for example in our Chelsea site, The Rabbit, are completely different to our Nutbourne restaurant Battersea. Just across the river. In Battersea we get no dietary requirements requests, yet in Chelsea people are always telling us. It’s different again in Soho. People’s perception of what they are interested is moulded by their environment.”
Platt agreed: “We see this all the time and have to adapt our approach when selling wine to restaurants.”
How local can you be?
Then there is the issue of where the wine has come from and how far it has had to travel. What are the sustainability issues around shipping wine from all over the world? Dlugoszewska said it is not an easy issue to answer. “It’s certainly trickier with wine and the distance it has travelled. Because if people want a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, what are you going to do?”
But, stressed MacInnnes, just because a wine has travelled across the world does not make it less sustainable. “A bulk wine from New Zealand could have a smaller carbon footprint than from a land locked country in Europe where it travels by road,” he explained.
Mozley said the Nubourne group was looking to work with more English wines, but that is not always the solution as there is still a lot of misconception about English wines. “People don’t really care about wine being local as they would with fish or meat or vegetables. They see wine as being a global product,” she added.
“The wine industry can’t follow other sectors and source more locally to the same extent, claimed MacInnes. “English wine is not the whole answer. Less than 2% of wine consumed is produced in this country. So sourcing locally is not the principle solution for reducing carbon emissions when it comes to wine.”
Then there is the issue of being seen to be working major producers and brand owners. The consumer’s perception might be the big brand owners are the bigger culprits when it comes to sustainability, compared to a smaller player, when often, it is the other way round and their volumes of scale allow them to behave and invest far more in environmentally sound ways or working.
Jascots is clearly committed to putting sustainability at the top of its sourcing and buying agenda.
Holding events such as this with key operators and players at the sharp end on the high street show how much enthusiasm there is from the trade to take sustainability seriously.
The momentum has started. It’s going to be fascinating to see how that drive towards a more sustainable future plays out for wine producers, importers, distributors and restaurants alike.
- In Part Two of our write up from Jascots Sustainability Debate we look at what steps the industry is taking in terms of packaging and alternative formats such as bag in box, what help do restaurateurs and sommelier actually want from suppliers like Jascots, and what next for Jascots and its owns sustainability agenda.
- The Buyer is interested in talking to other wine and drinks suppliers and restaurant and bar groups about the steps they are taking to be more sustainable. If you would like to share your story with the rest of the trade then please contact Richard Siddle on firstname.lastname@example.org.