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French Producer's Organic-Wine Vision Pays Dividends

Gilles Louvet's Domaine des Iris vineyard in the Gard region of southern France
© Gilles Louvet | Gilles Louvet's Domaine des Iris vineyard in the Gard region of southern France
Gilles Louvet and his team have put in the hard yards to turn Americans on to his range of organic wines. Erica Berenstein reports.

In the late 1980s, when winemaker Gilles Louvet began his journey towards becoming France’s largest producer of organic wine, “organic” and “sustainable” were far from being the buzz words they are today – especially in the world of wine.

“People looked at us like we were crazy,” says the Languedoc winemaker. “In their eyes, we were troublemakers.”

But since those early days, increasing worldwide demand for all sorts of organic products has created an industry that is approaching the $60 billion mark, according to research firm Organic Monitor.

In September 2010 – the same year that the United States overtook Europe as the largest market for organic products – Louvet sent an emissary to set up a New York office. Newly appointed national sales manager Laura Bret arrived in America armed with just one range of wine that was legally allowed to carry the United States’ organic seal of approval: O by Gilles Louvet. The other seven wines she had to offer were not allowed to say they were organic, despite Louvet’s European credentials, since American authorities required an additional three-year certification process.

Within a month, Bret had begun working with a distributor and pounding the pavements of New York City. One day, she found something promising: a small new restaurant in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan.

“When I saw that there was an organic wine bar opening, focused on Mediterranean wines, I just thought, ‘Okay, he has to be my client,’” says Bret, whose slight French accent is beginning to pick up a hint of New York.

She called owner Özgür Delikanli to arrange a tasting at his restaurant, Lallisse. Delikanli immediately selected wines to serve by the glass: a rosé, a sauvignon blanc and a cabernet sauvignon. More than 150 accounts later, Lallisse is still one of Louvet’s best clients in New York.

Bret has now imported a total of 60,000 bottles to serve customers in the states of New York, New Jersey, Maine, Texas, South and North Carolina, Florida and Michigan. To cope with demand, a second full-time person, brand ambassador Arnaud Fressonnet, was recently hired to focus exclusively on New York and New Jersey.

“The ultimate goal of this investment in human resources is to make the U.S. our primary market,” Bret says.

Delikanli remembers that Bret stood out among the two or three sales representatives who cold-call him every week because, unlike distributors who carry extensive portfolios from around the world, she represents just one producer.

“She knows the winery, she worked in the winery, she can explain the process,” he explains. “We always look for the story behind the wine, because that is what we are selling here.”

Laura Bret and Arnaud Fressonnet taste a Gilles Louvet wine
© Gilles Louvet | Laura Bret and Arnaud Fressonnet taste a Gilles Louvet wine

Gilles Louvet’s story began with an experiment. With environmental awareness as his driving force, he decided to vinify two sets of grapes – the first from vineyards that had not treated their vines with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers (the basic definition of organic), and the second from those that had used conventional farming methods.

Even today, consumers and wine professionals still argue over whether organic wine is better than, or even as good as, the conventional product. For his part, Louvet has found no difference. “Being made from organic ingredients doesn’t make it better or worse,” he says. “It is the grower and the terroir that make the difference, not the production methods.”

Louvet officially got his organic certification in 1993. He started with 18 hectares (45 acres) and began sourcing grapes from other organic growers. Today, he works closely with 50 producers and 10 co-operative wineries across France, and the size of his own vineyards in Languedoc-Roussillon has nearly quadrupled.

This growth reflects the fact that organic viticulture in France has exploded in the past five years; more than 50,500 hectares are in the process of being certified or already have been – an increase of more than 30 percent since 2009. The Inter-professional Association of Organic Wines from Languedoc-Roussillon – of which Louvet is vice-president –  expects the volume of organic grapes to continue growing exponentially.

In 2006, Château Fonroque became the first grand cru to carry the French AB (Agriculture Biologique) certification. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Pétrus have also adopted organic farming practices.

Louvet has witnessed major changes in consumers’ perceptions of – and demand for – organic wines. Originally, his were sold mostly in stores specializing in organic products, so their origins were implicit. Highlighting their “organic” status became part of a concerted marketing strategy only around 2005, when conventional supermarkets began stocking organic wines.

To that end, Laura Bret won a hard-fought battle to get label approval from the American authorities to keep the French AB logo on the seven Louvet wines she imports that have not been certified by the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP). It turned out to be one of the biggest challenges in establishing the brand’s North American presence, as an approval process that usually takes six weeks took her nine months.

That struggle once again showed that Gilles Louvet is ahead of his time. In February, the United States and the European Union agreed to recognize each other’s organic certifications, and started doing so in June.

Gilles Louvet surveys the grapes at Domaine Saint-Félix des Toureilles, Herault, southern France
© Gilles Louvet | Gilles Louvet surveys the grapes at Domaine Saint-Félix des Toureilles, Herault, southern France

For certified European winemakers, the result is that starting with the 2012 vintage, they will be able to market their products as organic without having to do the additional three-year certification process endured by Louvet with his “O” range.

That will formalize the information already passed on by many retailers and restaurateurs in the United States, including those who carry the seven AB-stamped wines that Louvet imports into the country. 

“Wherever it’s certified by a government, we trust it,” says Delikanli, explaining that his main concern is “no herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers.” Louvet’s 2010 Element Terre range is listed as “organic” on his menu.

Lisa Moore, who owns The Kilted Mermaid wine bar in Florida, is also forgiving when it comes to certifications. She reports that the Element Terre Cabernet Rosé has been selling well. “I love the taste profile,” says Moore. “I felt that it paired really well with the cheeses on our menu. It’s a nice, fresh, bright profile. The wine has a very nice acidity and beautiful strawberry and berry flavors.”

But in Florida (the most recent addition to the list of eight states and the District of Columbia where Louvet’s wines are available), the experience of one merchant may suggest a speed bump on the path to growth for organic wine.

“Laura said that in New York, it’s a big trend,” explains French expat Olivier Uteschill, who in late February began carrying the O range at Pièrre’s Wine Cellar in Orlando. “I said, ‘Yes, yes, but Florida is not New York. Here, in terms of marketing, it is a very different crowd.’”

Uteschill has discovered that a wine being organic, or even French, has little impact on his customers, For them, price is king. He charges $18.99 for a bottle of the O by Giles Louvet Sauvignon Blanc, but comparable French and New World options selling for around $10 make for stiff competition.

“I’ve sold maybe two cases [of Louvet],” he says, “but to create a stream, even in a small store, that is not enough. By comparison, I’ve sold 30 cases of different Napa Valley wines.”

Uteschill’s clientele is most likely to buy an unfamiliar wine if it has a staff recommendation, so he points customers to the Gilles Louvet Sauvignon Blanc if he thinks they would like something “nice and full but not too grassy, not too strong,” and, of course, it is within their price range.

“Then they buy it,” says Uteschill. “If I am not here to say that, it is lost.”

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