This project asked if training winery sales and hospitality staff to discuss sustainability in customer interactions would lead to increased valuation and sales of certified sustainable wines from Long Island. The method chosen was to create a short, interactive, online course for winery staff training and evaluate the impact of this course on winery sales. The Sustainable Wine Professional course can be completed on a computer or mobile device in 1 hour or less with the option to login and logout at any time. The course curriculum provides a simplified overview of sustainable wine production systems, the sustainable winegrowing movement in the U.S. and the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program. In addition to the online course, a total of 6 onsite workshops were held at participating wineries to provide opportunities for group learning. One hundred percent of winery managers agreed that employees were able to increase wholesale market opportunities after taking this course. Likewise, 30 to 45 percent of winery staff indicated that they had sold wholesale placements, wine club memberships, tasting flights or cases of wine at retail as a result of discussing sustainability with customers. Outreach for this course was handled through the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing website, the New York Wine and Grape Foundation newsletter, the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance newsletter, and a national press release. A total of 192 news outlets were reached, 59 students enrolled in the online course and 100 students attended onsite workshops. The majority of students came from certified sustainable farm wineries on Long Island, but the reach of this course extended to wineries in the Finger Lakes, New York City and New Jersey.
This project seeks to enhance the value perception of Long Island wines by elevating Long Island’s regional sustainable winegrowing certification in the minds of consumers. Consumers are increasingly eco-conscious and national market research shows that they are willing to pay a $1-5 premium for sustainably farmed wines. The intended outcome of this course is to build sustainability into the product identity of Long Island wine and promote sustainable viticulture throughout the northeast. This is achieved through an online course for winery sales and hospitality staff that presents the added value of sustainable viticulture in a way that is accessible and easy to communicate to consumers. This course elaborates on VineBalance as the basis for Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing certification and the benefits of sustainable viticulture for the environment, community and quality of wine. Success of this project will increase the visibility and comprehension of sustainable certification among consumers. By engaging consumers on the positive environmental practices behind sustainable winegrowing, farm wineries can justify premium pricing, build customer loyalty, and further the adoption of sustainable vineyard management practices.
Winegrowers in the northeast face several climate challenges, including cool temperatures, heavy rains and high humidity. These climate factors increase the cost of sustainable vineyard management and prevent northeast wineries from competing with other regions on price. In order to remain competitive, northeast wineries need to add value to their production wherever possible. Recent national research shows that consumers are willing to pay a $1-5 premium for certified sustainable wines with an average extra spend of $3 per bottle. Barriers to purchase include a lack of awareness and visibility. Consumer preference for certified sustainable wines is an important economic opportunity and a key driver for the adoption of sustainable vineyard practices throughout the region. Therefore, it is important to find an authentic and accessible way to communicate sustainability to customers. In the winery context, this conversation happens in the tasting room. However, most winery sales and hospitality staff are not knowledgeable enough to speak to customers about sustainability. The Sustainable Wine Professional online course facilitates communication by providing a simplified overview of the concepts behind sustainable winegrowing. Modeled after the Sustainable Winegrowing Ambassador Course by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, the Sustainable Wine Professional course focuses primarily on the sustainability movement and climate of the northeast. This has been an important tool for employee engagement and consumer education at Bedell Cellars, a certified sustainable winery in the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program. Established in 2012, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing is the only third-party sustainable certification for winegrowers in the northeast. As of 2019, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing includes 23 small farms and over 1,000 acres of vineyard. Prior to the adoption of this course, consumer awareness for Long Island’s sustainable certification was lacking and it was uncommon for wineries in the program to offer sustainability training for their front-of-house staff. The Sustainable Wine Professional course provides a convenient, standardized tool for teaching non-vineyard winery staff about sustainability. This type of training is important for sustainable winegrowers, because it helps to bring sustainability to the conversation in tasting rooms where customers are eager to learn.
Bedell Cellars is a full-time sustainably farmed vineyard and family owned winery on the North Fork of Long Island. Est. in 1980, Bedell Cellars is comprised of three parcels that total around 80 acres of vineyard and produce 15,000 cases of wine annually. Most of this wine is sold wholesale and direct-to-consumer in New York State, especially within the New York Metro area. Bedell Cellars is a founding member of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit providing education and third-party certification for sustainably farmed vineyards on Long Island. As of 2019, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing includes 23 producers and over 1,000 acres of vineyard, representing half of the Long Island wine region.
