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Wine Spectator: The Man Behind Whole Foods’ Wine Department

October 4, 2013

When it comes to selling organically and sustainably grown wine, few retailers have the clout that Whole Foods Market does. The natural- and organic-focused grocery chain sells wine at 245 locations in North America and the United Kingdom and carries about 25,000 wine SKUs at any time.

Doug Bell, Whole Foods’ global wine and beer buyer, drives the big decisions about the chain’s selections. He buys wines to serve all the stores—though he works with 260 buyers in all, including 12 regional ones who will take on smaller-production and local bottlings and a buyer in every store to serve the neighborhood’s particular needs. Wine Spectator senior editor Dana Nigro recently spoke with Bell about Whole Foods’ approach to the wine category.

WS: How do you assemble the right mix of wines for Whole Foods consumers?

Bell: I’m looking for wines that are unique, that deliver value and have a sense of place—but at the same time will sell in all of our stores. In terms of selection, we’ve probably got what our competitor down the street has, and we also have wines you can’t find anywhere else. We like to work with suppliers that share our company values and have long-term partnerships. We support the big guys, but also support the little guys who are so small we sign the note they can take to the bank to loan them money to buy the grapes to make wine for Whole Foods.

WS: How much do you consider environmental practices when purchasing wine?

Bell: We overly skew in our eco-friendly category—organically grown, biodynamic, sustainably farmed. As a company, we’ve been talking sustainability with winemakers for a decade now. It’s important to us, and it weighs heavily on my purchasing decisions. In a new store, for example, if we have 1,000 wines, about 10% fit those categories.

WS: How important is certification on a label to you and your customers?

Bell: There are many wineries—some famous ones in Napa and Bordeaux and Burgundy and the Rhône—that practice organically and biodynamically and they’re chicken-shit to put it on the back of the label. I say, “You have an attribute there that the other 10 Sauvignon Blancs within a mile of you don’t have; why don’t you put it on your label?” They respond, “Oh, it’s just too expensive to get the certification.” We’ve been working with wineries for many years to push this cause. Some countries are making group efforts. New Zealand is about to be 100%-certified sustainable in every vineyard. Another is South Africa. There’s a number on the top of each bottle neck. The industry can take that number and trace it back to the acre where those grapes were grown and the day they were picked. That’s certification.

WS: What trends in wine stand out right now?

Bell: I see down the road a renewed interest in wines from South Africa. The industry has matured and the quality coming out of there is amazing right now. Also, alternative packaging is going to remain an innovator in our industry—wine in TetraPak, bag-in-box, wine in a pouch, wine on tap from a keg. It’s fresh, and the carbon footprint is smaller. It’s a win-win for consumers. We have close to 85 stores with beer and/or wine bars across the U.S. and U.K., and about 30 have wine on tap. That presents an opportunity to engage the customer, offer them something they may not have tried, and to promote local products, which is one of our core values. In our Lamar flagship store in Austin, you can get a gallon of wine from a keg and take it home, like beer growlers. That’s in about 20 stores. The alcohol industry in America is more regulated than pharmaceutical drugs. Some states don’t allow growlers yet; that’s the limiting factor.

For Wine Spectator’s full interview with Doug Bell, click here.

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