The Grapevine

Wine Industry News – Whole Foods’ Wine Program

October 7th, 2013

Not all Whole Foods locations sell wine, but their wine operation is still sizable. Here’s an interview with Doug Bell, who runs the operation, and our thoughts on what independent wine shops can learn from his approach. [level-members]

The article, from Wine Spectator, focuses first and foremost on eco-friendly wine, though it’s worth noting that not all of the 25,000 products Whole Foods carries are eco-friendly. That’s a lot broader selection than most of us carry, but there’s still plenty to be learned.

  • Although the operation is national (international, in fact) there are still local components to it. Whole Foods doesn’t dictate what its customers should buy; it provides its customers with what they want. That might mean local Virginia wines in the surrounding area, or kosher wines in areas with a significant Jewish population.
  • Whole Foods seeks out interesting wines. They view their customers as sophisticated and treat them accordingly, even if they aren’t terribly wine savvy.
  • Despite Whole Foods’ reputation as upscale (or overpriced, depending on your perspective), Bell recognizes that his customers are seeking value and does his best to provide it.
  • Bell also claims to “overly skew” in favor of their eco-friendly category. With the breadth of selection and volume of business they do, they can afford to do so. But that’s a tougher choice for a small shop. It’s one thing to “overly skew” toward, say, Spanish wines, because you can make an argument that they are great wines that deliver superior value (in some cases) and unparalleled quality in others. It’s a harder sell to say that eco-friendly wines are better. They may, but the market doesn’t yet agree.
  • Sadly, certification that consumers can see on the label are important. It’s simply too hard to impart that message any other way. (Though interestingly, he mentions that New Zealand is “about to be 100% certified sustainable in every vineyard.” That’s an amazing accomplishment and one I would imagine others might push toward, as well. South Africa is headed down the same path.
  • Finally, Bell notes that alternative packaging is on the rise. It will be very interesting to see whether that trickles down. The bottom is … the bottom line, and glass-bottled wines are very expensive to ship, store and maneuver. If larger retailers Whole Foods push partners to provide them TetraPaks or bag-in-box wines, they may becomes more widely accepted by consumers. ( has to be pushing in this direction …)

Whole Foods is worth watching. Certainly, most innovation – in just about every industry – comes from smaller players like us, Whole Foods appears to be a more forward-thinking company than other firms with its reach and buying power.