An online course titled the Sustainable Wine Professional course was developed on the Teachable platform and published on the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing website (lisustainablewine.org) on June 15, 2019. This course was authored by Whitney Beaman and Richard Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars and Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing (36225 Main Road, Cutchogue, NY, 11935, 631-734-7537) with technical review by Alice Wise of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County (Long Island Horticultural Research Laboratory, 3059 Sound Ave, Riverhead, NY, 11901, 631-727-3595). Whitney Beaman also serves as the course instructor. The course is divided into six sections: 1) Sustainable Viticulture, 2) Sustainable Winegrowing, 3) Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, 4) Western U.S. Sustainable Winegrowing, 5) USDA Organic Winegrowing and 6) Demeter Biodynamic Winegrowing (LISW SWP Full Course Curriculum). Each section concludes with a multiple choice quiz to prepare students to for the final 25 question test. Section quizzes are not graded and the correct answer is shown before proceeding to the next question. The final 25 question test is graded and students are required to answer all of the questions correctly in order to receive a personalized certificate. Students can retake the final test as often as necessary to reach a passing score. The course is accessible from any computer or mobile device. Students can logout and return to their progress at any time. The Teachable platform allows students to engage in moderated discussion in the comment box at the end of each section. Teachable tracks student participation, scores and completion rate. In addition to the online course, onsite workshops were offered at participating wineries to promote the course and provide students with an opportunity to engage in group learning. Included in the workshops was a course overview and an opportunity for students to role-play customer interactions and discussions around sustainability. Students who completed the online course were asked via email to complete a Course Exit Survey (SurveyMonkey_Course Exit Survey). At the conclusion of the grant period, managers of certified sustainable wineries were asked to complete a Feedback Survey about the impacts of the course on farm operations (SurveyMonkey_Feedback Survey). Both surveys were designed and analyzed on the SurveyMonkey platform.
The results of the Course Exit Survey show that over 80 percent of students work with wine professionally in a vineyard management, winemaking, tasting room, wine club or wholesale capacity. Over 60 percent of students had never received training in sustainable winegrowing before. All students reported learning from the course with over 50 percent reporting that they had learned “a great deal.” One hundred percent of students indicated that sustainable certification increases customer loyalty to their brand and 86 percent indicated that it increases the value of their wine in the eyes of consumers. Almost 70 percent of students reported that they found sustainability to be “extremely valuable” to the environment, community and quality of wine. Prior to taking this course, 77 percent of students indicated that they would only discuss sustainability in customer interactions “sometimes” or “rarely.” After taking this course, 62 percent of students indicated that they would “usually” or “always” discuss sustainability with customers going forward. Around 30 percent of students indicated that they had sold on-premise wholesale placements, wine club memberships, and/or cases of wine at retail, and 45 percent indicated that they had sold tasting room wine flights as a result of discussing sustainability with customers. In all categories, the majority of students indicated that they were unsure if they had sold wine products as a result of their sustainable certification. (This was in some cases because the student did not interact with customers).
The results of the Feedback Survey showed that 100 percent of winery managers strongly agreed that the course was timely, relevant, and effective for staff training with practical takeaways to use in customer interactions. In addition, 100 percent of winery managers agreed that staff were able to increase customer visibility, awareness and understanding of their sustainable certification and the added value that it provides. One hundred percent of winery managers “strongly agreed” that employees were able to increase wholesale market opportunities for their wine as a result of highlighting their sustainable certification, while 75 percent agreed that staff were able to do this for direct-to-consumer market opportunities as well.
The only major change to the methods of this study was the addition of onsite workshops. Workshops were ultimately offered due to demand from wineries. The workshops provided staff with an opportunity to role-play customer inquires and discussions about sustainability. While these workshops made it possible to reach additional students, they may have also inadvertently lowered participation rates in the online portion due to redundancy in the material presented. In addition, most of the 6 wineries that held onsite workshops required staff to attend the workshop but not the online course. This also affected enrollment. For most sales and hospitality staff, enrollment was employer motivated.
Prior to the adoption of this course, there was no standardized educational tool for sustainable winegrowing staff training for sales and hospitality staff of northeast wineries. The objective of the Sustainable Wine Professional course is to bring sustainability to the conversation in winery customer interactions by providing winery staff with the knowledge necessary to confidently discuss and answer questions about sustainable winegrowing. The Sustainable Wine Professional course was effective at teaching the target audience and encouraging them to share this information with customers. Sixty two percent of students reported that they are more likely to discuss sustainability with customers after taking the online course and 30 to 45 percent indicated that they had sold wine products because of it. Future studies may want to focus on consumer surveys to capture more conclusive data about what influences purchase decisions and further develop strategies for marketing sustainable wines.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The primary educational tool developed by this grant is the Sustainable Wine Professional online course. This course aims to educate winery sales and hospitality staff about sustainable winegrowing in a way that is accessible and easy to communicate to consumers. A brochure with key facts about Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing and the online course was developed and distributed to winery tasting rooms on Long Island (LISW SWP Brochure). In addition, onsite workshops were held at 6 participating farm wineries. These workshops provided an overview of the course content in an addition to an opportunity for sales and hospitality staff to role-play customer inquiries and discussions about sustainability. Outreach for this course was conducted through 1) the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing website, 2) Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing social media, 3) the New York Wine and Grape Foundation newsletter, 4) the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance newsletter, 5) the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, and 6) a national press release by Think PR in association with the NYWGF (NYWGF Press Release 7.25.19).
Seventy five percent of certified sustainable winegrowers reported that they did not offer sustainability staff training for winery sales and hospitality staff prior to the adoption of this course. One hundred percent of winegrowers reported that employees were able to elevate visibility, knowledge and awareness of their sustainable certification among customers after taking this course. One hundred percent of winery managers “strongly agreed” that employees were able to increase wholesale market opportunities for their wine as a result of highlighting their sustainable certification, while 75 percent agreed that staff were able to do this for direct-to-consumer market opportunities as well. All farmers indicated that the course was effective, timely, relevant and practical, and they would continue to use it in staff training for sales and hospitality staff beyond the grant period.
Adoption of this course has resulted in a change in the way wineries in the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program train their sales and hospitality staff. Wineries in the program use this online course to teach their customer facing employees about sustainability so that they are better prepared to answer customer inquiries about environmental practices. This is important for any winery that promotes itself as sustainable. Four vineyards on Long Island now require sustainability training for all of their staff and all participating farms indicated that they would continue to use the online course beyond the grant period.
At Bedell Cellars, we have received complaints in the past from customers who chose to visit our winery specifically for our commitment to sustainability yet were disappointed when the person who poured their tasting did not know anything about it. We now require all of our servers to complete the course so that this no longer happens. This course has the added benefit of providing a professional development opportunity and credential for our team.
Success of this course at other wineries was shared through the following testimonials:
“The training was overwhelmingly effective at demystifying the standards and benefits of sustainable winegrowing, and I can already see my staff communicating and educating about it in a more informed and confident manner. Now they proactively embrace the topic vs. try to avoid it. It’s their new favorite selling tool.” – Ami Opisso, General Manager, Lieb Cellars
“The LISW Professional course is an indispensable tool in disseminating knowledge about what it means to grow wine sustainably on Long Island. Now that we have it the course, it’s difficult to see how we can do without it. It is an invaluable teaching aid.” – Kareem Massoud, Winemaker, Paumanok and Palmer Vineyards
Adoption of this course was successful in part because of the onsite workshops. More staff attended the workshops than the online course. This is largely because most wineries required staff to attend the workshops but did not place any requirements the online portion. For those that did not require online enrollment, participation was a small fraction of total staff. In the case of one winery, there were approximately 40 staff at the workshop and 0 participants in the online course. For those that did require online participation, there was 100 percent participation across the board. In the future, it will be important to have wineries require course participation in order to have the most impact. Nevertheless, participants reported positive learning outcomes and success with promoting the value of sustainable certification in customer interactions. The increased market opportunities and consumer engagement that resulted from this course provide a strong argument for its continued use. Currently, there is no alternative for northeast winegrowers. In the future, additional work should be done to develop other educational tools that can be used for sustainability staff training. Topics that were not covered in depth in this course include sustainable hospitality aspects such as waste diversion and recycling, eco-friendly food service and energy saving practices. Although this course focuses on the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program, the content is also relevant for adjacent wine regions including Upstate New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.